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Operation Pedro Pan: The Migration of Unaccompanied Cuban Children to the United States, 1960–1962

Summary and Keywords

Between the autumn of 1960 and October of 1962, the parents of more than fourteen thousand Cuban children made the difficult decision to send their children alone to the United States, where a young Irish immigrant priest, Father Bryan O. Walsh, arranged for them to be cared for by U.S. foster homes and in Catholic children’s homes and orphanages. The Cuban children’s exodus would later become known as Operation Pedro Pan; the federally funded and Catholic Church–administered program that was established to care for these children would be called the Cuban Children’s Program. Their interconnected trajectories are central to the history of post-revolutionary Cuba and of the Miami Cuban exile community, and shed important light on U.S.-Cuba and U.S.-Latin America relations during the height of the Cold War.

Keywords: Operación Pedro Pan, Cuban Children’s Program, Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, Cuban Revolution, unaccompanied children

Between the autumn of 1960 and October of 1962, the revolution that had triumphed in Cuba in January 1959 began to move precipitously to the left, sparking confrontation with the United States and widespread political instability, social upheaval and economic difficulties on the island. During this time, the parents of more than fourteen thousand Cuban children made the difficult decision to send their children alone to the United States. In the last months of 1960, with the help of James Baker, an American school headmaster in Havana, and the support of a clandestine group of CIA-supported anti-Castro Cubans, Cuban parents began spiriting their children off the island and into South Florida, where a young Irish immigrant priest, Father Bryan O. Walsh, arranged for their care by friends, relatives, and foster parents, as well as in Church-run camps and orphanages.

Most Cuban parents believed their separation from their sons and daughters would be temporary; few believed that the United States would allow Fidel Castro’s increasingly left-leaning revolution to survive, and they imagined their separation from their children would last at most a few months. Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, however, the Castro regime consolidated its hold over the island nation, and Cuban parents scrambled to join their children in the United States. Most were able to do so within a few years; however, some would not see their children again for more than a decade. A small number would never be reunited.

The Cuban children’s exodus would later become known as Operation Pedro Pan; the federally funded and Catholic Church–administered program that was established to care for these children would be called the Cuban Children’s Program. Their interconnected trajectories played an important role in the history of post-revolutionary Cuba and of the Miami Cuban exile community, and provide a unique lens on the history of U.S.-Cuba and U.S.-Latin America relations during the height of the Cold War.

The Origins of Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children’s Program

In November of 1960, Father Bryan O. Walsh, director of the diocese of Miami’s bureau of Catholic Charities, became aware of the urgent needs of a small number of Cuban refugee children who were being sent alone to the city. When it turned out that displaced relatives and friends already resident in the city lacked resources to care for these children, Father Walsh took quick action, making temporary arrangements through the Catholic Welfare Bureau to house and feed them. However, Walsh correctly assumed that the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Miami was likely to surge as political turmoil increased in Cuba; therefore, he reasoned, a longer-term solution to the problem of how to care for the growing influx of unaccompanied Cuban children would be needed. The young priest mobilized the city’s Welfare Planning Council, of which he had been a member since 1957, to lobby the federal government for assistance. Under his leadership, a coalition of municipal and state agencies petitioned President Dwight D. Eisenhower to fund a foster care program for unaccompanied Cuban refugee children. They insisted that such a program should be under the auspices of Miami child welfare agencies, including Protestant, Jewish, and non-sectarian agencies as well as the Catholic Welfare Bureau. However, since Walsh insisted that children be placed with co-religionist foster families—and since most Cubans were at least nominally Catholic—the main responsibility would fall on the Catholic agency.

A few weeks later, Father Walsh met with James Baker, headmaster of Ruston Academy in Havana. Baker had traveled to Miami seeking financial support to secure boarding school placements for Cuban children whose parents, some of whom were involved in the anti-Castro underground, wished to send them off the island. The two men formulated a plan: Baker and a group of Havana-based Cubans would take responsibility for transporting children out of Cuba, while Walsh would arrange for their care in the United States. This remarkable plan, relying as it did on individual initiative as well as state sponsorship, nonetheless had precedent in a number of international child-saving programs that had evacuated Basque children from war zones during the Spanish Civil War and spirited Jewish children out of Nazi-dominated Europe. After 1945, American foreign policy decision-makers had forged similar partnerships with voluntary religious agencies in order to deal with the unprecedented refugee crisis that followed the Nazi defeat and the Soviet Union’s imposition of an Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe. Only three years before the onset of the Cuban refugee crisis in Miami, the American government had also worked with voluntary agencies to resettle almost forty thousand Hungarian refugees across the United States, including a number of children, following the October 1956 Soviet invasion of their homeland.

