By Deborah Shnookal, author of Operation Pedro Pan and the Exodus of Cuba’s Children
Despite the opening to Cuba initiated by President Obama in 2014, U.S.-Cuba relations still seem stuck in a time warp, and the airlift of 14,000 Cuban children to Miami that began almost sixty years ago remains a touchstone in this historically fraught relationship. In Miami, the airlift, quaintly dubbed “Operation Pedro Pan,” is usually viewed as an urgent, humanitarian mission, but in Havana, it is recalled with great bitterness as a scheme that broke Cuban families apart.
There appears to be no way to reconcile the two contested memories of the exodus of Cuba’s children in the early years of the Cuban Revolution. It is even called by different names: “Pedro Pan” in Miami and “Peter Pan” on the other side of the Florida Straits. Simplistic explanations that parents wanted to save their children from “communist brainwashing” or that they were naïve victims of CIA propaganda claiming that the revolutionary government was about to eliminate parental authority are not sufficient to understand the many and complex factors that propelled the children’s flight. The real story of Operation Pedro Pan is therefore far more than a simple Cold War conspiracy tale of intrigue and rescue as it has often been portrayed.
A parent’s decision to send his or her child as an unaccompanied minor to Miami was not as desperate or impulsive an act as it may appear. Historically, the border between the island and the United States has been extremely porous: the children of wealthy Cubans commonly attended U.S. boarding schools and summer camp, their parents made weekend shopping excursions to Miami, and U.S. citizens could take a ferry ride to enjoy a holiday at Cuba’s beaches, casinos, or nightclubs.
First proposed in the lead-up to the invasion of the Cuban exile brigade at the Bay of Pigs in 1959 as a means of safeguarding the children of Fidel Castro’s oppositionists, Operation Pedro Pan expanded rapidly and dramatically into a scheme offering much-prized “becas” or scholarships for young Cubans to study in the U.S. This proved to be an irresistible lure to some Cuban parents, especially those who were dismayed at the social turmoil of the revolution and who believed the separation would be temporary until the old order was restored. This was the apparent promise of Pedro Pan—an operation that might well have been named for another children’s story, The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
The overthrow of the dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista in January 1959 not only brought about a political revolution but also challenged the way Cubans thought of themselves and their nation. It unleashed a social revolution that affected women, education, religious schools, and relations within the family and between races: Former prostitutes retrained as cab drivers; schools were desegregated; maids were encouraged to study; and previously exclusive beaches and social venues were open to all.
When Fidel Castro announced the national literacy campaign and the mobilization of teenagers to teach their less fortunate compatriots, tens of thousands of young Cubans signed up enthusiastically. But this provoked a kind of moral panic among some parents who were concerned about preserving the propriety, piety, and obedience of their offspring—especially their daughters who, surprisingly, were the majority of the literacy brigadistas—although they might have articulated different concerns.
The 1961 literacy campaign is often identified as a significant, if not the most important, driving factor behind Operation Pedro Pan, which is undoubtedly the case, but not because of the Cold War trope that is usually rolled out: that it was, in essence, a mass indoctrination campaign and a conscious plan by the revolutionary government to place children beyond the influence and control of their parents. The literacy campaign did, however, introduce a new paradigm in mobilizing youth in the revolutionary social justice project. It gave young Cubans—as active participants—an identification with, a sense of responsibility for, and ownership of the revolution, a process from which some of their elders were feeling increasingly alienated or hostile.
Thus, Operation Pedro Pan can be viewed not only in the frameworks of a Cold War contest for the hearts and minds of the next generation and the breakdown in U.S.-Cuba relations from 1959 to 1961 that shattered a historical relationship of patronage and protection. It can also be seen as a backlash to the challenge the Cuban Revolution presented to traditional and patriarchal values, especially those concerning gender roles, racial discrimination, sexuality, and intrafamilial relationships. It was a revolution which, in some ways, was a harbinger of the youth revolt (in both its political and cultural expressions) that was to shake many parts of the world in the 1960s.
Ironically, apart from the self-reliance the young émigrés were forced to learn while they waited for their parents to join them, many Pedro Pans were soon seduced by the teenage culture they were exposed to in the United States, so that by the time their parents arrived they were no longer the children they had been, or whom their parents expected them to be. Many families found it impossible to take up where they had left off. As one Pedro Pan recalled, those reuniting “had familiar faces, but the people behind those faces were strangers.”
Deborah Shnookal, author of Operation Pedro Pan and the Exodus of Cuba’s Children, is a research fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies, La Trobe University. She is coeditor of José Martí Reader: Writings on the Americas.