OPERATION PEDRO PAN AND THE CUBAN CHILDREN’S PROGRAM
Department of History
A Thesis Submitted for Honors
To the Department of History
In the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences of
Durham, North Carolina
CHAPTER 1: The Catholic Church, the CIA, and the Bureaucrats………………………14
CHAPTER 2: Propaganda and Media Surrounding Operation Pedro Pan………………..43
CHAPTER 3: Firsthand Perspectives on the Operation…………………………………...73
CHAPTER 4: The Legacy of Pedro Pan ………………………………………………...104
There are a number of people who helped in developing this thesis for the past year. First of all I would like to thank those who spoke candidly about their experiences and the politics of being Cuban American. Maria Ferrer both ignited my interest in the subject as a child and offered her home and car, and memories to me last summer. Magaly, Rosendo, Carmen Cecilia, and Raphael Ferrer were accommodating and allowed me into their most personal moments. Connie Cuello allowed me to sort through her personal collection of letters and official documents, and shared her own very unique experience. Her husband Tony gave an uncensored account of life as a young man during the Revolution. My grandmother, Zoila Abreu, has been supportive, honest, and open-minded in our conversations.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Duke Undergraduate Research Support Program I was able to travel to Miami last May and find invaluable sources. The archivists in Miami were also generous with their time and collections. Sister Dorothy Jehle is doing an amazing job at Barry University with the limited resources she has to archive the personal collection of Monsignor Walsh. She also gave me her perspective as a member of the Catholic clergy in Miami and witness to researchers in the past two decades. Esperanza de Varona and hers staff at the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami were also very helpful.
My professors at Duke have been generous with their time and patience for the past three semesters. My advisor Antonio Viego introduced me to this subject as an academic one, and agreed to oversee this project while completing his own research outside of Durham in the fall. Our seminar leader Professor Gavins has provided countless feedback and been an encouraging presence throughout the year. Dr. Holly Ackerman pointed me towards a plethora of sources and given her own perspective on many ideas.
Finally, I would like to thank my friends and family for their support. My father and grandmother have never hesitated to answer my most probing questions about their experience as exiles. My mother, sisters, and friends have read several drafts, and offered me support through the ups and downs of this project.
Speaking in Diasporas
To Edward Said
by Lourdes Gil
There must have been a day like this
one in your life:
a plane full of children
without a trail of crumbs
no fairy tale.
A day of scattered seeds to the four winds
the solid blue line
A day with footsteps echoing each other
penumbras of exile.
There must have been a day like this for you:
new maps are drawn
and others now inhabit
A day of lilac trees in flames
the dust of souls disturbed.
New souls draw breadth
from the wet grass;
the living dead
to walk among the living.
A day like this one:
23rd of August, 1961
the veil of memory is torn
the empty shell discarded.
What choice but to be poets
A day like today
when we can finally speak
across our histories.
INTRODUCTION When I was eight years old, I received a gift from my father’s friend Maria Ferrer, an extraordinary woman who my family stayed with in Miami to visit Cuban relatives. The book, Children of the Flight of Pedro Pan,1 is a fictional historical account of the lives of two of the over 14,000 children who were flown out of Cuba in the 1960s and taken in by the Catholic Church in America. The story is told from the perspective of Lourdes, a ten-year-old girl who recounts her feelings about leaving Cuba with only her brother for company, living in foster care, and ultimately reuniting with her parents. My father explained that Maria went through a very similar experience, as had many of his fellow Cuban exiles. Operation Pedro Pan, as it was dubbed by a reporter, had become a cultural phenomenon in Miami. At the time of the book’s publication in 1994, children’s books were the only available literature on this part of Cuban history within the United States. The event was embraced by journalists who searched for a humanitarian piece, and children’s authors who were interested in the personal repercussions of the event, but not by historians or academics.
Over a decade later, in a literature class at Duke, I came across a very different account of the Operation. Maria de los Angeles Torres’ work, The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the U.S., and the Promise of a Better Future,2 is an intensely-researched academic piece. She combines the personal journeys of these children with the political and economic motives that funded them. She mentions the Catholic church, the CIA, the Cold War, and multinational corporations. This book had little in common with the gift that Maria had given to me so many years ago. Confused and intrigued, I searched my parents’ house for the children’s story and found that Maria had asked the author to write an inscription to me. “Family is the most important thing. They teach us our traditions, culture, and customs,” she had written. This juxtaposition of personal and political information propelled me into a research trip to Miami, back to Maria’s house and into the homes and lives of several others, and eventually to this thesis.
While the genesis of this project for me is predicated on the juxtaposition of the personal
and the political, the origin of Operation Pedro Pan must begin with an account of what happened in Cuba on New Yar's day in 1959. On that day, Fulgencio Batista, the longtime dictator of Cuba and ally to the U.S., was exiled to Miami for the final time as Fidel Castro and his forces came to power. For most Cubans, this was an enormous relief. Castro promised to bring democracy to a country that was only six decades old, to halt social corruption and to end economic dependence on the U.S. In particular, the middle class played a large role in participating in the underground and legitimizing the revolution. Cuban parents would never have guessed that less than two years later, they would be caught up in the turmoil of the Cold War, so desperate to get their families out of the country that they would send their young, unaccompanied children to the U.S., not knowing where they would stay, who would take care of them, or how long the separation would last. But as Cuba quickly became a battleground in the struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the Central Intelligence Agency worked overtime to fuel hysteria and backlash against Castro, thousands of parents committed the unthinkable. In fear of their children becoming nationalized and indoctrinated in new president Fidel Castro’s militaristic education model, over 14,000 families sent their children to Miami between 1960 and 1962.
At the same time, the Eisenhower administration was undecided about how to handle the Cuban Revolution. Along with the prevalence of anti-communist McCarthyism at the time, the administration had already demonstrated its fear of communist uprisings in Latin America. Just five years prior, in 1954, the CIA had led a coup d’état in Guatemala, overthrowing the democratically-elected socialist president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, in fear of the spread of communism and actions against U.S.-owned companies. Though the U.S. government feigned support for Castro’s democratic promises through 1960, by September 1959 the CIA had already begun working on a covert mission to oust the new leader. December 1960 marked the first international airlift of children in the Western Hemisphere, when the combined powers of the Catholic Church, the U.S. government, the CIA, and several multinational corporations with interest in Cuba altered the lives of thousands of Cuban families that were caught in the middle of the political vortex. By early 1961, ‘Operation Mongoose,’ or the Cuba Project to oust Fidel Castro, had officially begun under the administration of John F. Kennedy.
