Operation Peter Pan

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Operation Peter Pan
Part of the Golden exile
Cuban children waiting in line to emigrate.
Location Cuba
CauseEducation in Cuba Opposition to Fidel Castro
Outcome14,000 unaccompanied minors arrive in the United States

Operation Peter Pan (or Operación Pedro Pan) was a clandestine mass exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors ages 6 to 18 to the United States over a two-year span from 1960 to 1962. They were sent by alarmed parents who heard rumors that Fidel Castro and the Communist party were planning to terminate parental rights and place minors in communist indoctrination centers, an unsubstantiated rumor commonly referred to as the Patria Potestad hoax.[1]

The program consisted of two main components: the mass evacuation of Cuban children via airplane to the US – Miami as a particularly common hub – and the programs set up to care for them once they arrived. Both were led by Father Bryan O. Walsh of the Catholic Welfare Bureau. The operation was the largest mass exodus of minor refugees in the Western Hemisphere at the time. It operated covertly out of fear that it would be viewed as an anti-Castro political enterprise.


The Cuban Exodus and surrounding context[edit]

Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the first wave of Cuban immigrants left for the United States. Most, if not all, thought it to be a temporary solution, imagining a life where they would return to Cuba once the United States liberated the country from both Fidel Castro and the spreading Communist movement.

These were the most elite and well-off members of society: owners of big firms, big merchants, sugar mill owners, manufacturers, cattlemen, representatives of foreign companies and established professionals. They fled once their assets and property were seized by the new government.[2]

Parental fears[edit]

By 1960 the Cuban government began reforming education strategies. School children were taught military drills, how to bear arms, and anti-American songs.[3] By 1961 the Cuban government would seize control of all private schools.

As a result of the new social order, rumors began to swirl, originating from both inside the United States and other anti-Castro media. Various outlets, including Miami's own Miami Herald and Time Magazine, reported that Castro and his followers intended to terminate parental rights, assume custody of all Cuban children, prohibit religion and indoctrinate them into communism.[1] The CIA-backed Radio Swan station asserted that the Cuban government was planning to remove children from their parents and send them to the Soviet Union. Though all of these claims lacked evidence and the Cuban revolutionaries repeatedly denied all claims, the damage had already been done.

These rumors, combined with the pre-existing worry instilled by the Spanish Civil War (during which children were evacuated to other countries), made the patria potestad hoax impossible to contain. It had already reached the Catholic church and the general public, and opponents of the revolution who could not afford to flee during the first wave of the exodus began shipping their children off to safety.

The response: Operation Pedro Pan[edit]

Having been involved in a similar program that gained young Hungarians entrance to the US following Soviet repression of the 1956 uprising,[4] Father Bryan O. Walsh of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, with the help of the U.S. government, developed the Cuban Children's Program in late 1960. Key players included Tracy Voorhees, Eisenhower Administration, James Baker and, of course, Father Walsh.

By most accounts, the story is as follows: An October meeting brought the influx of Cuban refugees in Miami to the attention of the White House, with particular focus on what appeared to be a high number of unaccompanied minors wandering the city. Shortly after, Tracy Voorhees – a veteran U.S. government official who was serving as the president's Personal Representative for Cuban Refugees – reported that, though the issue was not large in number, it had still been highly publicized and, therefore, the administration needed to be seen taking action.[4]

Up until that time, the Catholic church had been the largest provider of aid. But, towards the end of 1960, President Eisenhower approved $1 million to help, with specific funds allocated to the creation of a Cuban emergency refugee center. To further their efforts, and ultimately further the smear campaign of Castro's Cuba, Vorhees recommended the administration further their involvement, this time taking specific interest in caring for the Cuban refugee children.[4]

Simultaneously, James Baker (headmaster of an American school in Havana) met with Walsh (who was already invested in helping already arrived child refugees settle into their new life) to detail his efforts helping parents send their children to Miami. Baker's original goal was to establish a boarding school in the United States for Cuban refugee children. However, both later agreed professional social welfare agencies would be better equipped for the job. The Catholic Welfare Bureau, the Children's Services Bureau and Jewish Family and Children's Services were the agencies that ultimately agreed to care for the refugee children. Thus, in November 1960, they appealed for federal funding, and, following the earlier recommendation from Vorhees, it was granted.[4]

Baker would arrange the children's transportation and facilitate visas, Walsh would arrange for accommodations in Miami and Operation Pedro Pan was a done deal.

