Operation Pedro Pan: A 50 Year Perspective, Carlos Eire, November 18, 2011
Operation Pedro Pan was a program during 1960-1962, to get children secretly out of Cuba. Thousands of parents sent their children unaccompanied to the United States to avoid having them indoctrinated by the Castro regime, who forced the teachings of Marxism-Leninism in schools, forcefully removing the parents rights to choose the type of education they wanted for their children. Parents also wanted to protect their children from the injustices and repression they were witnessing, perpetrated by the Castro regime on the people of Cuba.
Below are the seldom reported facts about the reality of what Castro did and is doing in Cuba’s schools, that lead thousands of parents to secretly send their children unaccompanied by them, to the United States. It is important to understand the context in which Operation Pedro Pan occurred, to appreciate the very difficult situation parents faced, as well as to attempt to understand the existential impact of what Castro has done, and continues doing.
Events Leading Up to Operation Pedro Pan
Cuba 1958: Cuba was governed by dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had a government fraught with political corruption and instability. Nonetheless, Cuba was an advanced country in comparison to other Latin American countries, and in some areas, by world standards. In fact, Cuba was a prosperous country with a large and robust middle class. However, given the corruption and instability in the government, conditions existed for political change.
Cuba 1959, January 1: Fidel Castro took control of Cuba. He told the people of Cuba that soon there would be free elections; that he respected and represented human rights; that Cuba would be a free country. The citizens of Cuba were jubilant and greeted Castro as a hero, as he entered Havana. What followed was his ruthless dictatorship.
Castro’s regime implemented dictatorial controls. His regime imprisoned or executed people who supported, or he suspected supported Batista, as well as people who disagreed or he suspected disagreed with his form of government. Executions and imprisonments took place with mock trials, without due process. Executions with firing squads were often televised for Cubans to witness. A well documented example of Castro’s “revolutionary justice” is Huber Matos.
In December 1959, Huber Matos, a revolutionary and former close associate of Castro, was found guilty of treason by the Castro regime, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Matos was imprisoned for expressing to Castro that he disagreed with communism. Other revolutionaries who had formerly been close to Castro were also either imprisoned or murdered for similar reasons.
May 1959: The first Agrarian Reform Law was implemented by the government, expropriating private land of a certain size, and expropriating sugar plantations owned by foreigners.
October 1959: Pedro Luis Diaz Lanz, Castro’s former chief of the air force, who had defected a few months earlier, flew from Miami to Havana, dropping leaflets over Havana calling on the Castro regime to eliminate communism from its government.
Also in 1959, Castro’s regime suppressed media that was critical of his government. Eventually, all newspapers, television channels, and radio stations became state controlled. In other words, there is no free press in Cuba. All media is censored by Castro’s regime.
Additionally, elections did not occur in 1959. In fact, there have not been free fair elections in Cuba during Castro’s dictatorship, for the past 56 years. Thus, even though the Castro regime had not yet declared itself as communist, the manner by which Castro was conducting his regime provided some indications of what was yet to come.
In the early months of 1960, rumors spread through Cuba that the Castro regime would remove children from their parent’s custody and send them to work camps in the Soviet Union. Many parents were alarmed and frightened. In fact, hundreds of Cuban students were sent by Castro’s Ministry of Industries to study in the Soviet Bloc.
February 1960: The Soviet Union agreed to subsidize Cuba, and extended credit to the Cuban government.
May 1960: The Soviet Union and Cuba formalized diplomatic relations.
July 1960: Businesses, commercial property, and banks in Cuba owned by the United States were nationalized by Castro’s regime.
September 1960: Castro declared the creation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. These committees were established on every block by the Castro government. The committees were setup to spy on citizens, to detect people who had anti-revolutionary ideas. People suspected of not supporting Castro’s system, were harassed and even jailed. These committees continue to exist to this day.
October 1960: The Urban Reform Law was established. This law nationalized all privately held residential rental property. This meant that the Castro regime expropriated the property.
December 12, 1960: James Baker, Headmaster of Ruston Academy in Havana, a private American school, traveled to Miami seeking to find avenues for entry for unaccompanied Cuban children into Miami Florida. He had previously been approached by parents, requesting assistance in getting their children out of Cuba, given the reality of what the Castro regime was doing and they were witnessing.
Mr. Baker met with Father Walsh, Director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, in Miami. They agreed that Mr. Baker would get the children out of Cuba, via commercial flights, and Father Walsh and the Catholic Welfare Bureau would secure care and schooling for the children once they arrived in Miami Florida. Father Walsh also secured funding from the United States government for the children, as well as visas for them.
The plan was that the children would stay in the United States until they could return to Cuba, or until they reunited with their parents in the United States. Most Cubans believed that the Castro regime would not last long.
Thus, even though Operation Pedro Pan was kept secret to avoid detection and thwarting by the Castro government, many parents in Cuba became aware of the program, and knew they could contact clergy and teachers in private schools to secure visas for their children.
December 26, 1960, the first children in Operation Pedro Pan left Cuba and arrived in Miami Florida.
Cuban children continued to leave Cuba unaccompanied by their parents through Operation Pedro Pan.
January 1961: The Castro government initiated the national literacy campaign. Children in secondary school were “encouraged” to join. There was a strong element of harassment by the government if they did not join. The children who joined the literacy brigades, were first taught by the Castro government what and how to teach the illiterate peasants in the countryside. The children then went to the countryside to teach the peasants how to read and write. They also taught them communist ideology.