Cuban parents were influenced by a combination of the push from the communist-veering actions of the Castro government and the pull from the U.S., as the CIA fueled rumors via radio and leaflet drops of drastic indoctrination and nationalization. The Catholic Welfare Bureau placed about half of the children who arrived in Miami into the foster care system. The other half went to live with relatives who already lived in the U.S. Placements included refugee camps, orphanages, boarding schools, and foster homes in 35 states. The U.S. State Department and various corporations formerly invested in Cuba funded the flight of these children as well as their living provisions.3 The CIA denies connection to the Operation, but evidence from recently released files indicates otherwise. The periods prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 were particularly tense times in which the U.S. was putting considerable effort into undermining Fidel Castro. Most of its actions were done clandestinely, as the U.S. was attempting to not taint Cuba’s image internationally.
In total, about two percent of the Cuban exile population participated in the Operation, yet historical accounts of the Cuban exodus often neglect to cover this sect of exiles. In Cuba, the Operation has become infamous for its connection to the CIA and has been interpreted as an integral part of the invasion at the Bay of Pigs. A number of obstacles have hindered the possibility of a clear, unbiased account of the Operation becoming part of Cuban exodus history. Although several large organizations, including the Catholic Church, the State Department, the CIA, Pan American Airlines, Esso Standard Oil, and the British Embassy in Cuba, participated in the Operation, it was launched and run by a few individuals. In early 1960, a priest in Miami, an American headmaster of a school in Havana, members of the State department, and bureaucrats recently forced out of Cuba came together to begin the airlift. The Operation was instigated and run by a few individuals who struggled to hold everything together at a very chaotic time. Due to this disorganization, lack of evidence, personal biases from the individuals who have come forward and given their accounts, and political polarization within the exiled Cuban community, the oral history of Operation Pedro Pan is biased and confusing at best. Just as with subject matter on Cuban exiles, or exiles in general, the topic of the Operation has become extremely politicized. For many exiles, the propaganda spread by the CIA became hard reality in their minds. Some Pedro Pans, as the grown-up participants are commonly referred to, attribute their lives and happiness to the U.S. government. Others suggest that the U.S. used Cuban exiles as pawns in an attempt to show that Cuba under Castro was not a livable place. In addition, the shroud of secrecy surrounding most of the official documents from the CIA, State Department, and Florida state records has made compiling the official history of the Operation almost impossible. Since the 1960s, the American press has consistently reported on the Operation as a human interest piece, neglecting to investigate the political and economic interests in play, or CIA involvement.
In the past two decades, two major books have been published covering the Operation, both by former Pedro Pans, yet several questions remain unanswered. These authors performed exhaustive primary source research, yet the paper trail for this clandestine Operation of the recent past has yet to be opened to the public. In primary source researching, I have come up against the same obstacles as my predecessors. For example, the Operation files of the Catholic Welfare Bureau that have been donated to Barry University are slowly being processed, and are not available to the public. The state of Florida has not made its files public. An exceptional case is that of the aforementioned María de los Angeles Torres, an author and former Pedro Pan. She performed years of research for her book, and utilized a number of new original sources. She managed to gain access to some Cuban government records, three presidential libraries, and the national archives. The CIA originally refused her requests, so she filed a lawsuit and gained partial access to three never before seen files.
Even if access to all of these files were possible, there would still be large gaps. The files were not all-inclusive, because at the age of nineteen children were technically out of the system, and thus not recorded. Those who ended up with friends or relatives were not recorded nor did they receive federal funding.4 The biases and stark ideological divisions of the Cold War and within the Cuban exile community today add to this confusion, continuing to polarize individual and historical perspectives. The writings of those whose lives have been shaped by this Operation in recent history reflect a blend of the personal and the historical, the ‘lived’ versus the ‘official’ history.
Two examples of this blended history have been written in the past decade by participants in the Operation, the aforementioned De los Angeles Torres text (published in 2003) and Yvonne Conde’s Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14, 048 Cuban Children.5 Both are seminal texts in that they have contributed greatly to creating an established history of the Operation. In researching her book, Conde collected questionnaires from 442 of the participants, interviewed 173 children and several other key figures, and conducted a study of the US press in the 1960s. She also placed freedom of information requests with the State Department of Florida, the Immigration Department, and CIA. She was denied access by the CIA based on state security. In her book, Conde presents the history of the Revolution as the answer to the question of why the Operation occurred. De los Angles Torres began researching in 1993 by first interviewing her parents, which led to several others involved in the Operation. In summing up her final product, she notes, “What I did not realize was that a more layered exploration into this period would mean defying both the exile and island versions of our exodus.”6 Torres’ account gives exactly that: a more layered exploration. She is the first to go far beyond the facts, considering the role of other similar operations in history, the psychology of children in wars, and the role of the press and military. Above all she writes that in the Cold War, “…there was no room for those who had been supporters of the Revolution but critical of Fidel. You were either a supporter or an opponent.”7
It may be years before historical “truth” about Operation Peter Pan is uncovered. It may simply be forgotten. I quickly discovered that this historical project, like most, is clearly subjective. Additionally, many adults who participated in the program do not realize today that they were a part of the movement; some with whom I have spoken had never heard the phrase “Operation Peter Pan,” nor were they aware of the size or the structure of the Operation. In addition to these technical difficulties, every account biased: lived versus official history, Cuban versus Cuban American, versus American, Cuban press versus American press, the historical “facts” of the 1960’s versus contemporary facts, factions of anti-Castro hardliners versus those who are pro-dialogue, exiles versus Revolutionaries, children versus parents, and communist versus capitalist. Objective facts are nearly impossible to come by, and in most accounts cold facts are not the goal. Conde sought to examine why the Operation occurred, from a political and personal perspective. De los Angeles Torres sought an understanding of the Cuban American exile community and debated the question of whether saving children’s minds should come at the expense of their emotional well-being.
In response to this dilemma, in the search for a balanced and meaningful account, I turn my focus to the perspectives that have surfaced to date, through press coverage, interviews, and literature. Operation Pedro Pan was much too complicated to be a purely humanitarian or political event. Instead, it was the culmination of a series of political, economic, religious, and personal dilemmas that brought children to the forefront of the Cold War. For most Pedro Pans, their experience in the program deeply affected their lives, and for some shaped their emotional and social well-being. My central purpose is not to present the Pedro Pans as heroes or as cannon fodder in the ideological battles of the Cold War. Rather, it is to determine why the political history of the Operation is so different from the personal.
