When Columbus ‘discovered’ Puerto Rico on his second voyage in 1493, Taíno people were living peacefully (save for the occasional skirmish with Carib neighbors) on Vieques. With the expansion of Puerto Rico under Ponce de León, more Taíno fled to the island; Caribs joined them and the two groups mounted a fierce resistance to Spanish occupation. It failed. Spanish soldiers eventually overran the island, killing or enslaving the natives who remained.
Even so, Spanish control over the island remained tentative at best. In succeeding years, both the British and French tried to claim the island as their own. In reality, Vieques remained something of a free port, thriving as a smuggling center.
Sugarcane plantations covered much of Vieques when the island fell to the Americans in 1898 as spoils from the Spanish-American War, but during the first half of the 20th century the cane plantations failed. Vieques lost more than half its population and settled into near dormancy; the remaining locals survived as they always had, by subsistence farming, fishing and smuggling.
Shortly after WWII broke out, the US Navy showed up on Vieques and grabbed about 70% of the island’s 33, 000 acres to build military bases. They held onto it until May 2003 when, after four years of peaceful protests, the land was ceded to the US Fish & Wildlife Refuge. In the years since, Puerto Rican, US and international developers have been salivating at the prospect of building mega-hotels and more. But for the time being, ecotourism, construction, cattle raising, fishing and some light manufacturing (such as the General Electric assembly plant) bring money and jobs to the island.