Maritime transportation issues cause outrage in Puerto Rico

"The ferry is our highway."

April 2, 2021, 2:45 PM

For residents of two island-municipalities of Puerto Rico -- Vieques and Culebra -- a daily commute is more like an odyssey than a normal journey to the Puerto Rico mainland.

"We have reached a point that we are simply tired," said Maria García, a Culebra resident.

Residents from both islands, which are part of Puerto Rico's archipelago and are part of the 78 municipalities that make up the U.S. territory, have been complaining about what some have called extremely poor service from the Maritime Transportation Authority of Puerto Rico (ATM).

García said that during the years she has lived on the island she has seen how the services have deteriorated.

Puerto Ricans from Vieques and Culebra travel by ferry to the main island for doctor appointments, work, school and even grocery shopping when supplies on their home islands run low.

Vieques and Culebra are both 29.1 miles driving distance from San Juan.

Problems with the ferry's departure and arrival schedules, boat maintenance and accessibility make up the litany of complaints about commuting between the two islands and the Puerto Rican mainland.

"They are failing in basic things like scheduling and trip capacity of both passengers and cargo," said Elda Guadalupe Carrasquillo, part of the group "Somos Más Que 100x35" which roughly translates to "We are more than 100x35" --- a reference to Puerto Rico's size, 100 miles long by 35 miles wide.

Delays in trips have not only led to outrage among residents but to discrepancies in gas and food distribution, residents say.

"Going to the grocery store and not finding bread and milk for your kids," is something that García said people from both islands are tired of experiencing.

Reliable transportation to the main island is considered a human right for the approximately 11,000 residents that live in Vieques and Culebra, according to a report from the International Human Rights Clinic of Santa Clara Law School.

"The ferry is our highway," said Culebra resident Juan Carlos Garavito. "It's there for a purpose of connectivity."

Garavito told ABC News that the ferry delays and cancellations affect his day-to-day life. "We are improvising every time," he said.

On some occasions, some residents said they have had to wait long hours just to get on a ferry to either travel to the island or to return home. Some said they have been forced to sleep in their cars.

"We have to survive and we are tired of it," Garavito added.

While claims of poor service have been happening for over a decade, residents are now taking matters into their hands by protesting -- especially now when basic services on both islands are lacking. Vieques, for instance, has been without a hospital since Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. A 13-year-old girl died last January due to lack of proper medical facilities NBC News reported.

Culebra has a clinic that is able to treat emergencies, but patients must be transported to the main island for escalated care.

Last year, Puerto Rico's government announced it was forming a public-private alliance as a way to deal with the ongoing transportation crisis.

The company chosen for the alliance was HMS Ferries which operates the Statue of Liberty's ferry system in New York and Niagara Falls.

Some residents have since expressed concerns that the deal may increase prices and limit passenger capacity.

And though a massive vaccination effort has been launched on both island municipalities, the potential devastation of COVID-19 on the already trouble-plagued local transportation system and health centers is also raising further concern among residents and serving as a reminder of the islands' vulnerability amid emergencies.

Last weekend, some residents gathered in Vieques and Culebra and protested by taking to the water in kayaks. According to several released statements by Puerto Rico's government, all services were halted by the protests.

In Vieques, "a group of protesters avoided the disembarkation of the boat Cayo Blanco," one of the statements read.

Cayo Blanco was transporting 39 passengers, supplies and gas, according to the statement.

García, who attended the protest in Culebra, said she was detained by local police for obstruction of essential services. In an interview with ABC News, she said the obstruction never occurred. The 18-year resident said she was later released by police. The police agency did not immediatly respond to a request for comment from ABC News.

Cayo Blanco is one of nine ferries owned by the ATM. Six are designated to serve Vieques and Culebra. But according to IHRC's report only two of the six are in operation "due to ongoing failures in maintenance and repairs." And one of those two ferries, the Isleño, went out of service early this month, a local news outlet reported.

On March 13, ATM director Mara Pérez resigned. The new director, Jorge Droz, was announced the day protesters took to the water demanding change. Droz has not issued any public comments on the transporation issues as of yet.

ABC News spoke to multiple residents this week and all of them claim the Cayo Blanco was not operating before Friday at the port in Ceiba, the ferry terminal. An ATM spokesperson told ABC News that as of Friday, April 2 Blanco was in Ceiba ready to serve residents, while Isleño is in St. Thomas undergoing reparations.

Regarding the complaints, the spokesperson said that a document with claims was received last Tuesday by the agency from residents and protesters. "At the moment, claims are being analyzed," the spokesperson said.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi addressed the concerns and outrage over the transportation complaints on Twitter last Sunday.

"We recognize the lack of services suffered by the residents of Culebra and Vieques, and we respect their right to protest," Pierluisisaid. "We must also respect free movement to the Islands, and efforts to stabilize the system and meet the needs of our people. Let's work together to solve this once and for all."

Still, residents from both islands say they will not stop protesting and fighting until they see further change.

"If we need to get on the water even if they criticize it for being a self-punishment act, if we need to go to San Juan, if we need to build a camp we have decided that we will keep this in the public eye," said Carrasquillo.

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