Isle of Pines, Isle of Youth; Fighting against Oblivion

Thoughts motivated by the documentary “Pinero Pinero”

Isle of Pines / Isle of Youth. Illustration from the documentary Pinero, Pinero


By Vicente Morin Aguado

HAVANA TIMES — Cristobal Colon baptized the island, San Juan Evangelista on June 13, 1494. Diego Velazquez, the Conqueror, named it Santiago, convinced that it was an island. However, since 1519, a historic whim trumped discoverers, leaders, chroniclers, famous pirates, Iberian and US colonizers, and it was named Isle of Pines by the author of the Real History of the Conquest of New Spain.

From Pinero, Pinero.

On August 2, 1978, the characteristic tall and straight conifers disappeared from the landscape of that charming island when Fidel Castro gave the go-ahead to rename it Isla de la Juventud. Our habit of erasing certain parts from our history has become a dangerous habit: saints have disappeared from the names historically given to many of the country’s towns, Christmas was eliminated from the festive calendar and even Havana’s Carnivals were dismissed.

The Isle of Pine’s 2,200 square kilometers of land made up one of the Cuban archipelago’s more marginal areas. That’s how Juan Lopez de Velazco describes it in his book “Universal Geography and Description of the Indies “that “nobody lived on the Island” in 1574.

It was a forgotten land which had been captured by pirates and famous corsairs: Hawkins, Drake, Baskerville, Piet Hyen, William Dampier, Alexandre Exquemeling and even a dark-skinned Cuban, called Diego Grillo. The Cuban worked alongside the Dutchman Cornelis Jol, who became immortalized when he passed on his surname to a bay on the pine-filled southern coast.

No serious attempts were made to colonize the island until 1830, when the current capital, New Gerona, was founded out of fear that Mexican or Venezuelan pro-independence troops could possibly invade it. At that time, there were only 199 inhabitants on the island. An official census carried out under US military rule added another 3000 to this number.

Collage of the old Nueva Gerona

Although Cuban patriots serving under the Liberation Army official Juan Sanchez Amat, were able to advance and take New Gerona before US soldiers were able to do so, meanwhile in Washington, senator Orville Platt managed to impose an amendment to constitution that would govern Cubans territories. Amongst the articles that frankly harm our sovereignty, Number 6 stipulated: “The Isle of Pines will be ommitted from the Cuban boundaries drawn up by the Constitution, until its title can be established in a future treaty.”

The Platt Amendment considered national territory on the basis of separate islands, omitting the geographical reality that Cuba is an archipelago. Twenty-one years were needed to establish the fact that the Isle of Pines was in actual fact Cuban, when the US Senate ratified a treaty signed in 1904, confirming Cuba’s obvious sovereignty over the Isle of Pines on March 13, 1925.

Adventurers, mainly coming from the south of the US, decided to take advantage of this political uncertainty and colonized the Island. It was quite counter-productive as the local administration was in fact Cuban. Then businessman Samuel H. Pearcy refused to pay import taxes at New York customs in 1907. The case went to the Supreme Court, and there was a landmark ruling: “The Isle of Pines is a foreign territory, belonging to Cuba.”

Poet Catalino Fuentes. (Pinero, Pinero)

From then, the US colonizers on the island declined, struck down by the Senate’s ruling in 1925, followed by the devastating Wall Street Crash and subsequent depression from 1929 to 1933.

Since the Spanish era, its isolated location meant that the Isle of Pines was the perfect place to send political deportees. In 1931, a prison was opened that could hold up to 6,000 prisoners, a panoptican style facility which was a replica of the Joliet prison in Chicago’s outskirts. On top of the island’s traditional marginal status, the Prison stigma was also added.

That was how it was until, as singer Carlos Puebla put it, “And then Fidel came along!”

It takes me back to when I was 14 years old, applauding Fidel’s project of rural boarding schools.

The revolutionary elite believed this idea to be the utmost embodiment of teachings inspired by Marx and Marti, the day Fidel gave away something about his intentions: “When we have 30,000 youths studying at schools of this kind, then it will really be, in every right of the word, the Isle of Youth.”

The only thing left of the house is the chimney. (Pinero, Pinero)

Years beforehand, the government had repeated the objective of making the pine-filled island Cuba’s First Communist Region.

Sixty-four schools were built in rural areas, with a number of students close to what the Comandante had foresaw, although his keen ability to take advantage of history’s ups and downs determined the invasion of schoolchildren coming from 37 different countries, the majority African, totalling nearly 20,000 at the end of the 1980s.

The number of inhabitants went from just 5000 to over 94,000 in 10 years. Levels of consumer activity, public services and building of apartments exceeded those in the rest of the country.

However, that great project had no resources of its own, and was nourished with supplies from the Soviet socialist solar system. It fell apart when the Berlin wall came down. As people from the Isle of Pines were the most privileged out of all of us Cubans, the trauma that ensued hit them hard, reinforced by their own isolation as an island.

The House of the Young Creator of the AHS Association.

Now, the island has other priorities, a good example is the tourist resort of Cayo Largo del Sur, legally under the administration of the Special Isle of Youth Municipality. The resort’s increasing income is still subject to centralized power. Cuba’s municipalities lack important prerogatives in economic issues.

The Isle of Youth is once again lost in oblivion. The voice of the Isle of Pines, its persistence, is represented by the silenced critical outcry, in the face of an evident failure that doesn’t want to be acknowledged.

Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]

One thought on “Isle of Pines, Isle of Youth; Fighting against Oblivion

  • Although I haven’t been back since 1970, I have fond memories of La Isla. Even in 1970 there were many schools. At one school young guajiras were being taught to drive and repair light tractors. Their teachers were not much older than their charges, and read their lessons right out of the curricula book; nevertheless, their students paid close attention, writing down notes as attentively as do the coterie surrounding Kim Jon Un when he gives a talk!) What was even more memorable was that between classes both students and teachers took smoking breaks together. (But a few years before, back at my high school in Florida, we had to sneak to the bathroom, with a lookout posted at the door, when we took our smoke breaks!) We spent two nights at the Colony Hotel, completed by the Hilton Chain in 1958, just before the Revolution. Completely oblivious to the “sea urchin” problem, I walked on the pure white sands perhaps a hundred yards out into the Caribbean without getting stung! Besides the “Model Prison,” as mentioned, we visited numerous schools, volunteered in a grapefruit harvest, and went for a swim at Playa Bibiguaga. Five years later, while living in Miami, I met a former American resident of the island, Maria Mitchell, who moved there with her husband in the 1940’s. She stayed behind ’til the mid- or late 1960’s. She related many stories about her decades on the island.

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