Skip to comments.Cuban kids in exile: Pawns of Cold War politics (BARF ALERT)
Posted on 08/24/2003 5:45:04 PM PDT by Chi-townChief
A lonely little Cuban boy arrives at a Miami refugee camp for his initial interview and vaccination shots.
"Now, why would Mama and Papa send you here, all alone?" the narrator asks him. The same narrator--not the child--answers: "Fidel Castro."
This was the opening of "The Lost Apple," a film documentary commissioned in the early 1960s by the U.S. government. It showed for the first time the plight of 14,000 Cuban children sent alone by their parents to the United States between 1960 and 1962 so they could be saved from Castro's indoctrination in a military-style educational model.
Four decades later, one of those children tells us the conclusions of her own 10-year research and lifelong mission to shed light on the political and military reasons that led to the beginning and end of the massive flight of children known as Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan).
Naming her book after the film, Maria de los Angeles Torres, now 48 and a professor of political science at Chicago's DePaul University, is not the first former Pedro Pan child to write about this secretive episode of the Cuban exodus in the U.S. In 1999, Yvonne Conde published Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children after interviewing hundreds of former young refugees.
Torres offers a detailed and powerful account of Pedro Pan's history, which started in 1960 when a group of underground anti-Castro activists in Cuba approached James Baker, the director of an American school in Havana, because they wanted to save their children from Castro's plan to send students to the Soviet Union.
Baker enlisted the help of Father Bryan Walsh, a Catholic priest in Miami, who received from the State Department the unprecedented authority to grant visa waivers to any Cuban child under 16. The first 250 unaccompanied children arrived in Miami on Dec. 26, 1960, thinking they would receive scholarships and be later reunited with their parents. Instead, many found abusive foster homes and orphanages, and many would not see their parents for years.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved $1 million to assist Cuban refugees arriving in the U.S. who had been "enslaved by Communism," Torres writes. In effect, she adds, the children became political pawns at the height of the Cold War.
Connections between the refugee work of Operation Pedro Pan and the CIA soon became evident, Torres wrote, especially when program volunteers in Cuba such as Serafina Lastra de Giquel gave her contacts in Miami the first reports of the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.
The CIA was involved in the petition of visa waivers, according to Torres. And the CIA also spread the rumor about Castro's intentions to abolish parental rights and take children away from their mothers, in effect the final push for thousands of parents to send their children to the U.S.--a rumor that never proved to be true, Torres contends.
Castro's decision to embark all children in an eight-month literacy campaign, to close Catholic schools and to create Schools of Revolutionary Instruction continued to fuel parental fears.
But the failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 missile crisis marked the end of Operation Pedro Pan. Flights to and from Cuba ended and only a few hundred parents of Pedro Pan children were allowed to come to the U.S. The visa waiver program was cancelled.
Many families of Pedro Pan children would be forever broken up, and Torres asks why the children's' emotional well-being had to be ignored at the expense of ideological warfare.
"The revolution aimed to place children and their education in the public realm. In contrast, parents fought to maintain the right to have children within the private realm,'' Torres writes. "Ultimately, the choice that the Catholic Church and U.S. government gave them to protect their claim effectively removed the children from the family and placed them right in the center of politics."
The Lost Apple is a well-documented academic effort and also good reading for the general public, exposing as it does the political mechanisms behind the exodus of children voiceless for many years.
It also shows Torres' considerable efforts--maybe the first--to declassify Operation Pedro Pan documents in order to uncover long kept secrets surrounding the program. Her findings are the result of documents obtained at three presidential libraries, libraries of the State Department and other federal agencies housed in the National Archives in Washington.
The most revealing part of the book comes when Torres talks about her lawsuit against the CIA in 1998 contending that the agency, in charge of the Cuba project from March 1960 to May 1961, had to have records of the movement of unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S. Finally, the CIA released three documents proving its connections with Pedro Pan.
The first was a report of a social worker in Miami telling the CIA of the drastic reduction in the numbers of child refugees in June, 1962. The second document corroborates the CIA's knowledge of and collaboration with with the organization coordinating the children's exodus after the Bay of Pigs. The third document details Operation Mongoose, a program created by President Kennedy stipulating that refugees, particularly children, were to be used as key propaganda objectives.
As for why Castro never stopped the Pedro Pan exodus, Torres replies that "it helped to denationalize the disaffected. Children provided the Cuban authorities with information about the opposition."
For Torres, the journey of Pedro Pan was personal, one that has led to a better understanding of the Cuban exile community and to a love of her homeland despite Castro.
For the rest of us, it opens the question of whether saving children's minds should come at the expense of their emotional well-being.
Ana Mendieta is a Sun-Times staff reporter.
HISTORY: THE LOST APPLE - OPERATION PEDRO PAN, CUBAN CHILDREN IN THE U.S., AND THE PROMISE OF A BETTER FUTURE BY MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES Beacon Press. $29.
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