By DANICA COTO
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) â¿¿ Thousands of activists on Wednesday celebrated the anniversary of the U.S. Navy's departure from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques 10 years ago, despite concerns that progress has been slow in cleaning up and developing a place many hoped would flourish.
With the military's departure, the decades-long practice bombing of Vieques stopped, and the island has become one of the more exclusive tourist destinations in the Caribbean.
But the cleanup of the bombing range on an island the Navy once called its "crown jewel" of live-fire training is expected to take another decade, and the mayor of Vieques noted the island of roughly 10,000 people still has no hospital to treat illnesses ranging from cancer to asthma that local residents blame on military activity.
Mayor Victor Emeric said Vieques is battling an unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent and depends on a crippled ferry system that serves as the primary link to the main island of Puerto Rico.
"Time passed and everyone forgot about us," said Emeric, who was born and raised in Vieques. "None of the development that we expected has occurred."
George Withers, a senior fellow with the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America, recently published a report calling on the U.S. to respond more aggressively to the cleanup and other problems in Vieques. He said the lack of care for ongoing health problems remain big concerns.
"The overall impact on the quality of life for the people of Vieques has not really improved in the 10 years since the Navy left," he said. "They created a toxic legacy on their island."
The island was once a cause celebre, with people such as singer Ricky Martin, actor Edward James Olmos and politician Jesse Jackson joining hundreds of other protesters to demand that the Navy leave Vieques after an errant 500-pound bomb killed a security guard in April 1999.