The colony of a colony: Vieques’ struggles, in context
Puerto Rico’s ongoing economic crisis is severely impacting the government’s ability to function and continues to leave many Puerto Ricans vulnerable. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria exacerbated this issue. One bicameral policy that may alleviate some of this negligence focuses on Vieques, an island municipality positioned roughly seven miles off the coast of the main island of Puerto Rico. While Vieques is known for its tourist-friendly beaches and being home to the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world, Mosquito Bay, the island is struggling to deal with its current health crisis. Since 2017, Vieques does not have a functional hospital capable of dealing with all medical emergencies. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, with new variants materializing and case numbers surging across the United States, Viequenses have to rely on undependable ferry transportation to the main island of Puerto Rico for critical care.
HR1317 – The Vieques Recovery and Redevelopment Act responds to the health crisis the island is experiencing. Vieques’ sole urgent medical health facility has been closed since damages caused by Hurricane Maria. Due to legal restrictions, FEMA was unable to provide a dependable medical facility. This bill proposes a Special Master to oversee the creation of a new hospital to address the issues caused by both the hurricane and by the previous system such as the lack of proper medical imaging equipment and the financial burden for patients to travel by ferry to mainland Puerto Rico.
In addition, the presence of toxic chemicals and heavy metals due to US Navy experimentation around the island from the 1940s until 2003 has caused individuals to contract illnesses. While the US Navy denies that this is a consequence of their involvement in Vieques they do admit that the island was historically one of their largest firing ranges and weapons testing sites. In 2003, a series of massive protests spurred by decades of local activism ended the US Navy’s bombing exercises on Vieques. When asked about this event, Puerto Rican historian Robert Rabin remarked, “they drove the navy out without firing a single bullet.” The people of Vieques presented with the ongoing medical care crisis now use thousands of concrete blocks to protest what again appears to be systemic mistreatment of Puerto Ricans and the Viequenses. Many Viequenses describe their situation as being part of a “colony of a colony.”
It’s easy to understand where this discontent with both the Puerto Rican and American governments originates from. After all, it was only after Jaideliz Ventura, a 13-year-old Viequense who died from influenza did lawmakers truly start paying attention to the issue and began advocating for the reapportionment of FEMA funds. Puerto Ricans remained understandably skeptical because as one knows, this did not work. Since 2017, Vieques does not have a Diagnostic and Treatment Center. Some American politicians backed the Vieques struggle in 2003. However, this was most likely to gain support from Puerto Rican constituencies. HR1317 promises compensation to those affected by this tragedy, but it’s unclear how effective this bill will be. This important piece of legislation confronts the insecurities found in Vieques’ healthcare system. This bill is still in the introductory phase and it is uncertain how it will fare in committee. If passed, this legislation could set an important precedent in Puerto Rican disaster relief, by allowing more federal funding to contribute to solving the Puerto Rican economic crisis at large. Governor Pedro Pierluisi (NPP, D), revealed the timeline of what will be a new full-service hospital on the island municipality of Vieques back in August. This project is expected to break ground by the end of 2021 and has an associated investment of $56 million. This hospital will be finished around 2024. Until then, it appears that habitants of Vieques will, unfortunately, have to rely for 3 more years on transportation to the main island of Puerto Rico for emergency relief.