Cuba: A New Book on Operation Peter Pan

By Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — Havana’s Casa de las Americas Center has kicked off the New Year with the launching of a controversial book: Estela and Ernesto Bravos’ Operacion Peter Pan, cerrando el circulo en Cuba (“Operation Peter Pan: Closing the Circle in Cuba”).

During a long introduction to the launch, held on January 10, Havana historian Eusebio Leal invoked the events that took place at the beginning of the 1960s and gave participants a sense of the situation which led to one of the saddest episodes in the history of Cuba – US relations.

The book, based on the documentary by the same name, gathers testimonies by those who experienced, witnessed or directly participated in the notorious operation.

Estela Bravo

According to Leal, many different kinds of rumors and news circulated in Cuba at the time. One of the most persuasive and terrible was the one which prompted Operation Peter Pan: the rumor that Cuban parents would be deprived of their custody rights over their children.

And so that the news wouldn’t be dismissed as hearsay, people began to circulate “an apocryphal proposal or draft bill, signed by the government, which announced that the press would soon begin to publish news about this legislation.”

Alex Lopez

Many parents, influenced by propaganda, believed the new government would soon collapse. The most convenient thing, in their minds, was to temporarily send their children to a safe place. The prevailing panic was part of the dark plan hatched by the US State Department, the CIA.

More than 14 thousand children were flown to the United States under the protection of the Catholic Church. The lucky ones were taken in by loving families. Others ended up in orphanages, where they suffered indescribable abuse. Yet others found themselves in the difficult situation of having to adapt to families who had taken them in only temporarily, thinking that they would soon be returned to their real parents.

On January 3, 1961, all flights from the United States to Cuba were suspended and all contact among relatives was definitively cut off. Thousands of parents remained in Cuba, unable to travel – some took years to do so, others never did.

Alvaro Fernandez

The emotive story, broken down into different episodes and narrated by the victims of these events, gains much strength in the book.

This explains why Alex Lopez’ remarks during the book launch were so well received. Originally from Matanzas, Lopez tells us that “my parents were terrified and put me on a plane headed for the United States to save me from communism and the panic that had been sown. I lived among mistreated, abused and abandoned children.”

Alex was sent to a camp, along with many other children. After protesting over sexual abuse by the priests there, a social worker promised to send him to a boarding house in Ohio. Instead, he was relocated to an orphanage to silence him.

The books are on sale at the Casa de las Americas in Havana.

Luckily, an American family took pity on him and adopted him. After four years, he was reunited with his parents who, after the intense experiences during the long time apart, were almost strangers to him.

Silvia Wilhem also told us her story, calling for improved relations among the two countries, insisting that building bridges is the best course of action. “Bridges are the solution, the way to understanding, respect among those of us who left or were forced to leave (for I was 12 years old) and those who remained, among the citizens of the United States and the citizens of Cuba.”

Alvaro Fernandez underscored the importance of research on the subject, as a means of preventing anything similar from ever happening again.

He spoke of his father’s involvement in Operation Peter Pan. “My father was one of the people who drafted the law – which was no law – about custody rights which led to the exodus of children. My father had close ties to the CIA, he had a very important position at the beginning of the revolution.” Fernandez added that “this is another stain in the history of humanity. One shouldn’t throw children into the mix, children are sacred.”

The book will begin to be sold this week at Havana’s Casa de la Americas.

14 thoughts on “Cuba: A New Book on Operation Peter Pan

  • January 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    I think that this episode shows that the parents and the Catholic Church were duped, the CIA was criminal and the Cuban Govt had no control. The sad result, children were brutalized. I think that the Church has recognize its involvement as an error and apologized. The CIA, to the best of my knowledge, till this day, has not admitted any involvement nor apologized. Shame for them

  • January 20, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    To be sure, there are few facts that Castro supporters have at hand to supports the disaster wrought in Cuba. So instead, at every opportunity, in the face of real Cubans expressing real frustrations with the regime, these same Castro sycophants will parrot the high literacy rate, low infant mortality rate, low street crime in Cuba and sometimes even use the never-ending salsa rhythms as justification for all that ails Cuba. When that is not applicable, they turn to attack the US or fall back on the “it is worse in (insert third world country)”. Finally, when real desperation has taken hold, they resort to sarcasm. Lesser intellects use the name-calling stratagem as well. You are witness to this degraded capacity to debate on real facts in this thread.

  • January 20, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Is that supposed to be sarcasm or is it just another example of projection?

    Nothing I wrote denied the US-CIA side to the tragic events of Operation Peter Pan. However, it is important to remember that BOTH sides contributed to the crisis. It served Fidel’s plans to have thousands of Cuban families divided and effectively held hostage. He was canny enough to realize the CIA was handing him a method by which to do this. It was Fidel alone who refused to allow whole families to leave Cuba.

    It curious how you deny the Cuba people, and especially the revolutionary Cuban government, of any agency or responsibility for their actions. In your view, only the US acts while everybody else reacts passively. The real world is rather more complicated than that.

  • January 18, 2014 at 10:13 pm

    There were mistakes made on both sides. The US erred in manipulating Cuban parents to overreact. The Castros responded to the overreaction (read this part carefully) by brutally punishing these parents who were already victimized by the CIA/RCC plot. They could have worked hard to reassure Cubans that this was just another imperialist hoax. The more contemptible response chosen by the Castros was to punish their own people as a means to hardship the US. This twisted behavior would reemerge over and over again. When the Castros wanted to hurt the US, they would kick the Cuban people. The best (worst) example of this is Fidel’s request to the USSR for permission to launch a first strike nuclear attack on the US. He did this knowing it would lead to the annihilation of the Cuban people. Even Khrushchev called Fidel crazy for that idea.

  • January 18, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    Communism has ended around world of it’s own accord. Flawed systems tend to fail, no assistance needed. Mixed economies with free markets and safety nets to support the most vulnerable have emerged as the dominant form of economic model in use. Wealth redistribution works best, when there is wealth. Taxes on the bounty that economic freedom produces is far more effective than direct ownership on means of production by the state.

  • January 18, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    I am amazed how in the face of truth anti revolution folks spin things so It will square with their backward ideology. You should watch Estela’s film and read about some of the priests who were involved it is very enlightening. Most parents did not want to leave because their properties were more important than their kids, and they thought the revolution would collapse….ooops still waiting for that.

  • January 18, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Yes , it was ALL the fault of the Cubans.
    The U.S had no part in this and Cuba is the lone exception to the 100 year-old U.S foreign policy objective of subverting, overthrowing, defaming and preventing leftist societies around the world .
    The U.S authorities were acting out of humane concern for all these children and their actions had nothing to do with that very consistent foreign policy .
    The 54 instances of U.S interventions listed at the “Killing Hope” website and book were not precedent for what the U.S was forced to do for those poor children.

  • January 18, 2014 at 8:35 am

    The account above left out the part about how the Castro regime allowed children to leave but refused to let the parents go with them. The agents at the airport would take all luggage, toys and extra clothing from the crying children. Mothers who had been promised permission to emigrate with their young children were told at the airport they could not leave.

    The Peter Pan saga is a tragic one of exile, separation and trauma The child abuse began at the airport at the hands of the Cuban border guards. While the US govt cut
    off air flights from the US to Cuba, Castro had already before that blocked Cubans from leaving Cuba for the US.

    In the end, the allegedly hysterical propaganda turned out to be correct: Castro did indeed deliver control of the entire island and all the Cuban people, including children, to the Communists.

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