This column originally appeared in The Tentacle on June 8, 2010.
As the 50th anniversary of my arrival on these American shores approaches, I feel compelled to relate some of the stories of my half-century as an exile of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Many of these personal, family, and political experiences have been surfacing in my mind recently, as I’m going deeper into a nostalgic mood.
Of the thousands of stories of the Cuban exodus, this one must be told. It’s the story of the biggest exodus of children ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, but is largely unknown. From December 26, 1960, through October 22, 1962, over 14,000 unaccompanied children between 6 and 18 years of age left Cuba for the USA. There were many valiant and dedicated people, in Cuba and in this country, working for the success of this operation. It was coded “Operation Peter Pan.”
In the 1930s, between 7,000 and 8,000 Jewish children were smuggled out of Nazi Germany to England and other countries.
In the Communist takeover of Spain that lead to the Spanish Civil War, thousands of children were evacuated to France, Belgium and England.
When the Communists in Spain were heading for defeat, some 5,000 children were sent to the Soviet Union.
In 1940, during the Battle of Britain, about 1,000 British children were sent to North America for safety. At the end of the Second World War, some 5,000 orphans were brought from Europe to North America for adoption.
Before Castro, people used to immigrate to Cuba. I vividly remember the rich and vibrant Chinese population in Cuba, prominent in retail, banking, and international commerce. Also, I remember the Jews from Eastern Europe, people who migrated to Cuba during the earlier part of the 20th century.
Yes, even Americans, most of whom not named Hemingway, lived in that island paradise, by choice. My parents hired an American to tutor me in the intricacies of the English language. Some TheTentacle.com readers may doubt the effectiveness of such tutelage; looking back 50 years, however, I reflect on my parents’ wisdom in this regard. As usual, they got smarter the older I got!
After Castro, the biggest exodus in this hemisphere began. The first to arrive in the USA in January 1959, immediately following the fall of Fulgencio Batista, came with their money and belongings. On the other hand, as Castro added more and more restrictions, people were forced to leave with nothing.
This created a terrible burden on the relatives and friends who arrived earlier and were supporting and helping the newcomers. Later, the burden fell to private charities and the U.S. Government.
The latter included my parents and me.
We arrived in November 1960, Election Day in the USA – John F. Kennedy v. Richard M. Nixon. We had nothing, except for the few pieces of jewelry my mother smuggled on her person. I celebrated my 13th birthday a month later.
By the end of 1960 some 4,000 had arrived and by December 1961, 12,000 – with 200 arriving in Miami each day. By 1971, 261,000 were established in Miami and almost as many elsewhere in the USA. During the 1980 Mariél exodus, 125,000 left, but 2 million more who requested to leave were stranded in Cuba when that door was closed. In 1997 there are 2 to 3 million Cuban exiles all over the world; their numbers would have been greater if leaving Cuba had been easier.
In opposition to general beliefs resulting from 38 years of Castro’s propaganda echoed by the press and the left-wing establishment, Castro’s revolution affected Cubans from all walks of life; the brutality of his repression has been felt since January 1, 1959.
From the beginning, when people realized that he was moving toward a Communist dictatorship, the opposition began, even from the people who previously fought at his side against Batista. Many Cubans, as the situation worsened during 1959 and 1960, thought that Castro would be overthrown. As his control grew and his cronies became entrenched in civilian and government positions, Cubans became concerned that unseating Castro would lead to a bloody civil war, as in Spain in the 1930s.
On May 1, 1960, Castro launched his slogan “Cuba sí, Yankees no!” and ordered the creation of Communist indoctrination schools, while publicly denying he was a Communist. In July, he began to confiscate properties owned by Americans, Spaniards, Chinese, and Jews. In October, he created the neighborhood committees (fashioned after 1930s Nazi Germany) to spy on and control each city block.
The radicalism of Castro’s revolution spread toward the educational field, raising the concern of many parents, including mine. Rumors that Castro was planning to confiscate the over 1,000 secular and religious private schools, (which did materialize later), made parents fearful about their children’s future.
Some private schools began closing – temporarily, they thought – because of the increasing pressures from Castro’s regime to change to Marxist textbooks to indoctrinate the children. After private schools closed, many parents kept their children home instead of sending them to public schools where Communist indoctrination had already begun.
Many Cuban parents remembered the stories of the end of the Spanish Civil War, when 5,000 children were sent to the Soviet Union for indoctrination, and others were held as hostages. They were fearful that the same thing would happen in Cuba. Many parents did not want to leave Cuba because they thought that Castro would be overthrown in a matter of months – or because they would not abandon an old or sick family member, or a spouse or a brother who had become a political prisoner. Others because they were involved in the anti-Castro movement. They couldn’t leave, but they wanted their children to be saved.
In the fall of 1960, rumors circulating in Cuba and in Miami exile circles added to the fears of parents in Cuba. The main concern was the prospect of losing the “patria potestad,” which meant that parents would lose the right to make the decisions about raising their children. Instead, the government would decide such things as where each child would live, each child’s school and curriculum, etc. This did materialize later on.
The departure from Cuba of Castro’s 12-year-old son, Fidelito, to be educated in the Soviet Union seemed to confirm this rumor. Then, the creation of the Young Communist Pioneers – replacing the Boy Scouts – and the Association of Young Communists added panic to the situation.
Some of the children already absorbed into these mass organizations began to show the effects of the indoctrination – parroting Castro’s slogans and using Communist jargon, and becoming informants. In some instances, parents became fearful of their own children and self-censored what they said in front of them to avoid being denounced to the authorities.
The future didn’t look promising for families under Castro. Painful as it was, many parents thought that it was time to get their children out of Cuba even if they had to leave unescorted.
In October 1960, the first unaccompanied Cuban child arrived in Miami. He was sent by his parents who thought that their relatives and friends would take care of him temporarily until Castro was overthrown. They had no way of knowing that their relatives were almost destitute.
Since no one was willing or able to take responsibility for his welfare, the 15-year-old boy was passed from one family to another on a daily basis. This psychologically affected the boy. He was scared and hungry and had lost 20 pounds when someone took him to the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami on November 15, 1960. The man who brought him in pleaded for a foster home or a boarding school for the boy. The boy’s name was Pedro (Peter). Later on, the organized effort to get the unaccompanied children safely out of Cuba and properly cared for in the U.S. would be named for him: Operation Peter Pan.
To be continued….