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What is the Isle of Youth?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Isle of Youth, also known as the Isla de la Juventud, is a Cuban island located 62 miles (100 km) south of Havana. In the Canarreos Archipelago of the West Indies, the Isle of Youth is the largest of 350 islands. It is governed directly by the Cuban national government, and is not a part of any Cuban province. With a population of near 100,000 and an area of 1180 square miles (3056 square km), the island was first discovered by Christopher Columbus and was known as the Isle of Pines until 1978.

As a region covered in forests, the Isle of Youth relies on lumber to support its economy. The tropical climate of the island allows for the growing of citrus fruits like oranges and limes, and along with a strong vegetable growth, features agriculture and fishing as main sources of money and food. With black sand beaches formed by centuries-old volcanoes, the island is popular as a tourist attraction, though it is suspect to many of the hurricanes that ravage the West Indies and Caribbean nations.

The capital and largest city of the Isle of Youth is Nueva Gerona in the north of the island, with the next largest city being Santa Fe in the interior. The Special Municipality is separated from Cuba by the Gulf of Batabano, and the gulf is often traversed by boat or plane, though motorized hydrofoils can be used to make the short trip in less than three hours. The island is famous as a confinement for political prisoners and social deviants. Fidel Castro was imprisoned at the Presidio Modelo after his failed revolution of 1953. Armando Valladares and Huber Matos, other prominent Cuban political prisoners, were also imprisoned there. The nation, now with six active prisons, is still an island hideaway for maximum security and correctional prisoners.

The Isle of Youth has been inhabited since at least it was found by Europeans in 1494. Claimed by Columbus and named for Spain as La Evangelista, the Isle of Youth preserved many ancient drawings and tools by the native population when the Spaniards arrived on their third visit. After Columbus’ arrival and departure, the island was susceptible to piracy through the colonial battles between England, France, Spain, and Portugal.

In 1898, when the United States claimed Cuba from Spain after defeating them in the Spanish-American War, the Isle of Youth was inadvertently ignored by the Platt Amendment. This amendment of the Treaty of Paris, singed after the war, drew the boundaries for the Cuban state and left competing claims for the unmentioned Isle of Youth. In 1925, the then-independent Cuba signed a treaty with the United States establishing Cuba’s right to ownership of the island.

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