How the islanders of Vieques used cinder blocks to build a protest movement on health care

To attract attention to the healthcare crisis in Vieques, Geisha Maria Cruz, 32, started placing cinder blocks on La Plaza, the town square of Isabella Segunda. The block memorializes 13-year-old Jaideliz Moreno Ventura, who died for want of a hospital on Jan 13. So far, visitors and residents have placed 7,400 blocks across the square nearing Cruz’s goal of 10,000.

By Alison Saldanha

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — On Valentine’s Day eve, colorful string-lights run through the green buttonwood and mango trees of La Plaza, the town square of Isabel Segunda in the heart of Vieques, a 52-square-mile island off the coast of Puerto Rico.

On the ground, painted cinder blocks lay in irregular rows and columns, obstructing the path of passersby as red ribbons, tied to lamp posts, flutter in the wind. Some of these blocks, decorated with hearts and flowers, bear names like “Garcia (Bayroo),” “Lizy” or “Anito.” Others lay grouped together to illustrate the Puerto Rican flag or spell out the words “H O S P I T A L,” or “Ninos Muriendo,” Spanish for “dying children.”

At the gazebo, a swarm of pinned red fabric hearts surround cardboard cutouts of letters and posters that say: “Hospital Para Vieques Ya!” [Hospital For Vieques Now!] and “Ni una vida mas! Justicia para Jaideliz [Not one more life! Justice for Jaideliz].” The messages recall 13-year-old Viequense Jaideliz Moreno Ventura, who died on Jan. 13, allegedly due to a lack of medical resources on the island.

Days before her death, Jaideliz’s family had travelled to the main island to seek treatment for her flu-like symptoms. When she tested negative for influenza, doctors advised her parents to take her home. On the morning of Jan. 12, her condition worsened. Her body began convulsing, and she struggled to breathe. The local clinic, a makeshift stand-in for the island’s sole hospital destroyed in Hurricane Maria three years ago, did not possess a ventilator. So doctors flew her to San Juan, and asked family members to assist in manually pumping oxygen into the teen’s body. Jaideliz died along the way.

“She loved riding horses,” said Jaideliz’s mother, Jessica Moraima Ventura Perez, as she tearfully shared her daughter’s story. “She was going to graduate this June with high honors but because of the government’s inaction and negligence she will never be able to.”

A “colony of a colony”

From the 1940s until 2003, Vieques, a verdant paradise of azure waters, virgin beaches and wild horses, was one of the U.S. Navy’s largest firing ranges and weapons testing sites. On the eastern portion of the island, the Navy admitted to using a host of other toxic chemicals and heavy metals including napalm, depleted uranium, and Agent Orange, which are yet to be cleaned up.

After the Navy’s exit, Vieques metamorphosed into one of the Caribbean’s prime tourist destinations. Yet islanders struggle to access basic healthcare — a hospital with proper equipment, staffing or medicine. Over 9,000 residents here must embark on a one-hour ferry ride to the mainland between the hours of 4 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 5 a.m. and 7.30 p.m. on weekends, with delays and cancellations common especially in bad weather.

In 2003, a massive protest movement, built over decades of local activism, sparked international outrage and brought an end to the U.S. Navy’s bombing exercises on Vieques. “They drove the navy out without firing a single bullet,” said local historian Robert Rabin. Now in the midst of a health care crisis, Viequenses are turning to cinder blocks to amplify their voices.

Puerto Ricans have long resorted to protests to demand better treatment from the U.S. and their own government. In the summer of 2019, thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets and forced former Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló and other officials to step down.

The leak of 889 pages of offensive private chat messages between Rosselló and his inner circle revealed a deep corruption that islanders, struggling with the U.S territory’s debt crisis and Hurricane Maria’s lasting impacts, could no longer endure.

Against this backdrop of distress and discontent, Viequenses feel further unheard and marginalized. They often refer to themselves as a “colony of a colony” and resentfully recount the myriad ways both the U.S. and Puerto Rican government have neglected their basic needs and rights.

“Jaideliz is not the first to die due to lack of proper healthcare. We need a hospital — we can’t go on like this,” Ventura told me in Spanish.

A week before Jaideliz’s death, an old man died after doctors in Vieques dismissed his case with a prescription for antacid medication when he arrived at the clinic with a stomachache, she alleged.

For over a year after Maria, diabetic patients had to travel to the main island three times a week to access dialysis treatment, The New York Times reported. Several patients died before a mobile dialysis unit arrived at the island’s provisional clinic.

On Jan. 21, in the wake of outcry over Jaideliz’s death, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency approved funds to rebuild a hospital on Vieques without mentioning the circumstances that prompted action.

But citizens are still skeptical, given the record of broken promises and the fact that FEMA aid is based on reimbursement of money the Puerto Rican government must put up first.

An inconvenience to draw attention to a crisis

The island still grieves for Jaideliz, said neighbor Geisha Rosa Cruz, 32, who placed the first cinder block soon after the girl’s death.

She sat down on the painted concrete as a warm easterly breeze blew over La Plaza.

“These blocks are meant to be a physical barrier, an inconvenience that stops people and forces them to see and think about what we are saying. They are meant to make an impression on the government and anyone who visits the island,” Geisha said.

“As soon as they start the hospital, we’ll move the blocks. You don’t start the hospital, we’ll come with more blocks. Tomorrow we’re bringing 250 more blocks — we’re going to cover the whole plaza with blocks,” said her father Geigel Rosa Cruz, 56.

Initially, after Jaideliz’s death, Geisha, the mother of twin boys, was going to post on social media a video of her sons holding a single cinder block to symbolize a foundation stone for rebuilding the destroyed hospital.

Then Geigel suggested they place these blocks and more on La Plaza to build a movement.

During Jaideliz’s funeral, which drew thousands of islanders, the teen’s father appealed to everyone to place a cinder block at La Plaza to honor the girl’s death.

So far the plaza has collected 7,400 blocks. Geigel said they intend to reach 10,000 cinder blocks to represent everyone on the island.

“It’s a pretty place here, right? It’s a pretty place, so why isn’t the U.S. or Puerto Rico government interested in building a hospital here? What if a tourist falls sick?” he asked.

“We are still battling the after effects of naval weapon testing on the island. There is so much cancer here,” he added. “They don’t respect us! The government doesn’t care to build a decent hospital.”

Cinder blocks are available at any hardware store on the island for 80 cents. Anyone can buy them, paint them as they please and place them here, Geisha said. When we visited the store nearest to the square, the owner informed us they had just run out of blocks, with most now placed on La Plaza.

Geisha said they will keep placing blocks here until construction on the hospital begins.

“When the work starts, these blocks won’t go to our homes,” she said. “We will make sure they use these 10,000 blocks for the hospital’s foundation or a border or somewhere else in the construction to mark the people’s struggle.”

This story was first published in the Miami Herald on March 12, 2020.

Photo at top: To attract attention to the healthcare crisis in Vieques, Geisha Maria Cruz, 32, started placing cinder blocks on La Plaza, the town square of Isabella Segunda. The block memorializes 13-year-old Jaideliz Moreno Ventura, who died for want of a hospital on Jan 13. So far, visitors and residents have placed 7,400 blocks across the square nearing Cruz’s goal of 10,000. (Alison Saldanha)