Isla de la Juventud

Mar 12, 2018 - Harmony V

Isla de la Juventud is another historic example of Castro’s focus on development, education and the arts. As Fidel came into power in the late 50s, he abruptly ended the theme of this island as a mafia-driven vacation spot for rich Miami-Americans, and filled the island with thousands of volunteering young people from across the developing world and its top educators into specially built secondary schools. Our guide for the day, Carlos, is part of that story as he was born and raised in Havana, but arrived to Isla de la Juventud to be an English teacher - a position he still has today.

Before its developmental years, the Isle of Youth was simply called Isle of Pines, and served as a place for political prisoners at the infamous prison Presidio Modelo. Fidel himself was incarcerated here after being captured for his first revolutionary attack against Batista’s troops, and later Fidel ironically used this same prison to hold counter-revolutionaries and anyone else he considered an enemy to the new norms of the Socialist Cuban State. Who knows what the Cuba of today might look like if Batista hadn’t been strong-armed into letting Fidel walk free after only about 2 years of his 15-year sentence.

We spent the first half of our morning exploring these ominous cylindrical prison cells and then we were onto the center of the island to meet the new generation of youth bringing life to this time-warped island 100 km off the mainland of Cuba.

One of the best people-to-people exchanges during our Cuban expedition is inside Nueva Gerona’s art school, where middle and high school students greet us with music and dance performances. The students’ genuine smiles and eagerness to show off their talents is a highlight for our visit to the Isle of Youth.

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About the Author

Erika Skogg

National Geographic Photographer

Erika Skogg is a photographer, educator, and National Geographic Explorer with experience documenting cultural stories from the United States to Morocco, Greenland, Iceland, Colombia, and beyond. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Erika’s photographic research and storytelling ideas are driven by the desire to immerse, understand, and visually preserve the region’s local Nordic culture, and in 2018, Erika received a National Geographic Early Career Grant for her project “Scandinavian American.” Erika travels to Scandinavia regularly in search of the cultural connections to our emigrant history and promote an interest in one’s own genealogy to foster a respect for the continued immigration of today.

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