Operation Peter Pan: The Real-life Exodus of 14,000 Cuban Children to Miami, FL
by Megan Bridges
The following article was also featured in The Spectrum as the third installment of a five-part series, titled Spotlight on Cuba.
In 2000, the world was rattled by images of Elián González being forcibly seized from his Miami relatives’ home by armed agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. At age five, Elián was found floating on a raft 60 miles north of Miami after his mother and ten other passengers died in a boat accident. They were fleeing Cuba during the brutal economic conditions of the Special Period, which was triggered by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989. Throughout the 1990s, Cubans suffered extreme poverty and malnutrition. Many families only managed to survive by eating cardboard and fried fruit skins. This prompted a massive influx of refugees, called balseros, to South Florida. As many as 500 balseros arrived in the United States each day. Among them was little Elián, whose relatives provided him shelter in Miami before President Clinton ordered that he be returned to his father in Cardenas, Cuba.
The migration of Cuban children to the United States long predates the year that Elián made international headlines. On Christmas Day 1960, the Catholic Welfare Bureau (CWB) and the State Department initiated a covert operation to fly children from Cuba to Miami, FL. They named it Operation Peter Pan. The CWB originally anticipated that 200 children would participate in the operation, however the demand from Cuban parents to send their children to the United States was higher than expected. With visa waivers granted by the State Department, the CWB managed to airlift approximately 14,000 Cuban children until the operation was terminated in October 1962 with the end of commercial air flights following the Cuban Missile Crisis. Operation Peter Pan came to be recognized as the largest exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.
The operation was in fact two fold. In addition to flying children to Miami, the CWB also took children under its care. Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, the 30-year-old Director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami, first recognized the problem of unaccompanied child refugees in November 1960 when he met a fifteen-year-old Cuban boy, named Pedro Menendez. Pedro had been living with relatives in Florida but his caregivers were unable to financially support him. They asked the CWB if they would be able to provide foster care services for the young boy. It was then that Msgr. Walsh understood that preparations needed to be made for the arrival of Cuban migrant children who did not have reliable sponsors in the United States to temporarily house them until they could be reunited with their parents. To realize this goal, Msgr. Walsh successfully secured money from the federal government, being the first private agency in the United States to do so for child care. The CWB placed nearly 7,500 children in foster care in 35 states with the help of 95 different child welfare agencies.
Most families were reunited after the Freedom Flights began on December 1, 1965. These flights were agreed upon by both the Cuban and the United States governments primarily to reunify parents and their children. Approximately 90% of children from Operation Peter Pan were reunited with their parents by June 1966. There were several children, however, that never saw their parents again. Their parents may have died or stayed behind to care for an elderly relative. While most children lived with their foster families temporarily, these children remained in the foster care system until they reached adulthood. Due to the uncertainty of reunification, why did parents send their children to live in the United States without them?
Cuban parents feared that their children would be indoctrinated to godless Communism. The Cuban Revolution reminded many parents of the Spanish Civil War, during which rumors circulated that children were sent to Russia for training. Relatedly, a rumored decree, called patria potestad (or rights of parents over their children), surfaced in Cuba in 1960. It stated that parents would lose custody of their children once they turned three-years-old, after which they would be given to state day-care centers to receive physical and mental education. Additionally, several parents were involved in the Anti-Castro underground movement, and they worried that their children would be held as hostages by the regime. While a great number of the rumors were false, parents nonetheless decided to exercise their parental right to choose how their children would be educated by sending them to the United States. The decision was heart wrenching, since parents were not eligible for the visa waivers that the State Department granted to their children. Therefore, families had little choice but to send their children to Miami alone.
While supporters of Operation Peter Pan celebrate these parents as heroes, critics argue that they were in fact unwitting participants in a counter-revolutionary operation. A documentary film, called Operation Peter Pan, was recently screened at the CineCuba film festival and argues that Operation Peter Pan was an anti-Castro CIA operation in actuality. The Church, however, adamantly denies it, and the CIA has withheld information on the operation. The film claims that the fake legislation discussed above was deliberately circulated by anti-revolutionaries to create parental panic. Furthermore, it suggests that the United States hoped to establish an anti-Castro base in South Florida to affect political change in Cuba, “One can imagine what the Peter Pan operatives had in mind for these children; a children’s crusade of freedom fighters ready to return and take back Cuba from communism?” Even if these turn out to be meritless conspiracy theories, it is not difficult to understand why one might take them seriously given the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the estimated 638 attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro.