BY LISANKA GONZALEZ SUAREZ —Granma International staff writer—
SOUTH of Cuba, just 47 kilometers at its closest point, is the Isle of Youth, one of the 672 islands and keys that make up the Canarreos Archipelago, the largest and most beautiful of the many that surround the country. Christopher Columbus named it Evangelista when he discovered it on his second voyage to the Americas, but, according to investigators, it was known to its original habitants as Camaraco, Ahao or Siguanea. Centuries later the colonizers established the Queen Amalia colony in the northern part of the island, although in very early maps the name of Isle of Pines did appear. At times it has been popularly known as the Isle of Parrots, Treasure Island, Isle of the Deported, or the Isle of the 500 Murders, as journalist Pablo de la Torriente Brau named it referring to events that occurred at the Presidio Model Prison in the first part of the 20th century.
Its current designation as the Isle of Youth was officially proclaimed August 2, 1978 by Minister Raúl Roa, fulfilling a promise made by Fidel Castro in 1967, when he said, “Let’s call it the Isle of Youth when the youth have done something grand with their work here, when they have revolutionized the natural environment, when they see the fruits of their labor and have revolutionized society here.”
Nine years after that challenge, the young people working on the island had won the right to the new name. The economic and social transformation that the island had undergone was impressive, particularly the many water projects and dozens of new communities and schools built among the citrus groves that since 1970 had been filled with students from all over Cuba and more than 36 other countries.
The rich natural environment needed no transformation. Nature had taken charge and covered the island with the most dissimilar and exceptional flora and fauna. Hard work was needed however to preserve it, to repair what human hands had almost annihilated. It was also clear how much had been done in this area.
As soon as I laid foot on this tip of the archipelago I began to discover its most intimate natural secrets. There are great stretches of land where pines predominate (both the tropicalis and the caribaea) that give the island its name but there are also leafy forests of yagrumas, mahogany, cedars and other hardwoods which shelter iguanas, jutías, wild deer and multicolored birds.
A different world no less beautiful exists below the sea surrounding the island. Marvelous coral reefs and underwater caves where a variety of fish, crustaceans, corals and other marine organisms living in transparent waters are renowned worldwide, as are the sands of the beaches where great turtles come to nest.