The untold exodus
By Steve Martinovich
When -- and if -- the definitive history of Cuban-American relations in the second half of this century is written, it will likely relate the events that we are all familiar with. Sandwiched amongst events like the Bay of Pigs invasion or the Maril boat launch, however, are tens of thousands of unknown stories which affected both nations. One of those stories is Operation Pedro Pan.
The year 1959, which saw Fidel Castro come to power in Cuba, was proclaimed World Refugee Year. Although the two were not linked, it turned out that the coincidence was well-deserved, for not long afterwards children began streaming sent out of Cuba -- eventually 14 048 in all -- to avoid growing up under the totalitarian regime. It became one of the largest exoduses of children since the Second World War.
Operation Pedro Pan begins with Fulgencio Batista's flight from the popular uprising led by Castro. Those heady days soon gave way to uncertainty over whether Castro was a communist --he initially denied being one -- and the increasing expropriation of private property by his fledgling government. The web of communism gradually closed around the country, neighbours urged to spy on one another and children taught at an early age to inform on parents who failed to be ideologically pure to the revolution.
Faced with their children undergoing indoctrination into communism and then all but kidnapped to work in the fields or educating peasants far from their homes, some parents began to consider an option which at the time they believed would only be temporary since Castro couldn't last very long in power. That option was to send the children to America.
Despite its military tone of the name, Operation Pedro Pan -- a latinization of Peter Pan by a Miami Herald reporter in 1962 -- was a mission of charity by American and Cuban-based religious groups, a network of diplomats, travel agency employees and concerned citizens who risked capture and their lives to deliver Cuban children to safety in the United States, including a daring operation ran by Ramón Grau San Martín, former president of Cuba, and his wife from their home across the street from a state security office until their capture in 1965.
The journey of the children didn't end with their flight out of Cuba. Once in America, about half of the children were sent to temporary camps -- mainly in Florida but also across the United States -- until they could be relocated to foster homes. It is then that the story takes on a personal tone in Operation Pedro Pan. For many of the children their temporary homes were a haven after months of uncertainty, while for others it marked the beginning of personal hells filled with abuse both physical and sexual, bigotry, difficulties with language, culture and even different socioeconomic conditions than the children were used to.
Good or bad, the emotions many experienced are captured by a letter written by one child placed in foster care in Nebraska to parents back home in Cuba in January, 1962:
"I am well, but very cold, it is now 30 degrees below zero. As we were going to school today, the wind would hit our face and make us cry and the tears would freeze. On New Year's Eve I went to the home of an American friend and I had a good time although I could not help remembering my family.
"But I have faith in God and know that he will grant the miracle that we can return to our beloved and far away homeland."
For most of the children it would be years -- sometimes decades -- before they saw their parents again, and for many, the reunion was difficult. After years apart, parents often didn't recognize their grown-up children or were unable to speak to children who had largely forgotten Spanish in their drive to become Americans. For the children, many were unable to forgive parents who sent them away at an early age and never followed or who couldn't understand many of the hardships the children faced in the United States.
Those conflicting emotions continued on into the late 1960s and 70s as some of the children either became militantly opposed to the Castro regime and joined right wing organizations like Alpha 66 or Abdala, or rebelled against their community and joined leftist groups like the Venceremos Brigade or the Antonio Maceo Brigade, both of whom making pilgrimages to Cuba.
So was Operation Pedro Pan positive or negative for the thousands of children living in America today? Conde points out that while many of the Pedro Pans feel trapped between two cultures with the Tropic of Cancer serving as a Berlin Wall, separating them from their homeland, resentful of the separation and the pain that they want through, many appreciate the options that the exodus gave them. Many today are very successful members of society, strengthened by the experience and the freedom to make their own course in the world, freedom that does not exist in Cuba.
Conde has performed an important service with Operation Pedro Pan because she has reminded us that while history is made up of grand stories and sweeping events, it is also made up of individual stories which are rarely told but are sometimes no less important. When that definitive history of Cuban-American relations is written, a few words should be spared for Operation Pedro Pan. Failing that, Conde's book will be in important resource for those seeking the stories behind the history.
Steve Martinovich is a free lance writer and the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.
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