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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.