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Island, Used for Naval Practice, Left Scarred by Hugo

November 8, 1989

ESPERANZA BEACH, Puerto Rico (AP) _ On the hurricane-battered island of Vieques, a practice site for U.S. Navy bombing off Puerto Rico, residents link their destiny to a century-old tamarind tree on a barren hill.

″If the tree survives, so will Vieques,″ said engineer Sixto Perez after a ceremony to replant the tree, which was uprooted by Hurricane Hugo on Sept. 18.

″It has been silent witness to our history,″ Nana Ortiz de Castano, a retired teacher, told schoolchildren gathered around the tree.

The U.S. Navy has been part of Vieques’ history since World War II.

It owns two-thirds of the island and uses it for practice bombings and maneuvers. In the 1970s, Vieques was rocked by violent anti-Navy protests. Similar demonstrations in 1975 drove the Navy off its sister island, Culebra. Although the Navy says relations have improved in recent years, many Viequenses, as the 8,000 residents are called, say Hurricane Hugo has made matters worse. Vieques was one of the areas hardest hit by the storm.

Hugo pounded Vieques for 12 hours with winds clocked at 140 to 200 mph, demolishing or damaging virtually all its 3,000 homes. Trees were either knocked downed or defoliated, leaving the once-verdant, sun-splashed island with little shade.

″It will take 10 years to recover,″ said Luiz Davila, manager of a General Electric plant that makes electric switches and is the island’s largest employer, with 132 workers.

″Now we are seeing the devastation,″ Davila added. ″In six months, a year, we will see the lack of income people will have.″

With their homes and possessions gone and their future livelihood in doubt, some residents despair. Officials say two people hanged themselves and several others attempted suicide after the storm. No one in Vieques died in the hurricane itself.

″There is lot of depression, a lot of suicide attempts,″ said Dr. Eva Almodovar, who is in charge of the emergency room at the Vieques Hospital. ″It’s people who have lost everything. ... They don’t see a way out.″

The Navy is helping rebuild roads and restore power and water.

The day after the hurricane, the Navy put up a roadblock to prevent squatters from returning to a disputed area where they had set up shacks and burned two Navy vehicles in April.

Robert Ravin, a high school history teacher, charged that the Navy acted ″like thieves in the night,″ taking advantage of the hurricane crisis.

But a Navy spokesman, Lt. Richard Boyle, said the roadblock was put up because the squatters were ″unauthorized people on Navy property. The shacks had been blown down and were completely demolished.″

The Navy bought Vieques land for training during World War II, resettling residents in the center of the island, which is 20 miles long and six miles across. Most of the Navy property is unused and hundreds of squatters have moved in over the past year.

Rear Adm. John A. Moriarty, commander of Caribbean naval forces, said relations with Vieques residents have been ″very, very good.″

But squatter organizer Antonio Figueroa, a carpenter who says his movement is ″rescuing land,″ believes the Navy ″has a master plan″ to stifle development to keep the island to itself.

Many Viequenses complain that the Navy’s presence has kept the island underdeveloped, underpopulated and poverty-stricken.

Vieques has a severe housing shortage, an unemployment rate of 70 percent, and an annual per capita income of $5,281, as opposed to the Puerto Rico average of $8,721. The majority of the islanders are on welfare.

Although its unspoiled beauty has made it the location for several movies, most recently ″Heartbreak Ridge,″ with Clint Eastwood about the 1983 U.S.-led invasion of Grenada, Vieques has seen little tourism.

″The Navy occupies two-thirds of the island and this prevents it from developing to its plenitude because they own the best beaches, the best land,″ said Mayor Manuela Santiago Collazo.

Vieques has been losing population for years, and is expected to lose 2,000 of its 8,000 inhabitants by the year 2000.

″A young Viequense who becomes an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer can’t come back because there is nothing to do here,″ said Figueroa.

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