Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban parents' agonizing decisions saved thousands

 

Forty years after Operation Pedro Pan ended, I was at Havana's Jose Martí International Airport after spending almost a month reporting from the communist island in 2002.

As I waited for my plane back to Miami, I browsed the dinky airport's gift shop. There, behind the glass, was another example of the Cuban regime's Orwellian doublespeak in a glossy book that attempts to twist a life-saving, humanitarian program for thousands of Cuban children into a ''terrorist'' U.S. plot.

Published by the Cuban government during the Elián González saga -- when Cuban Americans kept pointing out that the island's own constitution chucks parental rights and puts the regime in charge of children's future -- the book mocks historical fact.

On Cuban government-run TV, the Round Table program on May 23, 2002, used the book, Operación Peter Pan: Un caso de guerra psicológica contra Cuba (a case of psychological war against Cuba), to argue that the Pedro Pan children were starved and treated like trash in America.

''I think that this was one of the most sordid chapters in the campaign of lies, calumny and infamy against Cuba,'' proclaimed Rogelio Polanco, editor of the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde, on Cuban TV. ``And also one of the most immoral and most inhumane, because it involved, of course, thousands of children.

``It was a real scam because they tried to maintain the lie that the revolution prohibited the immigration of families and children, something that never happened in our country; and it's for that reason, to not forget that horrible history, that this book was edited.''

Oh, right, never in the past 50 years has the regime prohibited Cubans to travel outside their country.

THE HARDEST CHOICE

The hurtful truth is that countless Cubans have died at sea trying to escape Cuba after the regime refused to grant them a visa. Among them: Elián's mother.

To the Cuban parents who took a leap of faith in the early 1960s to send their children to America without their mami y papi during Operation Pedro Pan, their choice was guided as much by desperation as their belief in divine intervention. They seized a moment that would give their children the opportunity denied to millions left behind. Today, the Pedro Pans are among the most successful of the Cuban diaspora.

Parents of all religious creeds -- Protestant and Jew among them -- put their trust in the secret program started by Catholic Charities that brought 14,048 children to the United States in less than two years before it had to shut down in October 1962.

It was parents' most painful sacrifice -- to be separated from their kids to save them from a communist dictatorship in the making.

It had to be a heart-wrenching decision for every parent at a time when mock trials and firing squads were the hallmark of revolutionary ''justice.'' Fidel Castro was heading into the Soviet Union's sphere, older children were being sent away to el campo to do ''volunteer'' work cutting sugar cane -- the first of many psychological machinations by the regime to create Cuba's new ``revolutionary man.''

Catholic and other religious or private schools were closed, and priests and nuns were kicked off the island as the new government proclaimed Cuba an atheist state.

Revolutionary slogans were part of the government schools' curriculum, demanding unquestioning loyalty of students, who were expected to snitch on their parents.

THE TRUE SUFFERING

No doubt there was suffering among the Pedro Pans thrown into the geopolitical vortex of a new culture and language. Not everyone grew up to become a U.S. senator like Mel Martinez or a multimillionaire like Miami developer Armando Codina. And there were some children who had a lousy caretaker while living in an orphanage or foster home, waiting for their parents to arrive. But that was the exception -- certainly not the vast majority's experience.

What kind of psychological damage would those children have faced had they stayed in Cuba?

Who knows.

But after 50 years of dictatorship, what we do know is that the regime has repeatedly sought -- and in some cases succeeded -- to break the human spirit. It will take more leaps of faith to mend the pain left behind.

Read more Operation Pedro Pan stories from the Miami Herald

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