Also in January 1961, U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations were terminated by the United States government.
April 1961: The Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba to overthrow the Castro regime failed.
May 1961: Castro declared that Cuba was a Socialist Country.
Also in May, the Castro regime nationalized the private school system. All schools closed for several months, so that Castro’s educational objectives, which were communist, could be implemented.
Universities were also transitioning to communist indoctrination. Many of the university teachers had been removed or had left the country in exile. The head of university departments were chosen in accordance to their allegiance to Castro’s government. Lecture attendance by students was mandatory, and students who did not want to join Castro’s militia, were harassed by the government.
June 1961: The Educational Reform Law was Implemented, which declared that education was the responsibility of the revolutionary government. This law usurped parental rights to educate their children as they wished. In other words, the Castro regime forcefully imposed its communist ideology on the children and parents. Moreover, education was mandatory and entrusted only to persons who committed to Marxist ideology. Individuals who did not commit to Marxist ideology were purged from the teaching profession.
September 1961: Many priests and nuns were expelled from Cuba by the Castro regime. Subsequently, religious services were not permitted by the regime.
Also in 1961, in addition to indoctrinating youth at school with Marxist-Leninist ideology, youth paramilitary organizations were established through the schools by the regime. Youth were expected to report non-revolutionary thoughts and activities by their parents, to the government. Parents who did not want their children to participate in government programs, including the student paramilitary groups, were considered counterrevolutionary, and not in support of the regime. Consequently, they were harassed and recipients of injustices perpetrated by the Castro government.
December 1961: Castro declared that he was in fact a Marxist-Leninist.
Unaccompanied Cuban children continued to be flown out of Cuba by Operation Pedro Pan.
February 1962: The United States banned all trade with Cuba, except for food and medicine.
March 1962: The Castro regime started rationing food, and implemented the use of food ration cards. To this day, 53 years after food rationing started, food rationing continues.
October 1962 – Cuban Missile Crisis: U.S reconnaissance flights over Cuba detected construction of missile sites. President Kennedy ordered a Naval Blockade of Cuba, and commercial flights between the United States and Cuba ceased. Operation Pedro Pan ended.
Operation Pedro Pan Statistics and Demographics
Between December 1960 and October 1962, 14,048 children were airlifted out of Cuba and flown to Miami Florida unaccompanied by their parents. The children were between 5 and 18 years old, and came from all regions of Cuba. Although the majority of the children came from middle class backgrounds, they included every social class and racial background in Cuba.
When the children arrived at the airport in Miami Florida, approximately half were met and cared for by relatives or family friends. The remaining half of the children were placed under the care of the Catholic Welfare Bureau.
Operation Pedro Pan Reunification
Once flights were terminated between Cuba and the United States, reunification with the children’s parents became more difficult. Some parents were able to reunite with their children through countries such as Spain, Mexico, and Panama. However, many parents had to wait until the Freedom Flights resumed in 1965 to see their children again.
December 1, 1965, Freedom Flights between Cuba and Miami resumed. Priority was given to parents of unaccompanied Cuban children already in the United States.
By June 1966, approximately 90% of the Cuban children who were part of Operation Pedro Pan and in the custody of the Catholic Welfare Bureau were reunited with their parents. This was almost 6 years after Operation Pedro Pan commenced.
However, some parents were not able to reunite with their children until additional years later or in some cases, ever again, because they were unable to leave Cuba for reasons that included the following: Castro’s regime did not allow the parents to leave; Castro’s regime delayed the emigration of professionals; the regime refused to let young men of military age leave the country, so parents stayed; other family members were imprisoned for political reasons so the parents stayed; care-taking responsibilities of elderly parents made it difficult for some parents to leave. Some parents of the children who participated in Operation Pedro Pan died before they reunited with their children.
Thus, for many of the children in Operation Pedro Pan, the separation from their parents lasted a few years; for other children, the separation from their parents lasted longer; and yet for other children, the separation was permanent. They never saw their parents again.
Author Commentary: It is important to be emphatically clear: Castro’s rise to power was based on deception and betrayal, as evidenced by recorded historical facts. Castro’s regime lies, distorts, misrepresents, and denies facts in continuous attempts to hide the realities of his brutal dictatorship, and to promote his regime. The regime’s portrayal of Operation Pedro Pan is no different.
However, 14,048 people who participated in the clandestine exodus known as Operation Pedro Pan, and their parents, and the network of people who helped them, know the reality of Operation Pedro Pan and the reason for its inception. They know the reality of Operation Pedro Pan not because they heard about it, or read about it, or studied it. They know the facts and truth about Operation Pedro Pan because they lived it, similar to millions of other Cubans who have lived and/or continue to live the reality of Castro’s tyrannical dictatorship.
May the people of Cuba and elsewhere, where human rights are repressed, breath freedom soon.
Additional information about Operation Pedro Pan is available at: PedroPan.org
Additional Information About Cuba
The Escape – Cubans Escaping From Cuba, by V. Santamaria
Is Castro Cuban-Americans’ Hitler?”, by Charles Garcia, CNN
Castro’s Medical Mercenaries, by Susan Kitchens, Forbes
Does Cuba Have Internet?, by V. Santamaria
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