In my thesis, I examine each source on the Operation as a hybrid of oral history and recorded fact, and place it in the context of the Cuban exile experience. I believe that it is possible to understand the unusual history of Operation Pedro Pan from a broader perspective by establishing the complexities of the political and historical experience of Cuban Americans. Therefore, chapter one covers the political, economic, and religious motivations through which the State Department, the CIA, and the Catholic Church began the Operation from Havana, Washington, and Miami. Chapter two first takes an in-depth look into the CIA’s use of propaganda during the period prior to the Bay of Pigs, and then examines the press coverage of the Operation to show the polarization of American and Cuban perspectives. Chapter three explores the living history of the Operation through personal interviews and literary works by the participants. Finally, in the concluding chapter, I examine these firsthand accounts and historical evidence against the contemporary exile community’s views of the Operation and the reaction to the case of Elián González in 2000. In the final analysis, I contend that the Operation was neither a wholly humanitarian effort nor a politically-driven plot to manipulate Cuban children as pawns. Regardless of the complex origins of their exodus, the historical memories of Pedro Pans reflect the constantly evolving personal and political views of Cubans in exile and on the island.
Operation Exodus: The Catholic Church, the CIA and the Bureaucrats, 1960. When both Pedro and Mel were young men, their parents wanted their children to grow up in freedom. So they put them on an airplane to a foreign land. They had great faith in America, faith -- so much faith in the ideals of our country that they were willing to trust their teenage children with a stranger in a foreign country. And they came and were loved…. I love the story of Pedro Pan.
-President George W. Bush, on (former) Cabinet Member Mel Martinez and Pedro García, Superintendent of Nashville Public Schools.
So that those victims will not be forgotten, so that never again will something of this nature occur in any nation in the World, to remember the circumstances and the manner in which that monstrous crime was committed, so that no one can ever again doubt the absolute veracity of this report, this book is published containing the history of the 14 thousand Elianes (Peter Pans, in reference to Elián González)8 - Ramón Torreira Crespo y José Buajasán Marrawi. From the introduction of Operación Peter Pan: Un caso de Guerra psicológica contra Cuba (Operation Peter Pan: A case of psychological war against Cuba). Current academic work describes Cuban-American history as divided into two emigrant groups: the earliest political and religious exiles who came during the 1960’s and were predominantly white and upper class, and those from the 1980’s Mariel boat lift who were typically non-white and of working class origin. The former are known for constructing modern Miami, quickly rising into the upper ranks of American society, and turning Cubans into model Latino immigrants. Most historians attributed their success to the substantial amount of federal support the refugees received upon arriving in the United States, yet few question the government’s incentives. Though the Cuban exile experience played directly into the political relations between the United States, Cuba, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, contemporary history tends to separate the individual lives of Cuban-Americans from the drastic political maneuvering that has shaped the Cuban Diaspora from 1959 to the present. Few scholars consider the effect of this ideological split upon the Cuban-Americans whose lives were the most drastically changed by the Revolution: the children of Operation Pedro Pan.
Between December 1960 and October 1962 over 14,000 unaccompanied children were sent alone to the United States by their parents in Cuba to save them from becoming nationalized in new president Fidel Castro’s communist education model. There are a variety of reasons why parents chose to send their children: the foremost being the rumor, spread by CIA propaganda, that Castro was intending on removing Patria Potestad, or the right of parents to control the lives of their children. In 1960 Castro announced plans to send Cuban students to the Soviet Union, beginning with a group of about 1,000 children, including his own son Fidelito. Military conscription was mandatory for boys ages 15 and over, and several minors had opted to join the counter-Revolution movement rather than the army. This, coupled with the fact that Castro’s government had executed close to 600 “war criminals” during the first three months of his government in a country where the death penalty had been prohibited by the constitution, instigated fear among parents for their teenage sons.9 The majority of children sent, particularly during the first year, were boys ages 12 and over.10 In Cuba today it is widely accepted that many parents believed a rumor that their children might be sent to Siberian slaughter houses and returned as canned meat. Other rumors at the time suggested that fifty mothers in Bayamo, eastern Cuba, signed a pact to kill their children rather than subject them to Castro’s indoctrination.11 Then, in September 26, 1960, Castro announced to the United Nations that Cuba would launch an all-out offensive to eradicate illiteracy. In his speech he declared, “Death to illiteracy would be the number one goal in 1961,” and added that all schools would be closed in April for an eight month period to launch his campaign against literacy.12 This forced parents to confront the fact that once the schools opened the following year, public schools teaching Marxist doctrine would be the only option. Cuban parents were also wary of the literacy campaign itself, as many of the literacy workers were youth who would otherwise be in school. Catholics became particularly frightened when the government banished many members of the clergy from the country. Among those who sent their children in the first few months, many were involved in the anti-Castro underground movement and feared that their children may be taken hostage, similar to what occurred in the Spanish Civil War only thirty years prior.13 Cuban exile Iliana Ros-Lehtinen writes that, “It is difficult to find the appropriate words to recreate the storm and terror that developed and spread throughout the entire country.”14 While at first parents sent their children in hopes of seeing them return within the year, after the U.S. loss at the Bay of Pigs, some parents sent their children as the easiest way to establish a relative in the United States to petition for visas for themselves.
As exiles within the first five years of the Revolution, these children were predominantly white, middle and upper class, and Catholic. However, their lives were rapidly turned around as they became Hispanic “orphans” within the United States, distributed among temporary camps, foster homes, orphanages, juvenile delinquent institutions, boarding schools, and homes of relatives. The exact origin of the Operation is debatable, though it clearly was created by the United States State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami. By the end of 1962 it involved thousands of Cuban and American families, several foreign governments including Haiti and Great Britain, over 100 child welfare agencies, multiple state and government officials, the CIA-created anti-Castro group Rescate in Havana, an estimated $28 million in US federal funding,15 multinational corporations with former investments in Cuba, and the Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu faiths in the United States.16
As stated, multiple histories and perspectives shape the ‘official’ history of the Operation. In what follows, the history of the Operation will track a multitude of sources, including the living history of its participants, and the secondary sources which have sought to reconstruct the facts from their authors’ own perspective.17
Four institutions had direct influence on the inception of Operation Pedro Pan within the U.S.: the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami, the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the former American Chamber of Commerce in Havana. Together their political, economic, and religious motivations worked to bring thousands of children to the U.S. There were also several volunteers both inside and outside of the dwindling U.S. Embassy in Havana who organized the logistics of connecting interested families to the Operation. As the Operation was orchestrated on the ground by an agency of the Catholic Church, many historians in the U.S. have described the Operation as first and foremost a Catholic humanitarian mission.18 For many this was the case; however, this perspective does not recognize that the decisions of the church were affected by broader political implications and supported by federal funding.
