Thursday, January 17, 2019
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In Cuba, but a world apart

NYT Syndicate
There's nothing like a total absence of safety measures to add a little excitement to a historical site. Within an hour of landing on La Isla de la Juventud, the Isle of Youth, I was clamouring through an underground tunnel in the Presidio Modelo, or Model Prison, Cuba's most dreaded pre-revolutionary prison, using my iPhone as a torch and trying not to slip on wooden planks and rubble. After squeezing up a rusty spiral staircase, I emerged atop a tower at the centre of an enormous circular cell building that resembled a tropical Colosseum, where a single guard would once monitor more than 1,000 prisoners at a time.
The scale was bewildering ” it was one of four 1931 jail structures in the Model Prison, rising like sinister missile silos, with a mess hall at their centre. Just as bewildering: the fact that nobody would stop me climbing five stories without handrails into cells with a 50-foot drop onto concrete. (One can only marvel at Cuban liability laws, or the lack thereof.) The whiff of danger helped bring the disturbing past of the Presidio, which functioned until 1967, to vivid life. A small museum was filled with startling photos of the prison's brutal inner life, when it was run by wild convict gangs with weapons crafted from iron spikes and nails. But the most striking sight of all came when I entered the former hospital ward, which in the 1950s was reserved for political prisoners. Posted on a wall was a mug shot of its most notorious inmate, Fidel Castro ” without a beard.
Like the few other visitors to the Presidio that day, I had to stop and stare at the clean-shaven, well-fed features of Prisoner 3895, who, instead of his famous Old Testament whiskers, sported a scraggly pencil mustache. It was a sudden step back into a barely remembered Cuba, when Fidel was not yet"Fidel." Today, the image of the hirsute Castro in military khakis is so ingrained in the popular imagination that he seems to have sprung ready-made onto the world stage when the revolution succeeded in 1959. But almost nobody had heard of him six years earlier, in 1953, when, as a 27-year-old lawyer, he began his rebellious career with an attack on a military barracks in the city of Santiago. Castro had hoped this would spark an uprising around Cuba, but it failed dismally. Many of his 160 or so followers were tortured and executed and most of the rest hunted down. He was given a 15-year sentence and sent with 25 compaأ±erosto La Isla.
It was in this prison, improbably enough, that the Cuban revolution was effectively planned. The dictator Fulgencio Batista made the mistake of placing all the conspirators together in the hospital wing, and they proceeded to treat it as a revolutionary boot camp, congregating for daily lessons on politics and conducting secret communications with supporters around Cuba."What a fantastic school this prison is!" Castro wrote gleefully in a letter."From here I'm able to finish forging my vision of the world ..."
By the time popular opinion led to the men's release in 1955, after serving less than two years of their sentences, the once-disorganized rebel group had become a coherent political cell.
The Presidio was closed a few years after Castro's victory in 1959, and is now maintained as a shrine to the revolution's early struggle, with photos of each prisoner over his bed.
The aura of idealism becomes particularly poignant today, as Cuba's revolutionary dream has become as battered as the corrugated iron ceiling of the Presidio itself ” its gaping views of the sky letting in the beating sun, the tropical rain and chirping green parrots.
As I discovered over the next three days, almost every corner of Isle of Youth ” or simply La Isla, as it is referred to by residents ” hides an equally eccentric saga. Located off the south coast of the main island, the largest of the nation's 4,000-odd offshore cays and islands, it has been specialising in oddity ever since Christopher Columbus weighed anchor here to find provisions on his second voyage in 1494 and was mystified by its monstrous crocodiles and raucous bird life. Soon after, pirates hid in its coves, making it an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.
Today, La Isla is embarking on yet another reinvention ” as an ecotourism destination. A few entrepreneurs are making modest attempts to lure foreign travellers and their hard currency to its pristine beaches and offshore coral reefs, which are among the best preserved in the Caribbean."What's important to marine life is scale, and Cuba is so big," said David E Guggenheim, an American marine biologist who founded a nonprofit called Ocean Doctor.
Cuba is unique in the Western Hemisphere for its near-total lack of coastal development, he explained. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuban farmers have had no access to pesticides or fertilizers, so there is none of the chemical flow-off that can devastate marine life."Farmers on the Isle of Youth have been forced to practice organic agriculture," Guggenheim said."Most of them don't even have tractors. It's amazing that such a thing is possible in the 21st century."
Still, it's an uphill battle to attract travellers, since La Isla is today so obscure that even most Cubans know nothing about it. I had only the haziest idea of what I might find there when I turned up at the Havana airport before dawn to catch a propeller plane. A half-hour later, we were banking over the comma-shaped island and landing at its only town, Nueva Gerona. I was relieved to find that La Isla had lost none of its oddity: We were met at the tiny airport by a nurse in white uniform who screened us all for fevers.
While it's no longer true to say that Havana is"stuck in the 1950s," an argument can be made for La Isla ” perhaps the 1850s. There are no streetlights in Nueva Gerona, no buildings taller than two stories, and almost the only traffic is horse-and-buggy. On its sleepy pedestrian boulevard, the main cultural attraction is a map of Cuba made from rusty horseshoes. After dark, everyone converges on the boulevard to hear live salsa and dance, the only concession to the 21st century being a decent sound system.
I checked into a casa particular, a private guesthouse, a cozy home decorated with ceramic fish and a sunny billiards room. It was run by a voluble woman named Diami, who whipped up fortifying breakfasts of sweet black coffee, farm eggs and chunks of mango, the most succulent of the tropical fruits that grow like weeds on the fertile island. The islanders spoke with cheery resignation about being forgotten by the world.
Clearly, nobody comes to La Isla for the night life: By 9 pm, Gerona was a ghost town.
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 1970s 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 1950s. Along with many other inmates, he was freed after the guerrillas rode into Havana in early 1959."So my grandfather was always a big fan of Socialism," he said with a wry laugh.

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