The federal government quickly demonstrated its support for the Cuban Children’s Program, pledging federal funds through the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and granting Father Walsh State Department–delegated authority to issue visa waivers for boys and girls under the age of sixteen. This willingness to fund and facilitate the Catholic-administered program also had precedents: since the onset of the Cold War, U.S. leaders had come to see religious belief as essential to defeating the growing Soviet empire. Since the 1840s, Catholic teaching had consistently condemned communism as a threat to the foundations of Christian civilization. Following the trial and sentencing of Hungarian cardinal József Mindszenty in 1949, high-profile American Catholics—including Jesuit priest Edmund Walsh, founder of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and New York’s archbishop Cardinal Francis Spellman—enjoyed a growing audience for their dire warnings about the global communist threat to both political and religious liberty.1 Thus, at the height of the Cold War, alarmed by the implications of a socialist revolution ninety miles from the Florida coastline, the U.S. government and intelligence community welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with Miami’s Catholic Church to combat the Marxist indoctrination of Cuban children.

An equally eager Father Walsh agreed to receive the first young refugees who would arrive in Miami on December 26, 1960—without having secured the diocese’s Bishop Coleman Carroll’s advance approval, it should be noted, and despite the fact that federal funding would not be available for several months. Confident in his spiritual imperative to meet the needs of displaced Cuban children, and relishing the opportunity to play an active role in the global political battle between democratic capitalism and communism, he made hasty arrangements to house the first Pedro Pan children in unused diocesan residences and summer camp facilities. “No longer were we simply a social agency concerned about a community problem,” he later recalled. “We were now sharing the worries of families we did not even know, hundreds of miles away in a life and death struggle in the Cold War.”2

Between 1960 and 1962, more than fourteen thousand Cuban children were embarked to Miami International Airport. Approximately half were placed with relatives and friends; those who went unclaimed went to reception camps until they could be placed with foster families across the nation or, in some cases, in boarding schools or orphanages. Walsh himself cared for a number of adolescent boys in the St. Raphael group home in Miami, assuming, in addition to his heavy diocesan administrative duties, personal responsibility for their well-being. As parents arrived in the United States, Pedro Pan children left the care of the Cuban Children’s Program and reunited with their families; however, a number of children would remain under Walsh’s care until the program was discontinued in 1981.

Understanding the Exodus: Cold War Geopolitics, Propaganda, and Patria Potestad

The reasons Cuban parents chose to send their children unaccompanied to the United States were varied: beginning in mid-1960, many feared for the spiritual well-being of their Catholic children after an increasingly radicalized Cuban Revolution began to repress religious expression, closed Catholic schools, and, by the following year, expelled priests and religious orders from the island. Others feared the revolutionary state’s growing interventions in family life and grew panicked after a series of rumors that Castro intended to deprive parents of patria potestad (legal authority over their children) began to circulate. Parents also sought to prevent their children from being exposed to communist indoctrination in revolutionary schools, as volunteers in an island-wide literacy campaign, or as members of Soviet-inspired groups like the Pioneers and Rebel Youth.

The United States government, its intelligence services, and its media all contributed—deliberately—to encouraging these fears. As early as 1960, North American political leaders and intelligence agents had identified the politics of childhood as a powerful site in which to contest the radicalization of the Cuban Revolution. By encouraging the flight of middle-class Cuban families, U.S. officials hoped to deprive the revolution of the expertise of technicians and professionals and drive the island’s economy and infrastructure to the breaking point, thereby destabilizing the revolutionary regime. Moreover, they also sought to create a growing pool of refugee men for recruitment into covert anti-Castro programs. In line with those goals, they sought to stimulate emigration from the island by exacerbating Cuban parents’ already heightened anxieties about the safety and well-being of their children.

They did this largely by means of a coordinated propaganda campaign that involved a range of collaborations, formal and informal, between the federal government, the U.S. media, refugee agencies, and Cuban exiles already in the United States. By March 1960, in line with President Eisenhower’s approval of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plan to overthrow the Castro regime, plans to establish a means for mass communication to Cubans on the island were initiated. In order that a powerful propaganda offensive could be launched in the name of the counter-revolution, covert funding was provided for the establishment of a number of exile newspapers. Arrangements were made to resume publication of El Avance, a leading Cuban daily that had recently been nationalized, in Miami, as well as for the paper’s clandestine introduction into Cuba and for distribution at a nominal cost throughout Latin America. Funding was also provided for exiles to purchase commercial time on Miami radio stations, and for prominent Cubans to embark on hemispheric anti-Castro speaking tours.