Underground organizations led by the involved parents helped spread information. Among those who helped alert parents about the program were Penny Powers, Pancho and Bertha Finlay, Drs. Sergio and Serafina Giquel, Sara del Toro de Odio and Albertina O'Farril. To maintain confidentiality, the program's leaders in the U.S. minimized communications with their contacts in Cuba.



By January 1961, 6,500 Cuban children were enrolled in Miami and Miami-adjacent schools.[4] By September 1962, that number had jumped to 19,000.[5] And while Pedro Pans are often depicted as babies, infants or elementary-school-aged children, most of them were actually teenaged boys.

A lack of limitations placed on how many were admitted coupled with federally-funded foster care made the Cuban Children's Program one like any other. It only continued to grow and get more complex.

In January 1961, the U.S. embassy of Cuba closed, but Operation Peter Pan persisted. Instead of visas, children received waivers in the form of simple letters signed by Walsh effectively gaining them entrance into the country. Airlines were instructed to accept these letters as official documents and, as an added incentive, the U.S. government covered the cost of flights.[4]

From there, things continued to spiral. In September of that year, the State Department began allowing Cuban child refugees to apply for visa waivers on behalf of their parents. For many who could not otherwise afford it or did not already have other relatives in the United States, this became a fairly regular means of familial immigration.[4] Only one month later, the Cuban Missile Crisis ceased all air travel between the U.S. and Cuba.


By late 1960, Castro had expropriated several companies that made up the American Chamber of Commerce in Havana, including Esso Standard Oil Company and Freeport Sulfur Company. The leaders of these companies moved to Miami while they analyzed the actions of Cuba's new government. Under the impression that Castro's rule would be brief, they agreed to aid the Cuban children by providing funding for Operation Peter Pan. Through collaborations with Baker, these business leaders agreed to help secure donations from multiple US businesses and send them to Cuba.

Because Castro was supervising all major monetary transactions, the businessmen were very careful in how the funds were transferred. Some donations were sent to the Catholic Welfare Bureau and others were written out as checks to citizens living in Miami. These individuals then wrote checks out to the W. Henry Smith Travel Agency in Havana, which helped fund the children's flights to the United States. It was necessary to send the funds in American currency because Castro had ruled that plane tickets could not be purchased with Cuban pesos.


As the need for shelters grew as the children arrived in increasing numbers, several prominent locations were converted to house them, including Camp Matecumbe, the Opa-locka Airport Marine barracks. Special homes, authorized by state officials and operated by Cuban refugees, were formed in several hundred cities across the nation including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Lincoln, Nebraska; Wilmington, Delaware; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida.

Many children were placed in foster care, some were placed in positive living environments and others endured emotional and physical neglect. Laws prevented any relocated children from being housed in reform schools or centers for juvenile delinquents. Further, the minors were not made available for adoption.


The Cuban Children's Program remained a secret until February 1962, when the Cleveland Plain Dealer introduced its readers to the masses of unaccompanied Cuban minors who made their way across the country for three straight years. On March 9, The Miami Herald's Gene Miller ran a story of his own, where he coined the term Operation Pedro Pan.[6]

Operation Peter Pan ended when all air traffic between the United States and Cuba ceased in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Cuban immigrants needed to travel via Spain or Mexico to reach the United States until December 1965, when the United States established a program of Freedom Flights to unite Cuban parents with their children. The Catholic Welfare Bureau reported that, once the Freedom Flights began, nearly 90% of the minors still in its care were reunited with their parents.



