This column originally appeared in The Tentacle on June 2010.
In my last installment, I mentioned how Mr. James Baker, the head of an American school in Havana, had allied himself with Father Brian Walsh for the purpose of providing for the thousands of unaccompanied Cuban children arriving in Miami.
Mr. Baker returned to Havana, and the group of businessmen from the American Chamber of Commerce began to obtain donations from American and British corporations. They had to prevent Fidel Castro from tracing the sources of the funds; otherwise he might bring the operation to a sudden and complete halt.
So the first donations were paid to the Catholic Welfare Bureau. They, in turn, issued checks to a series of Americans living in Miami. These proceeded to issue personal checks for the airfare of the children via a Miami-based travel agency.
This complicated process was necessary because, in order to get US currency, Castro had already forbidden the purchase of airline tickets using Cuban pesos. My family, by the way, barely missed that deadline.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Havana issued student visas to each child. The Catholic Welfare Bureau gave a letter to Mr. Baker stating that they would be responsible for any child referred by him. To keep Castro out of it, all communications concerning this operation were handled via the US diplomatic pouch, thanks to the cooperation of the US State Department Reception Center in Miami, and the Charge d’Affairs at the US Embassy in Havana.
On December 15, 1960, several of the American businessmen in Miami took a letter from Mr. Baker in Havana to Father Walsh. This letter had arrived that morning in the diplomatic pouch and contained a list of the first 125 children that would be coming. Immediately he looked for housing for the children. The Dade County Welfare Department had a group of vacant buildings known as the Kendall complex that had previously been used to house delinquent children. The Welfare Department offered Father Walsh the use of this complex. There, 60 children could be housed, but 125 were coming!
Father Walsh found that the St. Joseph Villa, a small group home for children run by nuns, had nine empty beds. He found that the Assumption Academy, a private girls’ boarding school, also run by nuns, would be empty because of the Christmas holidays and they could temporarily accommodate 200! He stopped by and asked the Mother Superior for her help. She agreed with the condition that the children had to leave by January 6, 1961.
On December 24, 1960, Father Walsh received the news that the first children would be arriving in Miami the next day. On Christmas Day, the only person he was able to locate to go with him to the airport to receive the children was Mrs. Louis Cooper, a Catholic Welfare Bureau social worker. There were two flights from Cuba that afternoon: Pan American’s 422 and National’s 452. To their surprise, no children came on flight 422. They waited with anxiety for the second flight. Flight 452 finally arrived also with no children. They were disappointed and concerned. What had gone wrong? What had happened to the children . . .?
I was about to celebrate my 13th birthday as these events in Miami were unfolding. I vividly remember the general distress in the Cuban refugee community when no expected “Peter Pan’ children arrived at Miami International Airport that day.
As Father Walsh anxiously awaited the flow of what would be the largest influx of unaccompanied refugee children in history, the situation that was causing the influx worsened. Fidel Castro’s January 1960 death penalty decree for joining, or even helping, the revolt against him weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. Masses of people in Cuba were apprehended and thrown in jail without trial, and summary executions were rampant. The neighborhood committees spying on each city block were terrorizing people.
Peasants were in open revolt and fighting in the Escambray Mountains in the central part of the island, not far from where my father was born and raised. Students and workers were joining them and other anti-Castro rebels all over the island. Rebel groups in the countryside were as close as 30 US miles from Havana. The organized anti-Castro resistance in Havana and other cities was growing. The number of people involved in the resistance against Castro was to exceed by far the number that had struggled against Batista. Yet the brutality of Castro’s repression was something never experienced before. Castro was waging an all out war against the will of his people.
Many of my American friends have asked me over the years how it was possible for a tyrant like Fidel Castro to gain and hold control of an island nation for 51 years. The answer is simple; Fidel simply followed the example of his fellow 20th-century dictators – Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
Many parents were panicking at the approaching second anniversary of Castro’s revolution, January 1st, 1961, with the prospect that children may no longer be allowed to leave Cuba. The government was taking control of more and more aspects of daily life – including the raising of children. A desperate plan to get them out was under way. In Havana, James Baker, together with others willing to take great risks, formed a clandestine network. In Miami, on safer ground, Father Walsh and other dedicated Americans prepared to accept an awesome responsibility. The goal was to create the means to get as many children as possible out of Fidel’s island paradise before January 1st, 1961.
To be continued….