When U.S.-Cuba relations began to deteriorate in early 1960, U.S officials looked toward the Catholic Church in Cuba as an ally. Communist influence on the region was a large concern, as were Castro’s youth programs. While the Cuban Church had historically been passive and detached from strong political action due to historical alienation between the people and the Church19, after Castro’s Revolution that began to change. Allegiance to the Revolution within the clergy was mixed. The predominantly Spanish higher clergy had supported Fulgencio Batista20, former president of Cuba, while the secular lower priests and deacons had been abused and tortured by the former president’s regime. On May 17, 1960, Archbishop Serantes of Santiago de Cuba issued the first pastoral letter against the growing fear of communism, “Por Dios y por Cuba” (For God and Cuba). Serantes openly criticized commercial ties between socialist countries and Cuba, cited the Bible and Pope Pius XI as condemning communism and its principles, and characterized the fight as between Christianity and communism rather than Washington and the Soviet Union. U.S. officials probably appreciated his description of the shrewd indoctrination of communism,
With communism, nothing, absolutely nothing, before the repeated condemnations, preceding from the authorities of Catholicism, out of urgent necessity we recommend and even warn the clergy (alongside all Cubans) that they do not want in any manner to cooperate with communism, or to give it strength in any way; even more, they should retreat from this relentless enemy of Christianity as much as they can, and not be impressed by any phrases, promises, or flattery of communism, which are always false and cunning; nor by the shrewdness that Communism unfolds when giving a helping hand…21
He also condemned communism for subordinating family life to the state and educating children as the state wished without considering parental rights. Serantes’ letter began a growing sentiment of fear among Cuban Catholics, which the U.S. recognized as a useful tool in ideologically framing an attack against Cuba. Wayne Smith, the U.S. embassy’s liaison with the church, wrote in a report from January, 1961, of the role of the Church with respect to destroying the regime, “…does stand as a united block dedicated to the thesis that the Castro regime is an evil which must be destroyed. [It] can use its moral weight in the struggle and can deal the regime some psychological blows.”22 Thus the Cuban Catholic Church was instrumental in the framing of Castro’s Cuba, and Operation Pedro Pan, by the American government.
Within the United States the Catholic Church was also instrumental in opposing Castro’s Cuba, as the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami became responsible for the daily functions of Operation Pedro Pan. Many historians begin with the account of Monsignor Bryan Walsh, the face of the Operation for most former Pedro Pans. As the director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami, in November of 1960, Walsh was allegedly first confronted by an unaccompanied Cuban refugee, fifteen-year old Pedro Menendez. Pedro had been sent by his parents to live with relatives who did not have the resources to support him, and was therefore being passed from house to house. Several similar instances are said to have occurred, as observed by the Catholic Welfare Bureau, a child and family agency licensed by the Florida State Department of Public Welfare for child welfare programs, and therefore responsible for these children. One case gained notoriety in Key West, when a Cuban mother was brought to court for allegedly sending her two sons alone.23After meeting with the Welfare Planning Council, Walsh appealed to Tracy Voorhees, a government official appointed by President Eisenhower, to evaluate the Cuban Refugee problem in Miami. Walsh requested that Voorhees include in his report recommendations for funding for a, “special foster care program for the care of unaccompanied Cuban refugee children under the auspices of the Miami child welfare agencies”.24 The Welfare Planning Council also appealed to the Cuban Refugee Executive Committee who requested, “…funds for foster care in institutions or family homes for children separated from their parents, who have been sent here to avoid coercive regimentation.”25 At this point, on November 22, 1960, these funds would be for the Cuban Children’s Program, an agency formed to assist in placing and caretaking the children who had already been sent unaccompanied. The notion of creating an Operation to assist in getting these children from Cuba to Miami was not on Walsh’s or anyone else’s mind at the time. Although Walsh later became deeply ensconced in the political workings of the Operation, the Catholic Welfare Bureau was involved, for the most part, for humanitarian reasons. One priest described what he perceived to be the reasons for Cubans to send their children in his dissertation on the Cuban Children’s Program in 1964 in the following terms: “What ominous threat would cause them to ship off their children to a foreign land with no knowledge that they would ever again see or hear from them and almost complete uncertainty as to who would care for them? Part of the answer lies in their unquestioning faith in…the trustworthiness of the U.S. Government. The rest…lies in the keen fear they felt about the evils of Communist indoctrination of youth.”26 His reference to the ‘trustworthiness of the United States Government’ is interesting given that some point to U.S. citizens within Cuba for getting the Operation up and running. Shortly after Walsh first wrote to Voorhees, another central figure in the Operation, James Baker, entered the scene. Baker was the headmaster of Ruston Academy, an American school in Havana that catered to the children of U.S. residents and upper class Cubans. As one of 5,000 Americans living in Havana in 1959, Baker was an example of the imperialist relationship between the United States and Cuba at the time.
U.S.-Cuban relations at the time of the Revolution were strongly colonial, dating back to immediately after Cuban independence from Spain in the War of 1898. North American influence infiltrated the economic, political, cultural, educational, and even athletic realms of Cuban life. When considering Operation Pedro Pan it is important to realize how Cuban perceptions of America had formed before they made the decision to send their children unaccompanied to a ‘foreign country’. Most middle and upper class Cubans had vacationed and perhaps attended school in the U.S. They may have worked for U.S. corporations, attended U.S. spring training baseball games in Cuba, celebrated Thanksgiving, and enjoyed American music and films. Simultaneously, Cubans struggled to hold onto their own forming national identity as they fought the lingering influences of Spanish colonization. While Cuba was a popular vacation spot, and a few thousand Americans lived in Havana, for the most part the only background knowledge that American caretakers of Pedro Pan’s had of Cuban culture was from watching I Love Lucy.27 However, from the perspective of the American political and corporate officials that supported the program, it is also relevant to consider the United States’ economic and cultural interest in the country.
