The Isle of Youth, a Cuba Within Another

Osmel Almaguer

Nueva Gerona, Isle of Youth.

HAVANA TIMES — When I got to the top of the “Loma del Muerto” (the Hill of the Dead), in the town of Nueva Gerona, I looked down at its foot to discovered a community of houses, all with tin roofs, cardboard walls and apparently lacked running water or electricity.

There were hundreds of these small structures, very well aligned with narrow spaces between them for the residents to circulate. The men, who looked like ants from my height, for the most part were wandering around with cut-off pants as their only clothing. Similarly, almost all of the women and children were barefoot.

The Isle of Youth (the smaller island off the Cuban mainland), long ago ceased being a paradise that attracted immigrants. The repopulation project that was initiated and undertaken by the Cuban government was the impetus for the island’s 1978 name change (previously it was called the Isle de Pinos, or the Island of Pines).

One would have thought that the new name would have been advantageous (changing “pines” to that ever so desirable condition of “youth”). However, as always occurs in life, youth doesn’t last – it ends up ends giving way to decomposition.

This condition isn’t evident in current-day Nueva Gerona. When you get off the catamaran from the mainland, you discover a small but pretty little town. Its streets shelter a magic that reaches out and grabs each visitor. Even the main pedestrian boulevard is being restored in the wake of recent, ill-famed hurricanes.

But the locals of La Isla perceive their reality differently. They describe it as a feeling of suffocation. They’re confined by a “dual insularity,” as they call it. The decay there is a subtle phenomenon, perceptible by those there for more than a sightseeing tour.

A month is enough to discover that there too — like in the rest of the country — there exist young women who prostitute themselves and men who exploit them, though money there is much scarcer than in Havana.

As it’s easily walkable, Nueva Gerona’s streets lack cars. It can be crossed on foot in about twenty minutes. Its attractions can be counted on one hand (four restaurants and beaches, the Presidio Modelo prison, and the El Abra plantation). Whoever stays there for longer than a short visit will wind up bored tearless.

On the town’s borders, like I started to say, you’ll find expanding communities of people who don’t have the materials to build decent houses. These are the children and grandchildren of those who first arrived there attracted by the dream of “youth.”

Today they’ve multiplied, but without receiving the support promised to their parents. Nueva Gerona remains small in urban dimensions, and it is expanding thanks only to tin-roofed houses.

It’s shocking that on this island of marble, as one might say, there are no building materials for its people. Instead we find only a small army of young people who over time and poor living will end up lost in the depths of marginality.

Gerona itself is small, clearly, but the island around it is a huge area on which houses could be built for everyone. So why isn’t anyone doing anything about this situation?

Maybe it’s because of a lack of hope, so characteristic of the young here. The islanders prefer to call their homeland “Isle of Pines,” describing themselves with the adjective “pineros.”



2 thoughts on “The Isle of Youth, a Cuba Within Another

  • This is a true and clear failure of the centralized structure of the Cuban government. I have focused for years on the decay and stagnation of Oriente, but what Osmel describes is even worse. I visited the Isle of Youth many times, spent my honemoon there and saw some of its beauty and potential.
    What makes this ineptitude more blatant, is that there are 80 millions retirees in the western hemisphere, many of whom can barely make ends meet due to the high cost of real estate, healthcare, insurance, food and transportation.
    Even worse, is the social decay, in which senior citizen have less and less safe places to live, since they have become an easy prey of crooks, murderers, rapists.
    The Isle of Pines or Isle of Youth, is seen as small in Cuba, but it is much larger than many islands in the Caribbean. Investing in local infrastructure, upgrading its port and airport facility, promote the region as a bargain Senior Citizen Community, in which, thousands of people would be happy to pay between $500.00 and $1000.00 a month for lease/rent.
    Promoting this pristine island as a retirement mecca and safe haven, could easily attract 50,000 happy retirees from across the globe, who once hoped their golden years had found a paradise in Costa, Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua or Mexico, from where they are now fleeing for their lives, because of violence and an uncontrolled social decay.

  • Osmel wrote: “It’s shocking that on this island of marble, as one might say, there are no building materials for its people. …
    Gerona itself is small, clearly, but the island around it is a huge area on which houses could be built for everyone. So why isn’t anyone doing anything about this situation?”

    Building houses requires capital formation, which is illegal in Cuba. The Revolution ended the mortgage market, stole bank accounts exceeding $100, seized private homes, farms and businesses. The consequence of Castro’s tyranny is that nobody trusts the government not to do it again.

    Why invest your labour and what little cash you have in building or repairing a house in a country with limited and arbitrary property rights?

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