From the beginning, these CIA-sponsored propaganda efforts sought to motivate Cubans to resist the Castro government by appealing to their patriotic and spiritual values, by evoking the symbolic figure of Cuba’s beloved independence leader José Martí, and especially by deploying morally and emotionally resonant images of families, mothers, and children threatened by the revolution’s political, social, and economic initiatives. The Eisenhower administration also instructed the United States Information Agency (USIA) to focus on exploiting the propaganda value of Cuban refugee children to stir up anti-Castro sentiment within the United States and throughout Latin America. In collaboration with the federal government and the voluntary agencies charged with overseeing refugee settlement in Miami, the American media also energetically disseminated child-centered stories and photographs that provided tangible evidence of Castro’s turn toward communism. They worked hand in hand with exiles to frame the revolution as a threat to Cuban children, seeking to discredit the Castro regime in the United States as well as in Cuba, Latin America, and around the world. American newspapers and magazines published photographs of uniformed Cuban children marching, carrying weapons, and studying Marxist doctrine, making explicit comparisons between revolutionary efforts to brainwash and control children and similar campaigns of indoctrination in the Soviet Union.

Cuban children were thus at the heart of much of the U.S. government’s most evocative anti-communist messages. And those messages were highly effective in encouraging panic on the island and the corresponding growth in the outflow of children to the United States by 1961. However, it would be overly simplistic to insist that North American interest in the island’s boys and girls was strictly instrumental. To begin with, the initial efforts to spirit children off the island began as a grassroots effort in Cuba, as a collaboration between anti-Castro Cubans and their U.S. and international expatriate allies. Thus, beginning in mid-1960, before the State Department became aware or involved in the nascent exodus of children from the island, the perceived need to safeguard the spiritual and physical well-being of Cuban boys and girls—or the desire to remove them from the island to safety in order to facilitate parents’ counter-revolutionary activities—had prompted a multinational clandestine effort to remove young boys and girls from the island. Similarly, well before the establishment of the federally funded official Cuban Children’s Program, this same concern for Cuban children had also motivated Father Walsh to collaborate with anti-Castro Cubans and their U.S. allies to organize a comprehensive volunteer effort to house, feed, and educate unaccompanied minors in the United States.

Moreover, despite the enormous political benefits that could be derived from publicizing Cuban parents’ heartbreaking decisions to send their children alone into exile, and despite the robust anti-Castro propaganda campaign that had emerged by the fall of 1960, government, Church, and media leaders worked together to discourage public attention to Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children’s Program. After President John F. Kennedy established the Cuban Children’s Program in January 1961, Father Walsh and an extensive network of volunteers strove to keep these unaccompanied minors out of the news, even while benefiting from the waiver of immigration requirements for the children they transported off the island and unprecedented levels of funding for their care in the United States. Neither received significant media attention until 1963, when the exodus itself had come to an end (though the program to care for Cuban refugee children would continue until the early 1980s).

By encouraging media silence about the Pedro Panes, the U.S. government temporarily subordinated its Cold War foreign policy priorities to focus on the more immediate goal of protecting children it considered to be particularly vulnerable to communist indoctrination. However, the informal agreement to limit public discussion of unaccompanied Cuban minors was nonetheless consistent with long-term U.S. foreign policy objectives that rested on the shared belief of government officials, journalists, exiles, and their advocates in the importance of children to the future of democratic capitalism in Cuba and, indeed, throughout the Americas.

Whatever the multiple motives behind U.S. support for the children’s exodus, it remains true that anti-Castro propaganda was highly effective in encouraging Cuban parents to send their children into foster care in the United States. But an equally important factor in the decision to send children unaccompanied was a product of Cuban parents’ own diminishing ability to flee. By early 1961, even as counter-revolutionaries on the island increasingly responded to an upsurge in political repression, social upheaval, and economic deprivation by taking up arms against the Castro regime, Catholic and middle-class families, alienated by the politicization of school curricula and frightened by rumors that the government intended to deprive parents of custody of their children, prepared to flee. When they themselves were unable to obtain visas after the closing of the U.S. embassy in Havana in the first weeks of 1961, many chose to send their unaccompanied children—who were eligible for a special State Department–authorized visa waiver—to the United States. The decision to embark their children to the United States thus may have served not only as a means of protecting individual children from the hazards of revolutionary life but also as a means of facilitating the migration of entire families to the United States.