Following the War of 1898, the U.S. signed economic treaties with Cuba that cemented Cuba’s role as a sugar export economy to the American market and an importer of American goods. The Reciprocity Treaty of 1903 gave Cuban sugar a 20 percent tariff reduction in the U.S., and U.S. imports a 25 to 40 percent tariff reduction. This allowed Cuban farmers to compete with those in California in sending crops to New York, firmly embedding Cuba in the American economy. Reciprocity treaties led to lower tariffs and higher percentage of imports, and did not allow for Cuba to diversify its economy and import-substitute like other Latin American countries attempting to diversify their single crop economies. In 1934 the U.S. passed the Jones-Costigan Act that replaced tariffs with quotas as a means of protecting domestic American sugar producers. Essentially, these economic rights that the U.S. held simultaneously weakened the Cuban economy and made it dependent upon the U.S., even more so than other Latin American countries at the time.28 In 1959 the U.S. had an estimated $800 million invested in the island, and provided approximately 75% of its imports. In February 1960, Phillip Bonsal, U.S. ambassador to Cuba, described to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee why Castro had been able to seize power. He spoke of the enormous corruption in pre-1959 Cuba, rising unemployment which Cubans attributed to the reciprocal tariff arrangements with the U.S. that “…prevented them from protecting their own industries, and from diversifying their own agriculture, all in the interest of their own exports.”29 Before Castro the U.S. controlled 50 percent of sugar production, monopolized all electric, power, and telephone Operations on the island, and co-owned all oil refineries with Britain. Bonsal attributed Castro’s support to the anti-U.S. tension arising from these economic disadvantages.
For many Cubans, these economic ties came with cultural dependency. Social life formed in the late 19th Century was heavily influenced by many university students returning from studying in North America. Many clubs in Havana, including The Havana Yacht Club, named in English, were founded in the 1880s and held events modeled on American clubs. By the 1950s Cubans celebrated U.S. holidays, including Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and Thanksgiving. Christmas cards and advertisements depicted Christmas the North American way- with snowmen and ice skating, in a country that never saw snow. Considerable U.S. effort went into the infiltration of Cuban media to obtain a favorable representation of the “American way of life,” as the U.S. Information Service disseminated an enormous quantity of news, information, and photographs to the Cuban press.
Cuban historian Louis Peréz Jr. cites Cuba’s national sport of baseball as one of the most obvious American influences. When it was brought to the island during the 1860s by students returning from North American universities, he states that Cubans, “were introduced to the sport at a critical moment in the formation of national identity, when Cubans were assembling the elements on which to base a separate nationality.”30 Perhaps the most perplexing phenomenon concerning Cuban baseball was that it was played in English- virtually no terms were translated.
Illeana Fuentes, a former participant in Operation Pedro Pan described the influence of American culture on her life in Cuba as a teenager prior to leaving, and how it affected her transition to the U.S. Despite the fact that separation from her family was painful for Fuentes, she was already familiar with American pop culture. She recalls going to the movies “to see our favorite stars, like Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Doris Day,” listening to American singers such as, “Nat King Cole [and] Elvis Presley,” and wearing American fashions like, “bobby socks and saddle shoes- they were the rage among Cuban teenagers.”31
Prior to Operation Pedro Pan, in the first half of the twentieth century many children and young adults also traveled to the United States for education. Beginning in 1899, the U.S. based Cuban Educational Association provided scholarships and financial aid for Cuban students to attend schools up north. The director of the association stated in private correspondence that he expected sending Cuban children to U.S. schools would cut in half the time it would take to, “Americanize this place.”32 In 1925 the Havana Post stated that, “every man whose economic position will permit, sends his children to Cuba.”33They enrolled in programs ranging from elementary to graduate school, and the placement of Cuban students in North American programs became a lucrative business. Businesses sprung up for the sole purpose of placing children in secondary schools and universities. (see Figure 1.1) Delinquent youths were often sent to military schools in the United States to be reformed. Between 1955 and 1958 some 1,100 students annually enrolled in higher education institutes, and more than 6,000 attended primary and secondary schools.34 In addition, many Cubans were migrating long before the Revolution. In 1932 it was estimated that over 40 percent of the Cuban population lived in the U.S. at some point in their lives, and between 1946 and 1956 over 50,000 Cubans received permanent resident visas.35
Figure 1.1 “Thinking of educating your children in the United States?” asked an advertisement for the school placement service of Continental Schools, Inc., Havana. (Collection of Louis A. Pérez Jr.)
Ruston Academy, where James Baker served as headmaster, was modeled on North American curricula, just as all prestigious secondary schools were in Havana. All private schools taught English from kindergarten on, and some had full immersion programs. In the 1950s Ruston Academy enrolled nearly 600 students in the elementary school program, approximately one-third of whom were Cuban. The high school was 50% Cuban. The faculty was made up of mostly North Americans and Cubans educated in the United States. The curriculum, sports, and social events were all modeled on the North American school environment. Students had a prom night, an annual rock’ n’ roll dance contest, theater productions, and a yearbook in English that named “the most popular,” “the most athletic,” “the most handsome,” and “the prettiest”. Ruston was also discreetly funded by U.S. officials, who saw the value of private schools in forming attitudes and values. In the 1950s public affairs officer Jacob Canter affirmed, “The indoctrination of Cuban children in the principles of democracy and the knowledge and understanding of these children obtain of the U.S. while attending a school like Ruston are perhaps the most effective means of shaping Cuban opinion in the future.” Continuing, he discussed the value of education in comparison to propaganda, “By sharing everyday experiences with American classmates, [Cuban students] are developing at an early age an attitude of friendship for the U.S. which no amount of adverse propaganda will be able to eradicate.”36 Although Baker was a member of this elite sect of Cuban society, he also had hopes of bringing democracy to Cuba and was initially a strong supporter of the Revolution. However, as the Revolution’s goals quickly changed, Baker began to hear concern among the parents of Ruston. In November 1960, the same month that Walsh contacted Voorhees, Baker agreed to fly to the U.S. to look for options in getting children out of Cuba. Initially he went to Washington, where he met with state officials who directed him to Miami. The reasons for Baker’s trip to Washington and the names of those he met are not known. According to Walsh, Baker sent two Ruston teachers to Miami and Washington in October to “look over the situation”37 and they had suggested establishing a boarding school. Once in Miami, he met with a group of businessmen from the former American Chamber of Commerce in Havana. As members of companies formerly invested in Havana, these men had been forced out in the earliest days of the Revolution during the land reforms. In 1960 they registered as a nonprofit in Florida, where the organization remains functioning today waiting for the restoration of US-Cuba business relations.38
