Operation Pedro Pan

For Juan Pujol, suffering of separation during Pedro Pan was for the best

Juan Pujol believes Operation Pedro Pan rescued him from a Cuban prison, even a firing squad.

But taking part in the famed exodus of unaccompanied children also meant he would never be reunited with his parents.

Pujol, 63, of Miami Beach, is among a handful of Pedro Pans sent ahead by parents who never made it off the island.

''Today, I believe it all happened for the best,'' he said. ``I lived a full life here I would not have had if I had stayed.''

Pujol said the revolution brought a wave of repression against practicing Catholics like him. Concerned he would get arrested or sent to a work camp, his parents heard of the visa program and sought one for Pujol.

When he arrived on Aug. 8, 1962, at the age of 16, Pujol first lived at Camp Matecumbe, then St. Raphael's Hall and finally the Opa-locka camp.

At 19, he joined the U.S. military and later married his wife of 42 years, Haydee, another Pedro Pan he met in the program.

By then, his father, a retired policeman in Cuba, had died and his mother could not leave behind her own elderly mother and a military-age younger son.

Pujol did not return to Cuba until 1979 to see his mother, whom he still keeps in touch with; his younger brother who stayed behind, he says knowingly, works in the government.

''I tell my mother she did the right thing, that she saved me from a horrible fate in Cuba,'' he said. ``She suffered, I suffered. But in the end, it was the best thing for me. I know that.''