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

  • Carlos Eire wrote about his experiences as a Pedro Pan refugee in his memoir, “Waiting to Die in Miami”. At the first foster home he stayed at he experienced physical and sexual abuse from the owners and from some of the other older children. His subsequent placement was much better. Although he hated the abuse, on the whole, Eire concludes he was fortunate to escape Cuba and the Castros. His mother was eventually able to join Carlso & his brother in America, but his father was never given permission to leave.

    With a historical event of that magnitude and wrenching, the truth and reality is manifold. Different people experienced it in different ways. True, the CIA promoted rumors to encourage people to leave or to send their children. Also tries, many Cuban parents were genuinely afraid of where the revolution was heading and what would happen to their children raised under the constant barrage of Communist propaganda being fed through the schools and media. Also true, Fidel in his malevolent genius saw an opportunity to shatter the Cuban middle class and hold them hostage. He knew the path to absolute power would be found in divide and conquer strategies like the Pedro Pan tragedy.

  • Mr. Ruiz: Where is the evidence that many children were brutalized? Prove it, please. Evidently, you’re simply parroting what detractors of the operation often say without presenting any proof. In fact, the most in-depth study conducted into the treatment of Pedro Pan children while in the custody of the Catholic Bureau, conducted by Prof. Torres, found that 80 children were abused. Another study was conducted by Conde in which she randomly interviewed 500 Pedro Pans. In her study only 1 Pedro Pan complained of being physically mistreated in a foster home. My own study consisting of 1,750 Pedro Pans registered with the Miami Herald’s interactive Operation Pedro Pan database found only 10 cases of mistreatment. Actually, when one considers that 15,000 participated in the Operation and approximately half, 7,500, were cared by institutions associated with the Catholic Church, the figure of 80 is almost insignificant, despite those sad and heart breaking occurrences. You might also want to know that American-born children in orphanages and foster care in the same period encountered physical and psychological abuse at a much higher rate than Pedro Pan children. The reason for this was twofold: 1. Cuban children in Catholic orphanages were considered a special case and were therefore kept segregated frequently and for the most part from the general population, where they then received special attention and care from the nuns; and 2. local social workers constantly monitored and supervised the institutions and foster homes where Pedro Pan children resided under a directive of the head of the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Operation Pedro Pan was the first time in the history of the United States that the federal government assumed any financial and supervisory responsability over children in both institutional and foster care. Until then, private philanthropic institutions fulfilled that function. By the way, I am yet to hear a Pedro Pan who was mistreated say that he or she was brutalized. An exception to the findings in all the studies cited above involve homosexual behavior. It is indeed true that some boys demonstrating effeminate and/or early homosexual tendencies were in some instances abused by other Cuban boys in the Miami facilities, a function of the “machista” culture of Cubans. Ironically, most cases of sexual abuse involved the same boy dispensing the abuse and extracting and/or eliciting sexual favors. I am sorry for Alex Lopez and others like him, who underwent mistreatment because of their sexual orientation. They had to bear the full brunt of Cuban machismo early in their adolescence. No wonder they appear to be so bitter later on in life. By the way, the Cuban government did have control. It chose not to act. According to an article in a 1961 Time magazine Fidel Castro personally stopped the flights at Rancho Boyeros (Jose Marti) Airport one full day to prevent the children from leaving. Later on, he changed his mind. According to testimony presented before the International Relations Committee of US House of Representatives financial considerations intervened. As for the CIA, it has repeatedly denied having had anything to do with the creation and day-to-day operation and management of Operation Pedro Pan/Peter Pan although it has acknowledged that it sought to destabilize the Cuban government by as many mean as possible. Finally, the problem with generalizing from anecdotal evidence or specific instances as a form of inferring from the specific to the general or even as an instance of deductive logic is that it often leads us astray from the truth. Moreover, despite the fact that thus far my research and that of others seem to show that there was no widespread abuse and mistreatment in Operation Pedro Pan/Peter Pan, I am still open to the possibility of encountering data in the future that will lead me in the opposite direction. After all, there were 7,500 under foster care and I have only heard from 1,750. Therefore, research into Operation Pedro Pan has hardly yet begun. I am sure that there’s much more to be learned.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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