Among those meeting with Baker were investors who were very aware of the political situation. Kenneth Campbell and Bob O’Farrell of Esso Standard Oil and the Shell Oil Company, as well as Richard Colligan of Freeport Sulfur Company39 who agreed to fund the Operation, were already aiding the government’s efforts. Specifically, they were funding the International Rescue Committee, which worked with the CIA on refugee matters, as well as the flights out of Cuba for the children.40 By early 1961, Castro forbade using Cuban pesos to purchase airline tickets to the U.S. Corporations purchased tickets in Miami via family members of the Pedro Pans who were already in Florida, and then routed the tickets through Miami’s Henry Smith Travel Agency, which maintained an office in Havana. In May of 1962 an AP report stated that, “Children in Cuba, the same as adults, must produce 25 American dollars somehow to buy an airplane ticket. Men who still do business with Havana say that apparently Castro would rather have the dollars than the kids.”41
Multinational corporations had been briefed on Eisenhower’s plans for military intervention in what would later become the Bay of Pigs, and did not have reason to believe these would be unsuccessful. From the perspective of everyone involved in these meetings, these were temporary plans to safeguard children in Miami until they could return to Cuba within a few months. After the meeting, the members of the Chamber of Commerce agreed to fund Baker’s project and also arranged for Baker to meet Msgr. Walsh. Although the connection between Walsh and the members of the American Chamber of Commerce is not certain, it is speculated that the Catholic Welfare Bureau was known for working with the CIA on previous refugee programs.42
On December 12, 1960 Walsh and Baker met for the first time in Miami, uniting their somewhat disparate efforts into a broader plan to provide care for Cuban children. Walsh convinced Baker that a boarding school would not be sufficient to handle the religious and social needs of the children, and that the Cuban Children’s Program could provide better care. He explained Voorhee’s agreement to provide some federal funds for the program. Yet what Baker brought to the table was much more influential, as he suggested the need for the funding of a clandestine Operation to get children without visas out of Cuba. Baker was able to set up the logistics of getting student visas for approximately 200 children, with the Catholic Welfare Bureau taking responsibility for enrolling the children in school. Walsh also had to agree to provide transportation from Miami International Airport as well as foster care for those children without friends or relatives in the U.S. With these basic provisions covered, Operation Pedro Pan officially began on December 26, 1960 with the arrival of two children, Sixto and Vivian Aquino.43 The trickle of children slowly increased until after The Bay of Pigs when numbers rose sharply. Walsh continued to expand his network of individual and institutional support, ultimately placing children in 35 states within every foster care scenario imaginable.
Walsh’s network of individuals quickly grew, inside and outside of Cuba. The most prominent leaders of the Operation in Cuba included Mongo and Polita Grau, the nephew and niece of Ramón Grau, the former president of Cuba from 1944-1948.44 Immediately after receiving a letter from Walsh and the Catholic Welfare Bureau, both Graus used their connections, as well as the anti-Castro group Rescate (clandestinely formed by the CIA within Cuba) to produce visa waivers and distribute them to children across the country. Mongo also had connections with the airlines KLM and Pan American, who assisted the children on the plane and in Miami. Both siblings were sentenced to 30 years in prison after being accused of plotting to overthrow Castro in 1965, and eventually entered exile in Miami. In the prologue to his autobiography, current U.S. congresswoman (and Cuban exile) Iliana Ros-Lehtinen describes Mongo’s involvement in the Operation, and why she chose to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize, “he created a secret network of diplomats and friends to organize the exodus known as Operation Pedro Pan...During those five years Mongo coordinated an exodus for children that was thought impossible, one of the most amazing conspiracy secrets that has never before existed.” 45
Though it is difficult to determine the true intentions among the individuals that created the Operation, Msgr. Walsh provided the most straight-forward account. Through documenting his work in journal articles and several public and private interviews, as well as cultivating personal relationships with the children, he portrayed his involvement as largely humanitarian while giving a limited amount of information concerning the inner workings of the CIA and State Department. James Baker also spoke to several historians, but often gave an unclear order of events and agendas. Officials in the State Department never gave interviews, as they took an oath of privacy and may have been protecting individuals within the CIA. Nevertheless, Walsh’s writings and personal accounts provide insight into his feelings toward the Operation.
Walsh’s initiative in not only leading the Cuban Children’s Program, but in also agreeing to claim responsibility for the welfare of a sizeable number of Cuban children, was both daring and puzzling. Until his death in 2001, and even today, Walsh is revered among the Cuban-American community as the ‘Father of Operation Pedro Pan’. Former Pedro Pans and their parents view his mission as primarily humanitarian, quickly contradicting any speculation that he had even minimal political or outside interest.46 While his mission was undoubtedly humanitarian, Walsh’s perspective as an ambassador for the Church to Washington should also be considered by historians. As I will discuss in the next section, the CIA and the State Department were very much aware of the Operation in its entirety, and Walsh had to create and mediate an unprecedented program, one for which he had relatively little support in the initial phases.
Walsh describes his first concerns for the unaccompanied Cuban children in an article written in 1971. After becoming aware of the growing problem in Miami, he began thinking about the role of the State Department in caring for Hungarian refugee children just three years prior. In a program designed to provide refuge for Hungarian Free Fighters, Mr. Tracy Voorhees, the same individual responsible for the Cuban refugee problem, was appointed to regulate a program for placing Hungarian teenagers. Walsh was aware that these teenagers had been placed into homes without the usual precautions of U.S. foster care and welfare services, and that the placement had been “unsuccessful”. Voorhees had used agencies such as Catholic Relief Services, Church World Services, and United Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which were not set up to run child welfare services. As the Catholic Welfare Bureau had been licensed by the Florida State Department of Public Welfare for child welfare programs, Walsh believed they would be better prepared in assisting children. He describes the lack of training within the aforementioned organizations and his concerns:
As a result, many of their placements, including some in Miami, had failed. My worry was that, unless our local agencies responded to the challenge, it was very likely that responsibility for the care of unaccompanied Cuban refugee children would be given by Mr. Voorhees to these same agencies…My first concern therefore was that the program for the care of unaccompanied children should be handled by child welfare agencies. My second concern was that the religious heritage of the child be safeguarded…my third concern was how a program of foster care could be funded. 47 Beyond these personal concerns, Walsh later explains that after he received confirmation from Voorhees that the government would provide assistance to refugee children beyond what private charity could cover, he felt obliged to take on more responsibility, “Once our agencies had received the promise of government support, it seemed clear that our agencies were obligated to provide a well-arranged and well-planned reception for those children who would need care.”48 On December 30 he took a much larger step for the Catholic Welfare Bureau. After receiving a call from Frank Aurbach of the State Department, he was given an ultimatum: assume ultimate responsibility for the children or the Catholic Welfare Bureau would lose federal funding.49 He quickly signed a statement representing the Catholic Welfare Bureau agreeing to take responsibility for the children, without authorization from Bishop Carroll or any other diocesan official. Clearly, Walsh took great initiative in garnering support for the program, but in reality federal and private care for unaccompanied children came from a number of different resources, not just from Monsignor Walsh.