Remembering Operation Pedro Pan: The Politics of Memory in Cuban Miami

Despite initial efforts to discourage media attention, it was almost inevitable—given Cold War America’s intense interest in communist threats to family life—that Operation Pedro Pan would sooner or later become news. It was perhaps equally inevitable that the postwar American media, increasingly united in their efforts to promote Judeo-Christian religious beliefs as a bulwark against Communism, would consistently avoid discussing any negative experiences the children may have had in foster care. Indeed, beginning in the sixties, media outlets ranging from the Miami Herald to the Wall Street Journal and Reader’s Digest consistently downplayed the political motives that underwrote Church and state support for the Cuban Children’s Program, choosing instead to praise the humanitarian motives of both the photogenic young Irish priest and the patriotic, God-fearing American families who welcomed the refugee boys and girls into their homes.3

Once in the United States, Cuban refugees and especially their children earned a starring role in propaganda supporting the nation’s Cold War policy goals. In collaboration with the federal government and the Cuban Refugee Center, the primary agency charged with overseeing refugee settlement in Miami and around the country, the American media worked closely with exiles to frame the revolution as a threat to Cuban children, seeking to discredit the Castro regime in the United States as well as in Cuba, Latin America, and around the world. Exiles eagerly shared their personal experiences, second- and third-hand anecdotes, and rumors with U.S. newspaper, magazine, television, and radio reporters, contributing to the ever-increasing barrage of stories that described their flight from the island as a heroic effort to protect their sons and daughters from communist indoctrination and deprivation. These stories were complemented by those that increasingly appeared in a growing number of U.S.–funded exile periodiquitos that similarly portrayed the revolution as a danger to the young and lauded selfless Cuban parents who had fled the island to protect their children.4

Early news coverage provided the foundation for the emerging consensus that explained the origins of the Cuban exile community in child-centered terms, giving voice to anti-Castro Cubans’ sense of betrayal by a revolution many had once supported and expressing their deeply held anti-communist values and sincere fears for their children and for their nation. At the same time, it is likely that exiles also made strategic use of emotionally powerful stories about the threat the Castro regime represented to their children in order to justify the preferential immigration status and continuation of generous financial assistance they had been awarded by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations—benefits which, taken together, guaranteed Cubans an extraordinarily privileged context of reception and a level of support unprecedented in the history of U.S. refugee policy before and after the Cuban Revolution.

Given the importance assigned to Cuban children by both North American and exile journalists—not to mention Cold War America’s intense interest in communist threats to family life—it was thus almost preordained that the children’s exodus would become news. The story finally broke on February 22, 1962, at the height of efforts to spirit children off the island, when the Cleveland Plain Dealer introduced its readers to the unaccompanied Cuban children being cared for in Miami and around the nation. On March 9, the Miami Herald ran a front-page story of their own on the young “refugees from Castro’s Red Cuba.” Reporter Gene Miller described the clandestine program as an “underground railway in the sky” and named the exodus “Operation Pedro Pan,” a reference to the James M. Barrie novel about a boy who flew away to Never Land to live with a band of Lost Boys. Miller declined to provide further details about how Cuban children were leaving the island, or about where they had been settled, preferring to focus on the geopolitical drama of his own Cold War retelling of a beloved children’s story. Nor did he offer any comments on how the relocated children were faring in foster care, choosing to gloss over the less romantic realities of homesickness, culture shock, and loneliness that were also part of the exodus’s story.5

Although subsequent articles that appeared throughout the 1960s did not adopt Miller’s literary moniker for the children’s exodus, they nonetheless echoed his heroic depiction of Operation Pedro Pan. They praised the humanitarian motives of those who cared for the small refugees, downplaying any political motives that might have underwritten the Cuban Children’s Program. Articles described Cuban children in foster care as grateful, well-adjusted children who were eager to adapt to U.S. culture and felt a growing patriotic attachment to their new nation. In one such Washington Post article, an American mother took great pleasure in claiming that her Cuban foster children “Eileen” and “Henry,” “are getting to be just all-American kids.” Positive human-interest articles like this one, while featuring the voices of the U.S. foster parents who opened their homes to refugee children from Cuba, rarely included the perspectives of the actual children whose lives had been uprooted by their participation in Operation Pedro Pan.6

Relying on generalized and invariably positive descriptions of the children’s exodus at the expense of telling individual stories, the media reinforced the exile community’s child-centered creation myth, an increasingly hegemonic narrative of Cuban Miami’s origins that claimed that Cubans had left the island not primarily because of their ideological objection to the revolution’s radicalization or because of the economic blows dealt to the island’s more privileged classes, but rather to save their children from communist and atheistic indoctrination and to ensure their upbringing in accordance with Christian democratic values.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, this narrative, widely promoted by both the exile and mainstream American media, served to suppress Cuban exiles’ political differences in the name of a shared effort to defeat Castro and restore the Cuban nation to their sons and daughters. It also distanced Cubans from other Latin American immigrants who, presumably, had come to the United States strictly in search of economic opportunity, without admitting the possibility that they might also be fleeing in order to protect their own children from violence or oppression at the hands of dictators—albeit U.S.-allied ones—in their homelands. Early Pedro Pan narratives also harmonized with Americans’ own understanding of their nation as a sanctuary for the oppressed, as well as with the belief that U.S. foreign policy was motivated primarily by humanitarian concern rather than self-interest.

