On this island of broken dreams, the ruins of the revolutionary schools of the s litter the landscape like giant Lego blocks. Confusingly, islanders are still called Pineros in Cuba. Within a decade there were 61 schools on the island serving 35, students, mostly from Africa. After the Soviet Union crumbled, funding was cut and the students vanished as if they had never been here. A hurricane did the rest by gutting the schools.
Although most of the Soviet-style structures are in poetic decay, three still function for locals. We called in at Escuela No. But the most unexpected historical site is a peaceful field only a few miles from town. El Cementerio Americano, the American Cemetery, is the last ghostly reminder of the quarter century when the United States ran La Isla as a virtual colony. After the Spanish-American War of , Cuba was put under United States military rule until ; in the treaties that followed, ownership of the Isle of Youth was left so vague that American companies bought up most of the arable land and opened it to settlers.
To the fury of Cuban patriots, farmers from Iowa and California moved here assuming it would become an official part of the United States. When Congress reluctantly gave La Isla back to Cuba in , most settlers left in disappointment, but those who stayed are buried in the American Cemetery. I strolled with the bemused taxista Ray through the lonely field in golden light, reading names from overgrown gravestones — one shaped like a tree trunk — and pausing at a gazebo until the mosquitoes drove us out.
My plan was to visit the evocatively named village of Cocodrilo crocodile with Dr. Guggenheim, who since has worked with a local group there called Red Alerta to protect its pristine coral reefs. It is a singular Cuban-American joint venture.
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His Washington-based N. But La Isla has not shaken off its Cold War past. The Cuban military monitors the various southern nature reserves, and we soon discovered that the whole area had been declared off-limits — no explanation given. The word on the street in Nueva Gerona was that the military was conducting antidrug sweeps along the coast. True or not, there would be no Cocodrilo for us. Time for Plan B. Soon we were motoring south with a dive master and a cook.
Guggenheim had seen intact expanses of elkhorn coral, a barometer of reef health. Even an amateur like me could tell that all was not well below the waves. Guggenheim said with a sigh, as we dried off back on board. There had been some bleaching from climate change, he explained, but the main culprit was overfishing, which led to the coral being slowly covered in slimy green algae. One of them is grazing on algae, which keeps reefs clean.
Things improved radically when we dove to a remote site named El Reino de la Sahara, the King of the Sahara. Rays of sunlight burst down on reefs that were surging with life like underwater cities, including brilliantly colored sea fans and flamingo tongues.
A moray eel patrolled the shallows and there were expanses of thriving elkhorn coral. Guggenheim rejoiced. It could go either way.
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As we motored back to El Colony, Dr. Guggenheim stared out at the sea meditatively. Even in this pristine location, we can only imagine what the Caribbean must have been like when the first Europeans saw it, he mused. But when Columbus arrived on his fourth expedition, his son wrote that they saw turtles in such vast numbers that they covered the sea.
All over La Isla, conversation always returned to Castro, the larger-than-life figure who had been its most notorious if unwilling resident, and whose grand plans in the s created its golden age as a tropical youth camp. In one private restaurant, La Casa de Toti, the eponymous owner, known only as Toti, told me how his grandfather was sent to the Model Prison for murder and met Castro there in the s. Along with many other inmates, he was freed a few months after the guerrillas rode into Havana in early To get there, I went to meet a farmer-turned-guide Arcadio Castro no relation , who wore a tattered T-shirt and lived in a marble-floor shack roamed by livestock and piled high with home-bottled mango pulp.
A summer heat wave was descending: By 9 a. Yellow butterflies flitted around us as he fondly remembered the day Fidel Castro visited his high school in The children were all astonished to see the Maximum Leader bounce a basketball up the stairs to their playground and sink it without effort. He had been a sports champ in his youth.
In the heyday of the revolution in the s, Arcadio had also served in the Cuban army in Angola and he reminisced about the monstrous bugs he found in Africa. As we climbed, there were glimpses between the palms trees of empty green plains leading to distant mogotes. By the time we reached the summit, sweat was pouring from us in streams and I was half delirious.
It was oddly comforting to see these remote heights being reclaimed by the wild. There are twice daily flights to the Isle of Youth from Havana on Cubana cubana. Delivered from his hospital bed in matter-of-fact tones, at times with apparent relish over his accomplishment, Mr. Sweat told the investigators that the plan had long been in the works but that his efforts began in earnest after he was transferred to a cell next to Mr.
Almost immediately, he began using a hacksaw blade during the night to cut a hole in the back of his cell, and then cut through the back of Mr. An inmate asked about the noise, telling Mr. Matt that he heard something that sounded like sawing. Matt, a painter who had provided some of his works to at least one corrections officer in exchange for favors , told the inmate that he had been stretching canvas or working on a frame, Mr. Sweat told the investigators, according to one of the people briefed on his account.
By February, Mr. Sweat had access to the enclosed catwalks behind the cells, he told the investigators. He would wait each night until after the head count to crawl through the hole, shinny down a series of pipes going down several stories and begin roaming the tunnels. He would return to his cell each morning before the a. It turned out to be a dead end. But he did not give up. Later, according to his account, Mr. Using a sledgehammer and some other pilfered hand tools, he began to chip away at the concrete of the tunnel wall.
Because of the dust and grime, he took a second set of clothes into the tunnel to serve as work coveralls. The wall was rock solid, however, and progress was maddeningly slow, according to his account. But he got lucky. Around May 4, when the prison shut down its heating system for the season, one of the pipes, a blistering inch steam main, started to cool.
So he opted for a shortcut and decided to cut into the large pipe, which traveled through the large concrete wall.
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Using hacksaw blades with handles fashioned from rags, it took him more than four weeks of methodical work to cut holes into and out of the pipe that were large enough for the men to crawl through. Days later, after they had completed work on the pipe, and after first conducting a dry run to check the route, he and Mr. Matt left Clinton for what they hoped would be the last time, emerging from a manhole cover outside the prison wall in the summer darkness.