Cuba: A New Book on Operation Peter Pan

January 17, 2014 | Print Print |

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.


What's your opinion?

  • Griffin

    The account above left out the part about how the Castro regime allowed children to leave but refused to let the parents go with them. The agents at the airport would take all luggage, toys and extra clothing from the crying children. Mothers who had been promised permission to emigrate with their young children were told at the airport they could not leave.

    The Peter Pan saga is a tragic one of exile, separation and trauma The child abuse began at the airport at the hands of the Cuban border guards. While the US govt cut
    off air flights from the US to Cuba, Castro had already before that blocked Cubans from leaving Cuba for the US.

    In the end, the allegedly hysterical propaganda turned out to be correct: Castro did indeed deliver control of the entire island and all the Cuban people, including children, to the Communists.

    • John Goodrich

      Yes , it was ALL the fault of the Cubans.
      The U.S had no part in this and Cuba is the lone exception to the 100 year-old U.S foreign policy objective of subverting, overthrowing, defaming and preventing leftist societies around the world .
      The U.S authorities were acting out of humane concern for all these children and their actions had nothing to do with that very consistent foreign policy .
      The 54 instances of U.S interventions listed at the “Killing Hope” website and book were not precedent for what the U.S was forced to do for those poor children.

      • Think Free

        Communism has ended around world of it’s own accord. Flawed systems tend to fail, no assistance needed. Mixed economies with free markets and safety nets to support the most vulnerable have emerged as the dominant form of economic model in use. Wealth redistribution works best, when there is wealth. Taxes on the bounty that economic freedom produces is far more effective than direct ownership on means of production by the state.

      • Griffin

        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.

        • Moses Patterson

          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.

    • rodrigvm

      I am amazed how in the face of truth anti revolution folks spin things so It will square with their backward ideology. You should watch Estela’s film and read about some of the priests who were involved it is very enlightening. Most parents did not want to leave because their properties were more important than their kids, and they thought the revolution would collapse….ooops still waiting for that.

      • Moses Patterson

        There were mistakes made on both sides. The US erred in manipulating Cuban parents to overreact. The Castros responded to the overreaction (read this part carefully) by brutally punishing these parents who were already victimized by the CIA/RCC plot. They could have worked hard to reassure Cubans that this was just another imperialist hoax. The more contemptible response chosen by the Castros was to punish their own people as a means to hardship the US. This twisted behavior would reemerge over and over again. When the Castros wanted to hurt the US, they would kick the Cuban people. The best (worst) example of this is Fidel’s request to the USSR for permission to launch a first strike nuclear attack on the US. He did this knowing it would lead to the annihilation of the Cuban people. Even Khrushchev called Fidel crazy for that idea.

  • Gabriel I. Ruiz

    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

    • Jose Reyes

      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.

      • Griffin

        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.

        • Jose Reyes

          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.

  • Dan

    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.

  • Henry Pollack

    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
    screen.

    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
    fishbowl”?

    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.