Darker memories of the exodus nonetheless began to find public expression in the late 1960s and 1970s, with the founding of the left-leaning Instituto de Estudios Cubanos in Washington, D.C., and its publication Cuba Update, as well as with the creation of the journals Nueva Generación, Joven Cuba, and Areíto. These new journals and centers for Cuban studies promoted the establishment of dialogue with Cuba; they also offered Pedro Pan children the opportunity, for the first time, to articulate their experiences of family separation, unaccompanied migration, and cultural estrangement and adaptation in ways that offered a direct challenge to the heroic narratives featured in earlier news coverage of the exodus.

In 1978, Grupo Areíto, a group of Cuban-American youth who had come to identify with the revolution, published a book called Contra Viento y Marea (Against Wind and Tide). The book described group members’ process of alienation from American mainstream values and from their own exile community, and their subsequent political radicalization. The first section of testimonies described members’ experiences of leaving Cuba, which included many stories of unaccompanied migration to the United States. Unlike early U.S. and exile media stories, which tended to skip these details, the Contra Viento y Marea testimonies about Operation Pedro Pan revealed the sadness, pain, and fear that children experienced in Havana upon being separated from their families and island homes. Instead of representing their parents’ decision to send them away as a deeply principled and selfless sacrifice, the Areíto youth criticized their parents’ supposedly unthinking anti-Communism and naïve belief in the patria potestad rumors being spread by the CIA and by a reactionary Cuban clergy. Others even condemned their parents as self-interested opportunists who had supported the revolution until their own property and wealth was taken away.7

Other Areíto youth were less critical of their parents; they insisted, instead, that the CIA held ultimate responsibility for the destruction of their families, having manipulated Cuban parents into sending their children away from home. Despite their varied feelings about the decision their parents had taken on their behalf, however, they were united in claiming to have been sent away unwillingly—and in insisting that they had suffered as a result of having been placed in foster care in the United States. They described the unceasing pain of parental separation and complained about poor conditions and substandard educational programs in the reception camps where children had been housed. Some also alleged physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of fellow campmates, houseparents, and even the priests and nuns charged with their care. These claims offered a direct challenge to previous portrayals of Operation Pedro Pan as a child-rescue operation and of the exodus’s children as grateful, well adjusted, and happy with their new lives in the United States.

Despite these dissenting voices, the mainstream U.S. media would continue through subsequent decades to insist on the humanitarian nature of the children’s exodus and of its positive impact on the lives of the children that participated. They would be assisted in doing so by powerful members of the Miami-based Cuban exile community. On November 23, 1990, a group of Pedro Panes headed by Elisa Chovel gathered at La Ermita de la Caridad shrine in Miami to ask Monsignor Walsh’s blessing on the formation of a new Pedro Pan organization. Speaking on behalf of all Pedro Pan children, they offered a “Pledge of Thanksgiving” to their parents for making the “ultimate sacrifice…by sending us away from our homeland to freedom,” to “this noble nation, whose compassion is unlimited,” and to “the American people, who embraced us.” They established Operation Pedro Pan Group, Inc., a Florida non-profit organization dedicated to keeping alive their memories of the exodus and to coordinate fundraising efforts in support of ongoing Catholic programs to care for abused, homeless, and unaccompanied migrant children in South Florida.8

In an interview with El Nuevo Herald, Chovel explained the motives underlying the new group’s founding. “We came to this country, thousands of children alone, without knowing the language, and they embraced us,” she said. “We became men and women and we have triumphed here. It’s very little anything we might do to help and protect little ones in similar situations.” Operation Pedro Pan Group’s concern for needy migrant children did not, however, extend to acknowledging the contrast between the preferential treatment accorded Cuban refugee children in the 1960s and the widespread denial of asylum to Haitian and Central American children and families beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the 1990s.9

At the same time, the Miami media similarly continued to “remember” Operation Pedro Pan as an unprecedented historical event, publishing regular stories that reinscribed the notion that Pedro Panes owed gratitude to the American government and people for selflessly opening their arms to shelter them after their flight from Cuba. El Nuevo Herald took this triumphant narrative one step further, claiming that Pedro Pan children had been “protagonists of one of the most beautiful pages in the history of the Cuban exile” and praising the Cuban Children’s Program as evidence of American “generosity and support of one’s fellow man.”10 In its zeal to recognize the real achievements of many of Miami’s Pedro Panes, the Herald overlooked the fact that most had not been protagonists of their childhood flight from the island. In most cases, the decision to come to the United States had been made by parents, and while many children accepted their fate, it is also true that others, as Grupo Areíto testimonies revealed, were in fact sent to the United States against their wishes.

