ISLA DE LA JUVENTUD, Cuba – Some places are blessed by geography, with a deep harbor, mighty river or abundant natural resources.
Then there are places where geography is more of a curse. In the absence of any distinctive feature or economic purpose, they appear like a blank slate, inviting grandiose schemes and outsize ambitions. Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud, the “Isle of Youth,” is one of those places.
In other forlorn corners of Cuba, newly warming relations between Washington and Havana have kindled hopes for more tourists and investment. Here, the one place that came closer than any other except Guantanamo Bay to actually being part of the United States, Cubans have learned to temper their expectations.
Their island is a boneyard of big ideas. Over the years, it has been a pirate hideout, a Spanish penal colony, an American enclave, a Cuban penal colony and the setting for one of Fidel Castro’s most ambitious attempts at communist internationalism.
All of them failed. An island Castro renamed in 1978 to honor young people is now struggling to keep them there.
“If the Americans want to come back, great, but I doubt it’ll happen anytime soon,” said Carlos Enríquez, the proprietor of an outdoor nightclub built out of the ruins of 19th-century mineral baths, showing off the gurgling pools where Cuban partiers now swill beer and wriggle to reggaeton on weekends.
U.S. visitors once came for the cure-all properties of the springs. “They called it Shangri-La,” Enríquez said.
The island was then known as Isla de Pinos (Isle of Pines), named for the native conifers that once covered its rolling plains and swamps. Hurricanes have blasted through every few years, enforcing a sense of impermanence.
The comma-shaped island is the seventh-largest landmass in the Caribbean but has only about 80,000 residents. Persuading them to remain is an ongoing challenge for the Cuban government. Handmade “For Sale” signs hang above many doorways.
Residents here talk about their home as a “double island” – isolated from the rest of Cuba, a country that already feels cut off from the world.
Cuban authorities are trying to counter this with new public works and free long-term leases of state-owned land to farmers. Fertilizer, pesticides and farm tools that go scarce on the mainland are available here. A few farmers are prospering.
But the pull of the sea is strong.
Migration from Cuba to the United States is up 80 percent this year, to its highest level in a decade, partly from fears that easing hostilities with Washington spell doom for the privileges essentially granting asylum to any Cuban who arrives on American soil.
Most rafters leave from Cuba’s north coast, but here on Isla de la Juventud, 30 miles south of the mainland, the prevailing ocean currents have produced an unusual migration route. Boaters push off for Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, hoping to hit a beach or get picked up by passing ships. If they avoid repatriation to Cuba, they can make a dash for the U.S. border.
“There are boats leaving from here every night,” said Jean Pablo Concepción, a 28-year-old soccer coach, lowering his voice. He was browsing the Internet in the main plaza of the capital, Nueva Gerona, where authorities have recently installed public WiFi. “In my neighborhood, it seems like there are hardly any young people left.”
His friend Alberto Deceaux, 19, said he plans to leave for the Cayman Islands as soon as he finishes his military service. He had seen the pictures of shiny banks and vacationing celebrities. “Tiger Woods goes there,” he said. “It’s paradise compared to this.”
From pirates to gringo tourists
Castro was not the first to change the name. Christopher Columbus called the island “La Evangelista” (“The Evangelist”) when he landed in 1494. But a generation later it appeared in Spanish records as the Isle of Pines.
Spanish authorities cleared the timber and brought cattle, but the island’s coves, rivers and caves made it a refuge for pirates. Spanish ships transiting the Yucatan Channel were an easy target. Spain eventually converted the island into a penal colony.
Mineral baths brought the first American tourists in the 1860s. But it was the 1898 Spanish-American War that turned it into a U.S. satellite. Washington had its sights on a possible canal project through the Isthmus of Panama and was eager to establish bases in the Caribbean. Soon, U.S. government maps were depicting the island as an American possession.
By then, U.S. speculators had begun buying up land. Thousands of American settlers arrived. They built churches and English-language schools and covered the island in citrus groves, sending steamers to New Orleans loaded with grapefruit, lemons and oranges. The dollar was the island’s currency.
When the United States granted Cuba quasi-independence in 1902, the status of the Isle of Pines remained in limbo. Maritime surveys found no deep harbors. The U.S. Navy lost interest. But so many American settlers had arrived that U.S. lawmakers balked at giving the island back to Cuba.
The ratification of the Hay-Quesada Treaty in 1925 fully relinquished the American claim to the island. Most of the settlers left, cursing what they saw as a betrayal by Washington.
A ruined American cemetery is one of the few traces of their presence. Many of the headstones have toppled over, and the old citrus groves around it are smothered under 15-foot-tall thickets of marabú, the thorny African bush consuming the island’s abandoned farms.
When Cuba took full possession of the island, President Gerardo Machado ordered the construction of a vast prison complex, Presidio Modelo.
The prison’s most famous inmate arrived in 1953: 27-year-old Fidel Castro. He and his younger brother Raúl, then 22, were sent there with 30 comrades who had attempted to overthrow the government in a bloody attack on a military garrison.
Castro and the other conspirators were assigned to the prison’s infirmary to keep them apart from the other inmates. After 19 months, they were pardoned and set free.
Less than four years later, Castro took power and then revoked the island’s status as a free port, wiping out a second wave of 1950s U.S. investment. After the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, he militarized the island, seeing it as vulnerable to attack. He shut down Presidio Modelo in 1966.
“Fidel made sure we had everything because the island was such an important place to him,” said historian Roberto Únger, author of “Americanos en la Isla” (“Americans on the Island”).
There were frequent daily flights making the 25-minute trip to Havana. Russian-made hydrofoils zipped between Nueva Gerona and the mainland.
“We used to go to Havana on Fridays to catch a movie or a concert, then come home on the hydrofoils,” Únger said.
In the early 1970s, Castro launched a bold plan to fill the island with rural boarding schools where Cuban students would labor in the fields and take classes in Spanish, math and Marxism.
This was the era of Cuban internationalism, when Cuban soldiers were deployed to Africa and thousands of students arrived from poor countries to study free of charge.
The government built 61 boarding schools on the island, each with a capacity for 500 pupils. Assembled from prefabricated slabs, they rose from the citrus groves in big blockish shapes that resembled space stations.
You can drive around the island today and see their hollowed-out shells.
The schools were referred to by their numbers: The Sudanese kids were in 47. No. 4 was the Ethiopians. Fifteen was the school for Namibians. María Álvarez arrived there as a primary-school teacher 25 years ago.
When the international schools shut down for good in 1994, at the worst moment of Cuba’s post-Soviet economic collapse, Álvarez chose to stay at the shuttered School 15. She lives with her family in what used to be the administration offices.
A steady ocean breeze whistles through the ruined dormitories, their windows long gone. Faded murals celebrate Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara and Namibian revolutionaries.
“This was one of Fidel’s favorite schools,” Álvarez said. “He used to visit a lot and bring guests here.”
The Namibian kids were wonderful: polite, affectionate, well-behaved, she said.
“Every once in a while, one of them comes back to show their own children where they went to school,” Álvarez said. She has met several Namibian officials this way.
“They are very important people now,” she said. “They come here and see this, and they cry.”
© 2015, The Washington Post