On October 24, 1960, over a month before Walsh and the Miami diocese held their first meetings on unaccompanied children, the White House held a meeting to discuss the Cuban refugee situation. The following week federal and state officials held a meeting in Miami where they documented the Cuban children problem for the first time. Among the other issues facing Cuban refugees they found that, “Apparently there are many unattached children …this problem is expected to become more serious as plans are now being developed by the Castro regime to make children wards of the state… some [children] are roaming the streets in [Miami] depending upon the sympathy of persons they meet on the streets for food and shelter.”50From this meeting Eisenhower ordered Voorhees to investigate and devise a plan to handle the growing number of Cuban refugees. On December 2 the president approved $1 million toward the Cuban Refugees from the Mutual Security Funds, federal funds allocated towards relief programs for people who had been “enslaved by Communism.”51 After seeking information from several local officials, including Monsignor Walsh, Voorhees provided an interim report on December 19th in which he allocated part of the Mutual Security Funds toward unaccompanied children, “If it should prove necessary, beyond what private charity can do, such Mutual Security funds will also be utilized for assistance to Cuban refugee children in extreme need.” 52 It was from this one sentence in Voorhee’s report that Monsignor Walsh was able to convince James Baker, several members of the American Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Embassy officials in Cuba to join forces and begin the clandestine airlift of Operation Pedro Pan.
However, Walsh was not acting alone in his plans to care for Cuban children as they arrived. In the month of December, Frances Davis, director of the Division of Child Welfare for the Florida Department of Public Welfare, had become aware of the growing problem and asked the Children’s Bureau for assistance in discussing policies for the care of refugee children. Katherine Oettinger, director of the Children’s Bureau, meet with Davis concerning the unaccompanied children already in the southern area of the state.
Through December Walsh and Baker had successfully brought over several children, and everything seemed to be coming together for the Operation. Yet growing political strife quickly brought their scheme to a halt as Eisenhower cut off diplomatic relations with the Cuban government on January 3, 1961, closing the U.S. embassy and ending the issuing of student visas.53 This move brought the Catholic Church and the State Department together to form a visa waiver program that allowed the full 14,048 children to come within the next two years. While temporary plans were made to attain British visas and send children to Miami through connecting in the British colonies of Jamaica and the Bahamas,54 Walsh and Baker made contact with the State Department and arranged a meeting on January 8th in Washington. Walsh describes his feelings on the day of this first meeting with the State Department, “Somehow the weather, the day, the time, the happenings of the past weeks all combined to create an atmosphere of intrigue and conspiracy.”55 Several men attended this meeting, including Robert Hale, the head of the visa office in the State Department, a representative from the British embassy, and possibly a representative of the Central Intelligence Agency.56 At this meeting Walsh and Baker were given, “ a very big concession regarding the visa waivers which was to make our program of distribution in Cuba much easier.”57 This involved a blanket authority to issue visa waivers to all Cuban children ages six to sixteen, and to those sixteen to eighteen who had passed security clearance. Later that year the State Department also granted blanket visa waivers to anyone with an immediate relative to petition for the person from the United States.58 Many involved in the Operation, including Walsh, believed that the CIA continued to monitor the Operation until its ending in 1962. One recently declassified document reported a social worker communicating with the CIA about the drastic reduction of refugee children in June 1962, just four months before the end of the Operation. The reasoning for granting this open passage to Cuban children for those two intensely political years has been described as humanitarian, political, and ideological.
While there is not one concrete reason for why the State Department granted visa waivers, the events of the early 1960’s point to two explanations. First, the steps taken to alleviate the stress of Cuban refugees in south Florida through Mutual Security Funds show the government’s allegiance to its pledge to help refugees suffering from the “enslavement of communism.” Second, there was a growing desire to invade Cuba by officials in the CIA, and the exodus of a great number of Cubans was bad propaganda for Castro and made it more difficult for him to identify counterRevolutionaries as they left the country.
In September 1959, exactly 9 months after Castro came into power, CIA officials began laying the groundwork for covert action against Cuba’s Revolutionary government. From this point until after the failed invasion in April 1961, the U.S. government attempted to cover up any indication that it had involvement in anti-Castro action. The State Department, the CIA, and Kennedy wanted the Operation to look as if the Cuban exiles could have planned it, so that the administration could claim "plausible deniability" and avoid responsibility for the invasion as a U.S. Operation. In Eisenhower’s first meeting with top national security officials to discuss the plan, he stressed that, “our hand must not show in anything that is done.” 59 In March, 1960 officials documented,“A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime.” This was the
four point plan for what became known as the Cuba Project:
1. Formation of a Cuban exile organization to attract Cuban loyalties, to direct opposition activities, and to provide cover for Agency Operations.
2. A propaganda offensive in the name of the opposition.
3. Creation inside Cuba of a clandestine intelligence collection and action apparatus to be responsive to the direction of the exile organization.