Memories of Operation Pedro Pan dramatically resurfaced in Miami and throughout the United States in November 1999, when a shipwrecked five-year-old Cuban boy named Elián González was rescued off the coast of southern Florida and taken to the home of his Miami relatives. The boy’s mother had died in attempting to cross the Florida Straits in order to resettle in the United States. When Elián’s father attempted to reclaim his son, his Miami family, with the overwhelming support of the local exile community, refused to return the boy to Cuba. The ensuing custody battle sparked a heightened interest in the stories of an earlier generation of unaccompanied Cuban child migrants, as the media frequently recurred to the memory of Operation Pedro Pan to shed light on Elián’s plight. In a PBS documentary, Father Francisco Santana argued that Elián was so important to Cuban-Americans because the “exile community … began precisely by the concept of ‘Save the Children.’”11 Even the small minority of Cuban-American intellectuals who called for the young balsero’s return to his father on the island assumed that Elián was the latest chapter in the story of the fourteen thousand Pedro Panes who had arrived in the United States almost forty years earlier. In a letter published in El Nuevo Herald, University of Michigan sociologist Silvia Pedraza argued that the Juan Miguel González’s right to reclaim his son “was based upon the same notion of patria potestad on which the parents of the 14,000 children who came alone into exile had relied…the right of parents (and not the state) over their minor children.”12 However, changing U.S. foreign policy priorities in the post–Cold War era prevented the U.S. government and media from endorsing the exile community’s efforts to link the transnational custody battle to earlier narratives of the Cuban children’s exodus. U.S. public opinion—which forty years earlier had largely supported exiles’ commitment to saving their children from communist indoctrination and oppression—now favored returning the small boy to Cuba.

Americans sympathetic to the exile community nonetheless failed to understand the extent to which the Cuban-American identity revolved around a child-centered creation myth that demanded the continuation of struggle against the Castro regime on behalf of sons and daughters forced to grow up in exile. Then, before dawn on April 22, 2000, Immigration and Naturalization Services agents stormed the home of Lázaro González and retrieved the boy at gunpoint. In doing so, they demonstrated a shocking disregard for the safety and well-being of a five-year-old child, offering perhaps the most compelling challenge yet to the exile community’s memory of Operation Pedro Pan as inspired by U.S. humanitarian concern for Cuban children.

In 2001, the year after Elián returned to Cuba, Monsignor Bryan Walsh passed away in Miami. However, collective memories of the Irish immigrant priest’s program to care for the more than fourteen thousand unaccompanied Cuban children who grew to maturity in the United States persist in both Havana and Miami. On both sides of the Florida Straits, scholars, journalists, politicians, and artists have continued to tell the story of the children’s exodus in ways that reflect the political positions of their respective communities. Revolutionary narratives of Operation Pedro Pan as a sinister CIA plot to destroy Cuban families and destabilize the Castro regime—faithfully reproduced in Estela Bravo’s 2010 documentary Operación Peter Pan: Cerrando el Círculo en Cuba—remain largely unchallenged on the island. In the United States, Operation Pedro Pan Group, Inc., in collaboration with the Miami media, continues to insist on representing Pedro Panes as categorically successful and grateful to their parents, the Catholic Church, and the United States for guaranteeing their religious and political liberty.

Some Cuban-Americans have begun to offer richer and more complicated interpretations of the operation.13 As a result, some of the more difficult aspects of Cuban refugee children’s experiences, first publicly acknowledged by a group of radicalized Cuban-American youth in the late 1970s, have been accepted—albeit not without discomfort—by many in the exile community. Despite this incremental opening, however, the history of Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children’s Program remains highly contested. The competing memories that have emerged in Havana and Miami have reduced and confined Cuban and Cuban-Americans’ memories of the children’s exodus, producing mutually exclusive narratives of collective tragedy or triumph that allow little room for complexity or ambivalence. As a result, Operation Pedro Pan continues to be remembered through a series of opposites, as political versus humanitarian, selfless versus self-interested, and beneficial versus deeply damaging to children. These false dichotomoies contribute to flattening the individual experiences of the more than fourteen thousand Pedro Panes—all of whom experienced the exodus in ways that are far too complex to be forced into simplistic binaries.

