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Pedro Pan

by Peter Davis

In late December of 1960, Cuban families—many affluent and well-connected—began sending their children out of the country to what they hoped would be temporary shelter in the United States. A Catholic organization based in Miami was offering a limited number of visas to children, with the promise that they would be taken care of until the rest of the family could join them. The decision facing these parents was a wrenching one, forcing many families to make impossible choices, leading often to lengthy and sometimes permanent separations. But over the next two years more than 14,000 children were flown out of Cuba in an exodus that some deemed a great humanitarian effort, and others claimed was a cold and calculated plot by the CIA to undermine Fidel Castro. Called “Operation Pedro Pan,” this amazing event constitutes an extraordinary, though often overlooked, chapter in US-Cuban relations. Bloody coups were nothing new in Latin America—and Cuba certainly had its share in the twentieth century. But Castro’s first few months in power seemed especially out of character for a revolutionary who had once been hailed as a media darling. During the late 1950s, despite his well-known background as a revolutionary guerilla fighter, Castro was exalted in the world press as a popular, youthful and charismatic leader—a new generation of Latin American. But his celebrated ascension to power in January of 1959 was soon marked by a period of unrestrained bloodshed and violent political reprisals that shocked many of his supporters, especially in the United States. In just the first six months alone, Castro and his revolutionary forces executed hundreds of followers of the deposed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and jailed thousands more. The violence and political upheaval was of particular concern for Cuba’s powerful middle-class, who owed much of their affluence to their business dealings with the United States. Cuba’s middle-class earned much of their wealth during the 1940s and 50s from three principal industries—agriculture (mostly sugar cane), oil and hospitality—and the principal market for these industries was the United States. Of course, political upheaval was not terribly conducive to good business, but the real threat was from Castro’s undeclared allegiances. Up until 1959, few thought much about Castro’s political leanings. After all, he had to be better than the blatantly corrupt Batista regime. Even those in Cuba’s middle-class were initially happy to be rid of Batista and received Castro’s premiership in February of 1959 with joyous if wary anticipation. But by mid-1959, it was clear Castro was undertaking a number of fundamental reforms that soon proved harmful to American interests on the island and were especially worrying to Cuba’s middle-class. Of particular concern was the Agrarian Reform Law passed on May 17, 1959, that limited individual land holdings to four square kilometers (roughly 990 acres) and banned all foreigners from owning land. The reasons for these reforms vary according to political perspective, but were initially thought to be rooted in Castro’s desire to overcome the dire state of federal finances left behind by the departed Batista. Whatever the reasons, the Agrarian Reform Law left a number of major corporations in serious trouble. The American agriculture giant, United Fruit, alone lost over 35,000 acres of sugar cane in January of 1960. By 1961 hundreds of thousands of acres of corporate-owned agricultural land was either sold off at discounted prices or appropriated by the government. Needless to say, the United States government and the Eisenhower Administration were becoming increasingly concerned about Castro’s intentions and the future of American investments in Cuba. On the island, rumors about Castro’s Marxist inclinations dominated private political discourse, though Castro would not publicly declare himself a Marxist, and Cuba a communist state, until December of 1961. In late 1959, the United States, concerned about Castro’s Marxist potential, persuaded Great Britain to cancel the sale of much-needed jet fighters to Cuba’s military. It was a fateful step. Unsurprisingly, Castro turned elsewhere for help. The year 1960 saw increasing strains in US-Cuban relations, beginning with Castro’s decision in February to import Soviet oil. American-owned refineries refused to process the oil and in retaliation, Castro quickly nationalized them. Within weeks the United States suspended diplomatic relations, which only pushed the Cubans further into the Soviet camp. Cuba soon signed several agreements that increased Soviet military and economic aid, specifically to offset the loss in American and British support. Eisenhower responded by reducing the US sugar quota by 7 million tons, hoping to force Cuba back into the American sphere of influence through economic sanctions. It backfired. Castro immediately seized close to $1 billion worth of American-owned companies and began a nationwide program to collectivize agriculture and nationalize major industries. American investment plummeted. American imports, which had totaled nearly two thirds of the entire Cuban economy in 1958 dropped to a mere 4% in 1961 and to 0% in 1962. While Castro’s Soviet-inspired policies were immensely popular among Cuba’s impoverished majority, it caused great concern among Cuba’s already unnerved middle-class. For many it was the final straw. By December of 1960, the Eisenhower Administration was making clear its dissatisfaction with Castro. Word spread that the US was planning to withdraw its ambassador and close its embassy. Indeed, Eisenhower did just that on January 3, 1961. But a week earlier, beginning the day after Christmas, Cuban families began sending their children out of the country on commercial flights to Miami, unknowingly reacting to a carefully orchestrated CIA plan to undermine support for Castro. As early as October, 1959, the US had initiated a clandestine CIA program to overthrow Castro’s regime that included a covert disinformation campaign. Through planted stories in the media—principally Radio Swan, the US propaganda station set up to broadcast into Cuba—the CIA fanned fears of Castro’s communist inclinations. Of particular concern were rumors and stories that surfaced after the institution of the Agrarian Reform Bill claiming Castro planned to round up middle-class children and students and ship them into the countryside to educate the peasants and work on collective farms. In fact, Cuban youth groups, formed shortly after Castro assumed power seemed to support this with a succession of marches and rallies held in Havana and other large cities proclaiming, among other things, the benefits of collective farming and education of the peasants. Castro was an outspoken advocate of the necessity of educating the peasant classes, so such sentiments were understandably echoed by his supporters. “Students are Teachers” was a popular sign at these rallies and interpreted by some to mean that children would be sent into the country’s rural areas to live and teach. The prospect that school-aged daughters would be separated from their families and forced to live on communal farms and teach in peasant schools without parental supervision was simply beyond the cultural tolerance of most middle-class Cuban families. Worse yet, some claimed children would be sent to work in the Soviet Union. Throughout 1960, Radio Swan continued to broadcast bogus news stories of Cuban children being forcibly taken from their families to work in the fields or rural schools as the State Department and the CIA worked on its second phase of the plan—to actually split Cuban families by encouraging them to send their children to the safe haven of the United States, until presumably the rest of the families could join them in exile. The thinking was that if Cuban families were forced to split up, this would induce the adults remaining behind to oppose Castro and his revolution. In pursuit of this goal, the US government was quite specific in whom they would allow in—only children aged 5 to 18 would be granted visas, forcing Cuban families to make wrenching choices, often resulting in permanent separations. The program, dubbed Operation Pedro Pan, was nominally under the control of the Catholic Services Bureau in Florida, offered as a humanitarian assistance program. But the real force behind the program was, of course, the CIA. Over the next two years, over 14,000 children and adolescents were separated from their families and flown to the apparent safety of the United States. But few of the families followed immediately and the displaced children were held for weeks in camps in southern Florida until they could be placed in foster homes and orphanages. While many of the families were eventually reunited, the psychological effects of Operation Pedro Pan left many children emotionally scarred, with feelings of extreme dislocation and a childhood lost. Needless to say, the plan to undermine middle-class support for Castro’s regime failed. But the controversy over Operation Pedro Pan remains, with many anti-Castro groups claiming the program saved thousands from the horrors of Castro’s brutal regime, while others point out the deliberate manipulation and abuse at the heart of the CIA’s plan and the documented cases of suffering and abuse that many Pedro Pan refugees experienced once in the States from the very people meant to protect them. It is an issue, of course, that may never be satisfactorily resolved, especially under the prevailing political climate. For more information on Operation Pedro Pan, visit