In April 2010 the W Hotel opened a Retreat & Spa on the beautiful island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Vieques now welcomes visitors from around the world… “Bienvenido a la Isla Bonita.”
From the W Hotel Website:
Lose yourself in the tranquil island life at this luxury Puerto Rico resort and let the stress of the every day recede with each wave. Frolic in our secluded natural haven and discover charmed island life amid lush landscapes. Starwood Preferred Guests can use their points to visit this luxury hotel and its white sandy beaches and crystal clear water. Starwood Hotels & Resorts call it ‘a new way to escape’. You would never know from this that ten years earlier and less than 8 miles away, the US Navy was using this beautiful ‘island paradise’ as a practice range to test missiles, bombs, and other weapons.
After purchasing a great deal of land on the island, the US Navy occupied the island and carried out weapons testing since the 1940s. Over the subsequent 60 years their activities risked the lives of the local people, destroyed the natural habitat, and leaked contaminants into the earth and water. The islands’ 9,000 inhabitants resisted this occupation for decades, but tension came to a head in 1999 when a civilian Navy employee, David Sanes, was killed by a misfired missile. In 1998, the year before Sanes’ death, the US Navy dropped almost 23,000 bombs on the island. Up until that point, the US Navy had dropped bombs an average of 180 days per year. Amounting to approximately bomb drops every other day!
David Sanes’ death was the catalyst for local protesters to launch a high-pressure and peaceful resistance campaign involving organized incursions into the training grounds and establishing encampments in the training grounds in protest. Their activities drew international attention and gained support from a wide array of individuals. The power of the public pressure, however, came largely from the support and protest of well-known international figures.
Actors, musicians, politicians, writers, and professional athletes were passionately supportive of the resistance effort and used their public personas to draw media attention to the issue. This included Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Smitts being arrested for participating in protests. In 2002, The West Wing incorporated Vieques protests into an episode. Nuyorican Poets Café founder Pedro Pietri wrote the poem ‘Get the Fuck out of Vieques.’ The Puerto Rican Community in New York City organized protests in solidarity. Politicians publicly dissented. Ricky Martin spoke out publicly in his acceptance speech at the 2001 MTV Music Awards.
These events resulted in a shift in the public awareness that bombing and exploitation of Vieques was wrong and needed to stop immediately. Despite the public protests, the US Navy continued bombing, and so the protesters continued to enter the bombing area. This continued until the US government officially announced that the navy would be required to leave Vieques by May 2003.
It became clear that this type of public regard for the lives and livelihoods of the people of Vieques was unwavering. The repeated peaceful resistance was unwavering and would not just go away. The victory is a testament to the bravery and commitment of the protestors and how our collective force can be channeled through organizing, raising awareness and advocating and demonstrating in order to make steps towards social justice.
by Andrés E. Villalon, Organizational Change Management degree candidate at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy