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

  • De ja vu all over again? What is happening on the Southern border of the U.S. Separate the kids from the parents (a rape or two gets mixed in, of course) at the border, and we can stop all those “undesirables” from setting out on a hopeless journey that will not end in the promised land but at the Trump wall. If they could take a bath, come through Norway and speak English, well, that would help…but don’t count on it. The separation of kids from the parents is a strategy that I’m afraid is alive and well and is being used (again!) in plain sight.

  • This documentary deals with the airlift that brought over 14,000
    unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States between December 1960 and
    October 1962, a chapter in Cuban and American history that has never attracted
    much attention, but has always been of great interest to the Orwellian Ministry
    of Truth in Havana, whose business it is to rewrite history. Estela Bravo, the
    film’s director, lives in Cuba and has dedicated her career, much like Leni
    Riefenstahl, to ensuring that the exploits of a mad despot look really good on

    Since I was one of those 14,000 children who are the subject of Bravo’s film,
    I’ve been following its American tour in the press, on the internet, and in
    email reports.

    The most disturbing account I’ve seen thus far was published in the New
    York Daily News on Sunday, April 10th 2011, and is currently featured in
    the web site for High Point Media, the American distributor of Bravo’s film.1 Albor Ruiz,
    the author, distorts the history of the airlift along the very same lines as the
    Castro regime has been doing for years, so, being a professional historian, all
    I can assume is that this twisted history must come straight from the film, or
    from some of the other Castroite-directed accounts that pollute library shelves
    and the internet.

    I can’t comment on the film, since I haven’t seen it. But I must contest the
    Ruiz review and its warped take on our history, which is now being used to
    advertise the film.

    First, our exodus must be set into context. The final tally of 14,000 is
    just the tip of the iceberg. When the airlift ceased in October 1962, because
    Fidel Castro suddenly refused to let any of his subjects leave his
    island, the number of children lined up to take part in this airlift stood
    around 80,000. Add the thousands of others who left without their parents, but
    not as part of the airlift, and the total figure of instant orphans easily
    surpasses 100,000. At that time Cuba had a population of only six million. Do
    the math, and hold your breath. The numbers speak for themselves: a huge
    percentage of Cuban parents were not just willing, but eager, to get their kids
    off the island.

    You have to ask yourself why.

    Castrolandia’s Ministry of Truth – and Albor Ruiz of The New York Post
    – would have you believe that our airlift was concocted by the government
    of the United States as a nefarious Cold War scheme, the objective of which is
    never clear. As their version has it, the evil Yanquis tricked Cuban parents
    into “falsely” thinking that their parental rights were about to be revoked by
    the state.

    Total nonsense. The reason our parents sent us here was not due to any rumor
    spread by Americans and their agents, but because of what we were experiencing
    already. The Castroite Revolution demanded total devotion from all of us
    children, our parents be damned. Once the state took over all of the schools, we
    were held hostage by it every day, indoctrinated until our brains could take no
    more, forced into “Revolutionary” errands, jammed into agricultural labor camps,
    dressed in Pioneer uniforms, forced to march in lockstep and chant slogans,
    warned never, ever to attend religious services, and, at the age of eighteen,
    drafted in the armed forces. Some of us were even being sent to the Soviet
    Union or its satellites behind the Iron Curtain. Our parents had no say in any
    of this. Worst of all, we were constantly admonished to report on anyone in our
    family who dared to criticize these arrangements.

    The facts speak for themselves, and can be verified through empirical
    research. Our parents were already losing us and they a real tough choice to
    make: do we let Castrolandia steal our kids or do we send them somewhere else
    where the state won’t claim their mind and soul?

    Logic comes into play too. Why would the U.S. government orphan so many
    children and fund their upkeep, but make no effort to publicize their plight ?
    It makes no sense. Our exodus was a nearly invisible event, of which most of the
    world remained woefully ignorant. Check it out: I dare you to find more than a
    handful of news reports about the airlift from the early 1960’s.