4. Development outside Cuba of a small paramilitary force to be introduced into Cuba to organize, train, and lead resistance groups.60 The CIA formed the Cuban exile organization Revolutionary Democratic Front of Cuba (FRD) that served as the “declared opposition”61 to Castro. As stated in point 4, they also trained anti-Castro ‘guerilla forces’ in southern Florida and in Guatemala, where the CIA had recently instigated a war to overthrow president Jacobo Arbenz for suspicion of communist tendencies. David Atlee Phillips, a former Havana operative for the CIA and a veteran of the agency’s 1954 coup against Arbenz, became chief of propaganda for the CIA’s Cuban Task Force. “What’s the plan?” he asked at headquarters in Washington. “The Guatemalan scenario”, a CIA officer replied. The plotted attack on Cuba was part of the pledge by the U.S. government to ward off communism in Latin America as the Cold War escalated. The Red Scare became a very real fear for Americans across the nation, and the Eisenhower administration began to suspect Castro’s communist allegiance only 9 months after his rise to power.62
The first attacks on the Bay of Pigs were by air on Castro’s air bases on April 15, 1961 two whole days before the land invasion on the 17th, allowing Cuba to prepare for the imminent attack. When the 1400 Cuban exiles arrived on the beach at Baja de los Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), the Cubans were not taken by surprise. The exiles, known as Brigade 2506, were defeated by Castro’s much larger force (estimates range from 25,000 to 51,000) in less than 72 hours. Cuban fighter aircrafts sank the Brigade’s ammunition ship and other support craft, and the exiles never broke through Playa Girón, the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs.63 From the approximately 1500 exiles that fought, 68 were killed and the rest captured and put on trial. A few were executed and the rest sentenced to 30 years in prison. After 20 months of negotiation with the U.S., Cuba released the exiles in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine. Cuba’s casualties are unknown, but speculated to be between two and five thousand.64
Historian Theodore Draper described the battle of The Bay of Pigs as, “one of those rare events in history- a perfect failure.”65 The strike on Cuba began on April 15, 1961 and ended on April 21st. It included land, sea, and air attacks. The majority of troops were Cuban exiles trained by the CIA in Guatemala and Florida. However the CIA also hired a number (find numbers) of U.S. pilots to fly support missions. Though it is generally accepted by historians that the battle was a failure for the U.S., there is a debate over where the failure originated. Some find flaws in the CIA’s faulty assumptions about overthrowing Castro and for misleading the White House about the likely success of the Operation. Others blame Kennedy’s decision to cancel the second airstrike and his refusal to salvage the Operation through military intervention. One American pilot who flew in the attack blames neither of these, but rather the unanticipated, nonmilitary restrictions of the plan. When the exiles surrendered on the 21st, Castro may have been down to his last gallon of fuel, and his ordinances were exhausted.66
Perhaps the most obvious flaw was that the invasion failed to be a covert Operation that the administration could ‘plausibly deny’. Cuban intelligence was aware of anti-Castro exiles training in Guatemala as early as November 1960. On April 9, six days before the attack, The New York Times published a front page story, watered down after a call from the president, entitled “Anti-Castro Units Trained to fight at Florida Bases.” Kennedy was quoted as stating, “Castro didn’t need agents over here- all he has to do is read our papers”. The CIA attempted to portray the first air strikes on the 15th as from defected Cuban air force pilots by marking B-26 light bomber aircrafts with markings of the Cuban Revolutionary Air Force. The planes then arrived at Miami International Airport with pilots claiming that they had defected from the Cuban airforce in stolen planes and had carried out the attack and flown to the U.S. Reporters noted that the planes’ machine guns had not been fired and that the noses were made of solid metal while Castro’s B-26s had plastic noses. A statement was issued that the raids in Cuba were carried out by Cuban pilot defectors. After reading American wire accounts Castro commented that “even Hollywood would not try to film such a story.” 67
This cover story fell apart within hours of the statement being issued; but not before the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, presented the false account to the entire General Assembly. The CIA happened to launch the attack on the very week that the United Nations was meeting to address Cuba’s charges of U.S. aggression. On the 15th just hours after the strike Stevenson stated that, “…there will be no intervention by the armed forces of the United States and that the United States will do everything in its power to assure that no American participates in any action against Cuba.” 68
While Operation Pedro Pan is not mentioned in any U.S. literature on The Bay of Pigs invasion, most Cuban texts devote a chapter to the Operation and its role in the CIA’s Cuba propaganda project.69 The propaganda began in November 1959 with anti-Castro radio broadcasts from Mexico. Media, including radio, television, and newspaper, would continue to be used for propaganda purposes through the present day. In March of 1960 Eisenhower authorized the CIA to enact a plan of covert Operations against Cuba. The plan calls for a “massive propaganda offensive,” including radio broadcasts, speaking tours, and publishing projects. The continued use of propaganda has affected the American, exile, and Cuban perspectives on Operation Pedro Pan.
The point from January 1961 to the invasion at Playa Girón, the Bay of Pigs, on April 15, marks the first phase of the Operation, as the motives of the CIA and the number of children leaving both changed drastically after the loss at the Bay of Pigs. The second phase is the period between the invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when direct flights from Cuba were stopped and the Operation could not bring any more children over.
The most important issue in the presidential election of 1960 was the spread of communism, particularly in Latin America. On January 20, 1961 John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president, coming into office with a promise of a hard-line policy towards the “Reds.” On February 3 he announced another $4 million in government aid to “house, feed, school, employ, and resettle” Cuban refugees, citing that the resources of local relief organizations had been “badly overstrained.” 70 He specified that it included money for the care of unaccompanied children, “the most troubled group in the refugee population.” 71 He also selected Abraham Ribicoff to administer these funds in overt refugee programs.72 This may have been the first move in utilizing children in ‘Operation Mongoose’. Commonly referred to as The Cuban Project, this Operation involved covert actions and propaganda against Castro and the communist government of Cuba. It involved political, psychological, military, sabotage, and intelligence Operations, as well as assassination of key leaders. Cuban children were specified as useful in psychological Operations, or anti-Castro propaganda.
Among the available declassified documents, the most pertinent references to unaccompanied children come from letters and memorandums among the State Department and CIA. In a memorandum dating February 20, 1961 ambassador Phillip Bonsal wrote to Robert Stevenson of the State Department urging him to expedite entrance to members of divided families, noting, “the continued exodus of Cubans from Castro’s paradise is good propaganda for our side. It may force Castro to take measures to stop it.” 73 Exactly one year later, in a program review by Edward Lansdale, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, on Operation Mongoose, he states that children are “particularly useful.” As part of the goal to demonstrate concern for the plight of parentless children, the document states that, “Mrs. Kennedy would be especially effective in visiting children refugees. (One camp near Miami has about 1,000 children who came out without their parents.) Her impact upon Latin Americans on the recent Presidential visit to Venezuela and Colombia suggests this.”74 Beyond these two direct propaganda motives, De los Angeles Torres writes of the military interest in Operation Pedro Pan, as the Department of the Army issued a warning that Cuban exiles who had joined the military effort were a potential security threat since they still had relatives in Cuba and could be exploited or recruited through coercion by Cuban intelligence. She suggests that the American government had similar incentives in bringing children of counter-Revolutionaries to the U.S., she also sheds light on the purposes of having the children of the underground,“… the parents could continue fighting in the underground without having the immediate pressure of having to tend to their children. Then there was the fear factor if they were caught- what would happen to their children? In addition, the CIA would have control over the children ensuring compliance on the part of Cubans.”75
As the political and humanitarian goals of the Church and the government in the Operation continue to unfold four decades after the fact, for the most part the ‘facts’ remain debatable. One perspective that very few Pedro Pan scholars have considered is that of the American and Cuban publics during the Cold War. Though the details concerning the Operation remained secret until March 1962, the multitude of unaccompanied children was a popular human interest story for the American press throughout the 1960’s. In Cuba, the press changed drastically in 1966 as the former newspaper publications were replaced with Granma, the communist paper, and Juventud Rebelde, the youth communist league publication. Clearly, the publics on both sides of the forming ideological fault lines between the U.S. and Cuba as part of the Sino-Soviet bloc had distinct perspectives, largely developed by the press.