In 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy approved funding for a documentary film designed to serve the U.S. government's campaign against communism. Called The Lost Apple, it recounted the stories of the children who came to Miami.[7]

Pedro Pan children[edit]

Many Pedro Pans had trouble assimilating into American society. Many were sent to the United States on the instruction of their parents and felt alienated both from their homeland and their new home. Some found the United States an unwelcoming place gripped by racial segregation.

Those who felt uncomfortable in American society often participated in the growing Civil rights movement and anti-war movement, adopted the traits of the growing youth counterculture, or even rejected the ideology of their parents. Many would desire to outright return to Cuba. In the same way, some others found remarkable professional success, and went on to become very distinguishable people. One of such examples is Maximo Alvarez, founder of the fuel distribution chain Sunshine Gasoline Distribution inc., who emigrated to the United States as a Pedro Pan child in 1961, at the age of 13.

Some Pedro Pan children would involve themselves in the Abdala organization, an organization of Cuban-American students dedicated to protesting the Cuban government and promoting Cuban-American pride.

Other Pedro Pan children would adopt leftist sympathies after becoming involved in social movements in the United States. In 1977, some Pedro Pan emigrants joined the Antonio Maceo Brigade that sympathized with the Cuban government and supported Cuban exiles' travel to Cuba. The brigade would make the first trip of Cuban exiles to Cuba.

Conflicting narratives[edit]

Despite their best efforts to present it as such, the United States government did not allow such a mass number of Cuban immigrants into the country solely out of the goodness of their hearts. In fact, the encouraged immigration of the middle class was a well thought out and deliberate attempt to undermine the revolution, stripping the country of those who were needed to stabilize both the economy and social structure.[6] Additionally, once underway, the American media exploited stories of abandoned Pedro Pans to deepen Anti-Castro sentiment within the Americas, making a direct correlation between the rise of Communism and the separation of families.

These ulterior motives are only further emphasized with a look at refugee policy in regard to other nations. In 1939, German refugee children were denied entry under the belief that admitting them without their parents was “against the will of God.” Only 240 child refugees from German-controlled parts of Europe were allowed access. Even after the war, only 375 children were admitted under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.[4]

Another area that lacks in clarity is what conditions Pedro Pans actually experienced upon arrival. Many accounts tell the story of well adjusted, happy children, grateful for the American rescue-mission that saved them from the evils of Communism. In fact, in 1990, a group of now adult Pedro Pans established Operation Pedro Pan Group Inc. in Florida, offering thanks to their parents for making the "ultimate sacrifice...by sending us away from our homeland to freedom" and paying it forward by committing themselves to supporting abused, homeless and otherwise unaccompanied children.

Still, in 1978, El Grupo Areito and Casa de las Américas collaborated to publish "Contra viento y marea", a book of anonymous testimonies detailing alienation from both the Cuban community from which they fled and the American community to which they came. A direct contrast to the previous happy-go-lucky stories of Operation Pedro Pan, these accounts told stories of loneliness, poor conditions and mental, physical and sexual abuse.[6] Despite pressures, storytellers like Mario Ernesto Sanchez (founder of Miami's Teatro Avante) and Marina Ochoa (producer of Pedro Pan documentary "Del otro lado del cristal") remained determined to tell more complex stories that detailed the hardships of being a Pedro Pan.

Controversy over CIA involvement[edit]

An ongoing political controversy developed around charges that Operation Peter Pan was not an effort of volunteers and charitable organization, but had been secretly funded by the U.S. government as a covert operation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Author Maria de los Angeles Torres filed a Freedom of Information Act suit to obtain government files on the program. In 1999, a ruling by the U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois determined that this "evacuation of Cuban children turned out not to be a CIA operation at all".[8] The ruling was based in part on the court's review of 733 pages of documentation provided by the CIA for use in an earlier lawsuit.[9]

Participants in Operation Peter Pan[edit]

Unaccompanied Cuban minors, known at the time as "Pedro Pans" or "Peter Pans", who participated in the operation include:

In culture[edit]

Operation Peter Pan is recounted in:

  • Waiting for Snow in Havana, in which Carlos Eire describes his experiences during Operation Peter Pan
  • Learning to Die in Miami, another memoir by Carlos Eire about his emigration to the United States from Havana
  • Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children, based on the research and interviews of Yvonne M. Conde
  • The Red Umbrella, a young-adult historical fiction novel by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, based on her mother's exile from Cuba as a teenager[14]
  • Cuba on My Mind: Journeys to a Severed Nation, an exploration of Havana, Miami, and the "one-and-half-generation" by Román de la Campa[15]
  • Boxing For Cuba, a 2007 memoir by Bill Vidal, civil servant and mayor of Denver[16]
  • "Operation Peter Pan", a song written by Tori Amos originally on the B-side to the limited edition release of her single "A Sorta Fairytale"
  • The operation is the main influence behind the Manic Street Preachers song "Baby Elián", the penultimate track from the band's sixth studio album, Know Your Enemy.
  • On the 2017 Netflix Original Series One Day at a Time, Lydia Riera, played by Rita Moreno, the grandmother on the show, came to the US via Pedro Pan.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b “The Patria Potestad Hoax.” Operation Pedro Pan and the Exodus of Cuba's Children, by DEBORAH SHNOOKAL, 1st ed., University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2020, pp. 105–126. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv12sdxzr.9. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.
  2. ^ Pedraza-Bailey, Silvia. “Cuba's Exiles: Portrait of a Refugee Migration.” The International Migration Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 1985, pp. 4–34. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2545654. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  3. ^ "Cuba's 'Peter Pans' Remember Childhood Exodus". National Geographic. 15 August 2015. Retrieved 3 August 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h SHNOOKAL, DEBORAH. “Operation Pedro Pan and the Children Who Could Fly.” Operation Pedro Pan and the Exodus of Cuba's Children, 1st ed., University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2020, pp. 127–159. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv12sdxzr.10. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  5. ^ SHNOOKAL, DEBORAH. “The Dark Side of Neverland.” Operation Pedro Pan and the Exodus of Cuba's Children, 1st ed., University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2020, pp. 160–196. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv12sdxzr.11. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  6. ^ a b c BRADFORD, ANITA CASAVANTES. “Remembering Pedro Pan: Childhood and Collective Memory Making in Havana and Miami, 1960—2000.” Cuban Studies, no. 44, 2016, pp. 283–308., www.jstor.org/stable/44111920. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  7. ^ "Pedro Pan". NPR. 3 May 2000. Retrieved 5 November 2015.
  8. ^ "Torres v. C.I.A.". 12 March 1999. Retrieved 1 May 2016.
  9. ^ "Torres v. C.I.A.". 15 December 1998. Retrieved 1 May 2016.
  10. ^ a b Moraid, Fernando (2015). The Last Soldiers of the Cold War: The Story of the Cuban Five. Verso. ISBN 978-1781688762. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  11. ^ "Cuban Americans Await President Obamas Visit to Cuba". NBC Los Angeles. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  12. ^ "Un cubano reencontró a su madre pero no lo reconoció | Video". CNN (in Spanish). Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  13. ^ Muellner, Alexis (29 November 2013). "'Pedro-Pan kid' Mario Garcia had to show resiliency, passion for storytelling early". Tampa Bay Business Journal. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  14. ^ Quattlebaum, Mary (4 August 2010). "Christina Diaz Gonzalez's 'The Red Umbrella' and Adam Rex's 'Fat Vampire'". Washington Post. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  15. ^ Flores, Juan. "Latinos, Cubanos and the New Americanism." Foreword to Cuba on My Mind
  16. ^ "Denver Official Tells Childhood Story of Rescue, Survival". Around the Nation. NPR. 15 July 2011. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  17. ^ "The inspiration behind Netflix's timely 'One Day at a Time' reboot". CNN. 6 January 2016.

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