Discussion of the Literature

Beginning in the 1990s, Cuban-Americans have produced an extensive cultural record of their experiences as refugees and unaccompanied children in the United States. However, despite sustained public interest in Operation Pedro Pan, a surprisingly small body of scholarship has examined the children’s exodus. Published in 1999, the first of only two scholarly monographs on the topic is Victor Andres Triay’s Fleeing Castro: Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children’s Program, which describes the flight of Cuban children from their island homes and their experiences in foster care in the United States.14 Triay’s book offered a detailed and richly documented description of the exodus and the program that sheltered Cuban children in the United States; however, while acknowledging that experiences varied widely, Triay nonetheless chose to only briefly touch upon the stories of sibling separation, neglect, and abuse that he had encountered during his research.

The book’s emphasis on Pedro Panes’ positive experiences was consistent with Triay’s desire to counter critical narratives of the program that had emerged in the 1970s. In a 1995 letter to Monsignor Walsh, Triay shared his perspective on his book—then a PhD dissertation—reassuring the priest that his analysis of the operation was “very favorable,” and that he sought in his book to counter the negativity expressed in Grupo Areíto’s Contra Viento y Marea, which he believed presented a “twisted interpretation of the facts.”15 However, Triay’s decision to gloss over stories of refugee children’s suffering in the United States similarly avoided confronting aspects of the exodus that challenged the exile community’s own ideologically inflected memories of the past.

In 1999, freelance journalist Yvonne M. Conde, herself a Pedro Pan, also released a mass-market book entitled Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children. Conde’s book delved in much greater depth into the range of refugee children’s experiences, including the most painful stories of neglect, abuse, and family separation. However, Conde echoed Triay in asserting that Cuban parents’ fears for their children had been justified and that their choice to send them into exile had been the correct one. She concludes, “When asked if I think my parents made the right decision, I always answer ‘Yes, because I was given choices.’ Once in this country, any one of us could have chosen to return to Cuba or to be communist.”16 In fact, the historical reality was more complex: the few Pedro Pan children who did choose to return to Cuba beginning in the late 1970s, earning the wrath of their families and the entire exile community, were summarily denied the right to re-establish residency on the island. Like Triay’s book, Conde’s memory of the past fit neatly within the frame of remembrance adopted by the exile community, obscuring the more difficult question of children’s choice—and lack thereof—in becoming unaccompanied refugees and later anti-communist exiles in the United States.

The second scholarly monograph on the subject, María de los Angeles Torres’s The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the U.S., and the Promise of a Better Future (2003), broke new ground in uncovering the “why” and “how” of the children’s exodus.17 The Lost Apple also reflects upon the profound political interests that underlie conflicting exilic and revolutionary narratives of the event and its aftermath, arguing that the unaccompanied migration of Cuban boys and girls can only be understood within the competing rationales of 20th-century democratic-capitalist and communist nation-making projects. Torres’s authoritative study concludes that the ongoing contest over the meaning of Operation Pedro Pan is similarly an inevitable outflow of the Cold War struggle between the United States and Cuban governments to control the minds of Cuban children, and through them, the destiny of the island nation.

Her conclusions mirror those of other scholars of childhood, who have argued that the tropes of child rescue and kidnap that were so central to postwar international child sponsorship and adoption campaigns—and which were equally central to narratives of Operation Pedro Pan in both Havana and Miami—nonetheless fail to adequately represent children’s multivalent historical experiences.18

Primary Sources

In addition to the primary sources listed in the endnotes to this essay, readers may wish to consult the following:

Acierno, María Armengol. Children of Flight Pedro Pan. New York: Silver Moon Press, 1994.Find this resource:

    Cruz, Nilo. Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams (Playbook). New York: Dramatist’s Play Service, 2004.Find this resource:

      Cuban Living History Project Collection, Green Library Special Collections, Florida International University.

      Eire, Carlos. Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.Find this resource:

        Elliston, Jon. Psywar on Cuba: The Declassified History of U.S. Anti-Castro Propaganda. New York: Ocean Press, 1999.Find this resource:

          Grupo Areíto. Contro Viento y Marea. Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1978.Find this resource:

            Nguyen, Mathieu. Kiki: A Cuban Boy’s Adventure’s in America. Coconut Grove, FL: Pickering Press, 1992.Find this resource:

              Operation Pedro Pan Collection and Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh Collection, Barry University Archives, Miami, Florida.