    Second, the long-term separation of the children and parents was caused by
    the Castro regime, not the United States. The plan every Pedro Pan family had
    was to reunite immediately in the United States, with the hopes of one day
    returning to a free Cuba. As soon as we arrived in the U.S., our parents were
    granted entry visas by the State Department. Unfortunately, though their
    American visas came quickly, the Castro regime not only refused to grant our
    parents exit permits at a reasonable pace, it actually put obstacles in their
    path and harassed them. Many fathers, especially, were not allowed to leave at
    all. Then the final blow came in October 1962. Although thousands of us still
    had parents in Cuba, the Castro regime closed the door and refused them the
    right to leave. Those who tried to find some way out through an embassy – such
    as my mother – were often denied the right to leave, repeatedly. No amount of
    pleading from anyone changed Castrolandia’s policy, until late in 1965, when
    President Lyndon Johnson’s administration paid a high ransom and the Freedom
    Flights began to deliver our parents here very slowly, as if from a dripping
    faucet. By then, most of us had already spent what seemed like an eternity
    without our fathers and mothers. And some parents never made it out at all,
    like my father.

    Third, one must ask: if the Cuban authorities had any real concern for us
    children, and saw the airlift as an evil American scheme, why did they allow us
    to leave and then prevent our parents from joining us? And why did the Cuban
    authorities harass us and our families at the Havana airport, with strip
    searches and an interminable wait in a soundproof glass enclosure known as “the

    I had a chance to put these questions to someone who was very high up in the
    Castro regime at that time, Carlos Franqui, a close associate of Fidel Castro
    and editor of his regime’s propaganda rag, Revolución. Like so many of
    the Maximum Leader’s cronies, Franqui was eventually purged and banished into
    exile. Shortly before his death, he came to lecture here at Yale, where I
    teach. At dinner, when I quizzed Franqui , he had a brutally simple answer to
    the questions above. “We loved it,” he said, smiling, “because anything that
    would destroy the bourgeois family was good for us.”

    Franqui’s sarcastic confession can be taken at face value because of one more
    undeniable fact: the instant that all exits from Castrolandia were blocked in
    October 1962, Fidel’s goons arrested all those who were running the airlift in
    Havana, and imprisoned them for two decades. So, you see, the Cuban authorities
    knew exactly what was going on and who was responsible, but had refused to stop
    it on purpose. Only when the usefulness of the family-wrecking airlift was
    derailed by the fallout from the Missile Crisis did they decide to act; and
    then, hypocritically, they punished those brave souls for their great service to
    the so-called Revolution.

  • Griffin: If I may, I would like to point out that your remarks about Carlos Eire and his brother Tony are somewhat incorrect. Both Carlos and Tony were first placed in the homes of two well-to-do American-Jewish couples in Miami. Until today, Carlos is grateful for the treatment they received in their homes. It was in the second home they were placed, following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, that Carlos encountered physical abuse. The house, a half-way house, was foster home to several delinquent juveniles and was operated by a Cuban couple in the southwest section of Miami, next to the Orange Bowl Stadium. In neither one of his two books, Waiting for Snow in Havana and Leaning to Die in Miami, is there any mention of sexual abuse. By the way, Carlos acknowledged in his books that their placement in that home was due to a bureaucratic snafu in which the social worker in charge misplaced their paperwork. As soon as the problem was detected, they were removed from the half-way house sent to live with their uncle in Bloomfield, Illinois. By then, of course, Carlos had been the object of repeated beatings by the older kids.

  • Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. If the US were being charged criminally for its assault of Cuba, the prosecutor would probably argue that its willingness to lie about one thing means that it should not be believed about anything regarding Cuba. The US used that same propaganda, that the Communists will take the children from their families, against the Soviet Union. Pretty cynical and extremely cruel, since the result obviously destroys thousands of innocent childhoods. I guess though, in the words of Madeline Albright, it was worth it, for “Freedom”. The irony in my eyes , is that these lied-to and terrified Cubans were sending their children to the United States, a country with a child dependancy system on a par with its criminal justice system. I have represented hundreds of parents, almost exclusively poor, most minorities, who watch their children disappear into the foster care system, and never come out again. It is heartbreaking work, both because it can be incredibly difficult for poor parents to regain custody as well because of the views afforded of the terrible childhoods these underclass kids endure . And it is much more widespread than one would think. Unless you are a social worker, or attorney or judge though, it is invisible. I am sure that I will receive a reply telling me to stay on point, that this is a blog about Cuba, not the US. I may be wrong, but in Cuba I have never seen anything to indicate that they either have the level of needy, neglected and endangered kids that we do, nor that they use such an inhumane, assembly – line approach to deal with the problem. If I am correct, that to me is one of the Revolution’s most important achievements.

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