Imagine you’re living on an island in the middle of the pandemic. The island doesn’t have a hospital, encounters frequent food shortages, and the only way to get adequate healthcare and other essential supplies is by ferry or plane.
This is the reality of the residents of Vieques and Culebra — the two island municipalities that flank the east shore of Puerto Rico. For decades, these islands have struggled to keep afloat due to how disconnected they are from the mainland and the transportation system’s inefficiencies. With over 41% of both populations living under the poverty line, the only feasible way of getting to the mainland is by ferry since charter planes can cost anywhere from $40-$100 per trip.
The Puerto Rico Maritime Transportation Authority (ATM for its acronym in Spanish) uses only six ferry boats to connect the approximately 10,000 residents of these small islands to the mainland. Out of these six, often only two of these are operational due to constant failures in maintenance and repairs.
As a result, wait times at the terminal end up becoming so long that many need to plan to use their entire day just to get to a doctor’s appointment. This also means that there is no guarantee they will be able to get back home the same day.
Amid COVID-19, the situation becomes particularly precarious, especially in Vieques. Though activists have spent decades fighting for improvements like a better maritime system and accessible healthcare, they’ve had to make do with emergency hubs ill-equipped to handle dire cases. While nonprofits have stepped in to help supply these stations, they still need the resources only found on the mainland, such as ventilators. Last year, a 13-year-old teen died due to a lack of ventilators that could have saved her life.
Alongside this, there has been no functioning hospital in Vieques since 2017 after it incurred damages from Hurricane Maria. According to local newspaper El Nuevo Día, cases of residents with cancer are 27% higher in Vieques than in the rest of Puerto Rico. This results in large part of the military’s usage of the land as a Naval Training Base for most of the 20th century.
However, the island’s lack of resources means patients need to travel to the mainland for their appointments and treatments. People need to arrive earlier than the terminal 4 am opening time to have better chances at ensuring they will get to their appointments.
In many cases, residents have died while waiting for life-saving services, especially those with disabilities, since the system is not ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. The only emergency medical plane is shared between the two municipal islands, and it’s been described as being cramped and unsanitary.
The situation worsened in 2018 when the route to get to the mainland was changed from Fajardo to Ceiba. Though the measure faced immense opposition, it was approved. Getting to the terminal in Ceiba is more complicated than Fajardo’s and is also further away from the San Juan area, where most people go for essential services.
Additionally, the ferry system often makes last-minute shifts to accommodate tourists. In 2019, residents were stuck at the terminal for 12 hours after a millionaire had rented one of the ferries for his wedding in Vieques. This called for an investigation on the ATM and their contract with Puerto Rico Fast Ferries. The ATM director was forced to step down due to protests asking for his resignation.
Unemployment has also been a challenge as a result of the inefficient transportation system. Besides the fact that COVID-19 has halted tourism, the primary source of income for the island, businesses are often left wondering when they will receive their shipments since there’s only one cargo ferry for both islands.
Maintenance issues can result in delayed shipments and schedule changes for the rest of the day, contributing to the endless cycle of unreliable departure times. The only factory left in Vieques closed down early this January, leaving 45 workers unemployed.
Struggling to access education
In 2018, it was reported that 85% of students in Vieques’ public schools live under the poverty line. This often means that teachers are left with the burden of supplying their students with the materials they need.
A month before the new school year started during the pandemic, teachers hosted a drive-through to hand out copies of the curriculum and school supplies to the students since only an estimated 56% of households have computers or access to the digital platforms the Department of Education uses. Vieques’ schools never received the materials or printed modules that the department promised.
Months into printing out their own resources, the school printer broke down, and the servicing company told them they would have to wait for the repairs, so teachers have been tag-teaming to print them out in their homes.
Last November, the PublicPrivate Partnership Authority informed that the American company HMS Ferries was chosen to take over the operation and maintenance of the maritime service between Vieques, Culebra, and Ceiba as well as San Juan and Cataño. The contract states that they will serve for the next 23 years, where they will receive $25 million the first year, $36 million the second, and $31 million every year afterward.
The company is known for operating the Statue of Liberty’s ferry system in New York and Niagara Falls. Many residents believe that privatization will further cater to tourists rather than residents’ needs and have left residents out of the decision-making process.
The recently elected mayor José Corcino Acevedo is interested in working with the privatizer to address the residents’ prevalent concerns but hasn’t been able to talk to get in touch.
A violation of human rights
According to a report by the International Human Rights Clinic of Santa Clara Law, “the constant breakdowns suffered by cargo ships create shortages of supplies on the islands imposing higher costs to businesses and causing an increase in the cost of living.”
The same report makes the case that the inadequate transportation system’s inefficiencies pose human rights violations on Vieques and Culebra residents. It infringes upon the human right to access public transport, health, employment and economic development, education, the freedom of movement, and choosing one’s residence.