On Cuban isle once home to Americans, a look back and ahead
ISLA DE LA JUVENTUD, Cuba (AP) Fidelia Rodriguez looks at photos of the Smith family, the Americans who once owned the home she has lived in all her life. She lives behind the big house where the Smiths raised their children, a property now owned by the Cuban state. Her home was the servants' quarters.
She was just 11 years old in 1960, with Cuba engulfed in revolutionary fervor, when armed men stormed the Smith home and told Rodriguez's father that it was being confiscated by the revolution. During the commotion, her father suffered a heart attack and died, leaving Fidelia and her six siblings fatherless.
The government gave the servants' quarters of the expropriated property to her mother and the children.
"I don't feel I am a stranger to this land here, because the state gave me this land," Rodriquez says. "I don't feel like an intruder living here, because the state gave it to me, and before I had nothing."
Her neighbor, Raul Cabot Blanco, says the house he lives in belonged to "El Americano," according to his parents, although he wasn't even born when the home was confiscated and turned over to his family. Family lore, he says, has it that the home was a gift.
"The American, before he died here, gave this house to my grandparents, who lived behind the church. After they died, this house became a family inheritance," he said.
Although he doesn't know the name of those who owned the property before, he, like other residents of this windswept island, knows it was built by an American family, part of a thriving expatriate community on what was then called the Isle of Pines.
There were people like the Browns, founders of the little town of Columbia and large landowners with fields of citrus for export to the U.S., and their neighbors, the Millses, who owned a steamship and a hotel, who made their lives here.
A cemetery attests to the numbers and lives of the Americans who lived, worked and died on this small island, once a pirate haven, a penal colony and later a flourishing source of agricultural products for sale on the big island of Cuba and the U.S.
A headstone with the name Estefania Koenig and the dates 1886-1981 shows how long the American presence endured here. She was the last American to live and die on what became the Isle of Youth after Fidel Castro's revolution swept the country.
Now, just the ruins of their homes and businesses and some other buildings remain: An old school, the bones of a long-defunct gold mine, a tumbling-down hotel, all ghosts from an American past.
Americans were living on the island from the early 1800s; a treaty gave Cuba territorial control over it in 1825. It wasn't until the 1959 revolution that Americans were swept off the island and from Cuban shores amid the Cold War.
More than five decades later, relations are beginning to warm up again, and perhaps the long absence of Americans from Cuba and the Isle of Youth may be coming to an end. Contentious issues over lost land, homes and businesses will have to be resolved before the transition is complete.
Guillermo McIntosh, historian of the island, says the American presence remains indelibly etched there and is part of the history of Cuba. He imagines American visitors as relations improve.
"We would receive them (Americans) very well and welcome any gesture by a citizen, organization or other group who want to salvage this historical memory," he says, while showing a map of the 200 graves of U.S. citizens buried on the island.