Isla de la Juventud ("Isle of Youth") is the largest of the islands located off Cuba's southern coast. With a total population of just over 70,000, the isle is technically another municipality, but it is often considered to be its own province.
Formerly called the Isle of Pines for its beautiful boreal forests, the isle's name was changed to recognize the various international student exchange programs located there. Participants in these student brigades, as they are called, split their efforts between studying and agricultural labor.
The isle's once magnificent forests and other habitats are just beginning to recover from centuries of exploitation. These environmental disruptions have adversely affected the isle's wildlife. Sadly, with resources stretched thin, environmental recovery programs in Isla de la Juventud receive less attention from the government than those in the main island.
Historically, after seizing the isle from indigenous peoples, the Spanish used it as a military outpost for training new recruits. Both the Spanish government and Cuban dictators Machado and Batista used the isle to house political prisoners. Before the Revolution, U.S. investment in the isle began to develop a substantial tourist industry in the isle, but that was quickly cut short by the Castro government.
Today, the island is of minimal commercial significance. It is only recently that Cubans have begun to tap into the isle's natural resources. Agricultural development, especially of citrus crops, is promoted by the Castro government's various programs aimed at settling the island more thoroughly.