              Operation Pedro Pan,

              Torreira Crespo, Ramón and José Buajasán Marrawi. Operación Pedro Pan: Un Caso de Guerra Psícologica Contra Cuba. Havana: Política, 2000.Find this resource:

                Further Reading

                Casavantes Bradford, Anita. The Revolution Is for the Children: The Politics of Childhood in Havana and Miami, 1959–1962. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                  Conde, Yvonne M. Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children. New York: Routledge, 1999.Find this resource:

                    De la Campa, Román. Cuba on my Mind: Journeys to a Severed Nation. New York: Verso, 2000.Find this resource:

                      De la Torre, Miguel. La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                        Douglas, Kate. Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma and Memory. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                          Dubinsky, Karen. “The Fantasy of the Global Cabbage Patch: Making Sense of Transnational Adoption.” Feminist Theory 9.3 (2008): 339–345.Find this resource:

                            García, María Cristina. Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                              Grupo Areíto. Contra Viento y Marea. Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1978.Find this resource:

                                Herzog, Jonathan P. The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America’s Religious Battle Against Communism in the Early Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                                  Masúd-Piloto, Felix. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the U.S., 1959–1995. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.Find this resource:

                                    McNamara, Patrick. A Catholic Cold War: Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., and the Politics of American Anti-Communism. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                      Pedraza, Silvia. Political Disaffection in Cuba’s Revolution and Exodus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                                        Torres, María de los Angeles. “Donde los Fantasmas Bailan Guaguancó.” In By Heart/De Memoria: Cuban Women’s Journeys In and Out of Exile. Edited by María de los Angeles Torres, 25–35. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                          Torres, María de los Angeles. The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the U.S., and the Promise of a Better Future. Boston: Beacon, 2003.Find this resource:

                                            Triay, Victor Andres. Fleeing Castro: Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children’s Program. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                                              Tyler May, Elaine. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.Find this resource:

                                                Walsh, Bryan O. “Cuban Refugee Children.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 13.3–4 (1971): 378–415.Find this resource:


                                                  (1.) Jonathan P. Herzog, The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America’s Religious Battle Against Communism in the Early Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 54–64, 85; and Patrick McNamara, A Catholic Cold War: Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., and the Politics of American Anti-Communism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).

                                                  (2.) Bryan O. Walsh, “Cuban Refugee Children,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 13.3–4 (1971): 395.

                                                  (3.) “A Well-Deserved Tribute to Monsignor Bryan Walsh,” Diario las Américas, February 22, 1978; and John G. Hubbell, “Operation Pedro Pan,” Reader’s Digest, February 1988.

                                                  (4.) See U.S. News and World Report, March 21, 1960; New York Times, June 8, 1960; “Las Patrullas Juveniles,” El Avance, July 8, 1960, 2; and Armando Garcia Sifredo, “Magdalena,” Patria (Miami), September 27, 1960.

                                                  (5.) Gene Miller, “An Underground Railway in the Sky,” Miami Herald, March 9, 1962, 1.

                                                  (6.) Carolyn Lewis, “Political Haven Fits Like an Old Shoe for Two Children from Cuba,” Washington Post, February 20, 1966, F5.

                                                  (7.) Grupo Areíto, Contra Viento y Marea (Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1978), 21–41.

                                                  (8.) Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Division of Social Sciences and Life Skills, in cooperation with Operation Pedro Pan Group, Inc., Operation Pedro Pan: A Leap of Faith for the Sake of Freedom, Book Two: Historic Committee (Green Library Special Collections, Florida International University).

                                                  (9.) “Los ‘Niños de Pedro Pan:’ No Pueden Olvidar,” El Nuevo Herald, June 9, 1992.

                                                  (10.) “Los ‘Niños de Pedro Pan.’”

                                                  (11.) Ofra Bikel, “Saving Elián,” Frontline, February 6, 2001.

                                                  (12.) Silvia Pedraza, “La Perspectiva desde la Isla,” El Nuevo Herald, March 27, 2000.

                                                  (13.) Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010); and Nilo Cruz’s 2001 play, Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, both offer more complex retellings of the children’s exodus.

                                                  (14.) Victor Andres Triay, Fleeing Castro: Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children’s Program (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1999).

                                                  (15.) Victor Andres Triay to Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, 13 June 1995, Bryan O. Walsh Papers, Barry University Archives, Box 54, Folder 12.

                                                  (16.) Yvonne M. Conde, Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children (New York: Routledge, 1999).

                                                  (17.) María de los Angeles Torres, The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the U.S., and the Promise of a Better Future (Boston: Beacon, 2003).

                                                  (18.) Karen Dubinsky, “The Fantasy of the Global Cabbage Patch: Making Sense of Transnational Adoption,” Feminist Theory 9.3 (2008): 339–345.