Operation Pedro Pan was an under-the-radar plan of the early 1960s to help families get their children out of Cuba before the Communist regime had complete control of the country. Unaccompanied children traveled on commercial flights from Havana to Miami. A representative of Catholic Charities of Miami met them at the airport and helped coordinate family reunions or placement in foster homes of those without families.
In the News
Awareness of the Cuban situation of the 1960s was brought to mind when Fidel Castro’s death on November 25, 2016, was announced. While there were Cubans sincerely mourning the only true leader they had ever known, there were also many instances captured on video of Cuban Americans dancing in the streets at the news of Castro’s death.
The spirited celebrations reflected the fact that many felt they had no option but to flee their homeland when Castro came to power.
On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary fighters overthrew the U.S.-backed authoritarian government of Fulgencio Batista. With this military coup, Castro changed the face of Cuba by pulling it away from being a U.S.-leaning country. Adopting a Marxist-Leninist ideology, Castro converted Cuba into a pro-Soviet, one-party, socialist state under Communist Party rule. This made Cuba the first and only Communist country in the Western Hemisphere.
With the military takeover, Cuban families with money left for the United States as quickly as possible, fearing the new regime. Those of lesser means did not have that option. Because the previous government had been far from ideal for many of those remaining, they held out initial hope that Castro brought good. He wanted to improve literacy, and he made healthcare more available.
But as he implemented his Marxist-Leninist ideology in the schools, parents became concerned. The schoolchildren were being trained for the military. Rumors spread that the government planned to remove children from their families and place them in camps. There, they would be taught that the state was more important than the family.
Even more upsetting to the people was Castro’s declaration that Cuba was to be an atheist nation. The Cuban population was heavily Catholic, and this did not go over well in a country where religion was the backbone of many communities.
Families were torn as to what to do. They were concerned for themselves but were even more worried for their children. A few of the parents undertook the unthinkable—they bought plane tickets to send their children, unaccompanied, to the United States. Some had family who had preceded them to America and could meet the children at the airport. Many simply hoped for the best, trusting that America was a place of good, and someone would help their children.
At first, the flow of children was only a trickle. But this gave warning of what was to come, permitting a plan to be formulated.
Operation Pedro Pan Starts Slowly
The first person to be made aware of what might follow was a perfect player: Father Bryan Walsh was a Catholic priest in charge of the Catholic Charities of Miami. One day a parishioner came to Father Walsh’s office with a young boy named Pedro. Pedro arrived in Miami and had no family and nowhere to go. Given the situation in Cuba, he couldn’t go back. Could Father Walsh help him?
Father Walsh found a foster home for the boy. He was the first of many.
The program was eventually called Operation Pedro Pan, after the first young boy to be placed. But the program was not referred to officially until the spring of 1962. Organizers feared that if the evacuation of the children was publicized or sounded too organized, Cuba would shut it down.
With Father Walsh tending to placement of the children, someone needed to be on the ground in Cuba to help with evacuating the kids. That person was an American named James Baker who was based in Havana where he ran an elite private school for young Cubans. On one of Baker’s trips to Miami, he and Walsh ironed out a plan.
The plan was for Baker to help families who wanted to send their children out of the country. The intent was to limit the program to children 6-16. Despite this, some younger children came through the system. Once in the U.S., Father Walsh’s network took over. From the moment the children landed at the airport, someone was looking out for their well-being.
The regular flights of unaccompanied minors began in December of 1960. Families could purchase plane tickets for $25 on commercial airlines. Two flights per day were generally leaving Cuba.
There were tearful good byes between parents and their children. Older children and parents understood the harsh reality—the children would never be able to return to Cuba, and it was anyone’s guess as to whether the parents would ever make it out to join their children. (Fathers tried to avoid crying until after their children had boarded the plane, but it was very hard for many of them, knowing they might never see their sons or daughters again.)
The children boarded the plane with a passport, a plastic bag containing a favorite toy or blanket, and a visa pinned to their clothing.
When families heard that someone was helping find homes for the children, the wave of children increased. Because so many were coming and because time was of the essence, Father Walsh contacted the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to ask that the need for a visa be waived. The state department agreed to this as long as an agency outside the government (like Catholic Charities) was administering the program.
Over the course of an 18-month period, over 14,000 Cuban children arrived in the U.S. to start a new life.
The New World Started in Miami
In Miami, the children were always greeted by a representative from Catholic Charities. About 50 percent of them were met by relatives. The others were placed in group homes or foster homes over time.
An article in The New York Times (5-27-62) described the world of these children. The reporter wrote that all the children were given a weekly allowance of $2 for stamps, ice cream, or excursions such as to the movies or the bowling alley. The article mentioned that some of the children asked their house parents to hold on to the money for them. They wanted to save what they could to help their parents buy plane tickets to come and join them.
A few of the children were from Protestant and Jewish families. Catholic Charities worked with members from those religious organizations to see that the children were matched with a home where they were most comfortable.
South Florida Fills Up
Catholic Charities soon ran out of homes in south Florida. The Church put out the word that homes were needed across the nation.
Group homes were established in Jacksonville and Orlando, and then later, in states throughout the country—from Delaware and New Mexico to Montana. The fact that people all over the country opened their doors to help with what could have been viewed as a “Florida problem” shows the goodness of the American people. It also illustrates that the fear of Communism atmosphere of the late 50s and early 1960s was relevant to people in all states.
The story of Cuban children arriving in Helena, Montana, in early 1962 was told in an article in Montana The Magazine of Western History (spring 2014). These children, too, started out in group homes, but Catholic services found homes for most of their younger children.
The Helena area hosted somewhere between 100-130 children in 1962. Of course, many moved away, but some stayed thus altering the complexion of America. While Florida is home to many Cuban Americans, the fact that families throughout the country welcomed these children has meant that many have found comfort in calling other parts of the U.S. their home.
Others left the states they called home but were forever affected by their experience: Mario Toca and Ana Plasencia were both placed in Helena, Montana, in 1962. They did not know each other while there. Later, they were introduced, and the bond they shared from their experience led to love and later, to marriage.
The End of Operation Pedro Pan
The program continued to evacuate young people for many months, but flights were interrupted in in April of 1961 when the CIA-led Invasion of the Bay of Pigs was attempted but failed. Then the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 brought a permanent halt to the flights. Cuban citizens were no longer able to fly directly to the U.S.
Diplomatic Efforts Create Opportunity
The American and the Cuban governments finally listened to the pleas of families who were separated by the government change-over. Under an agreement between the two governments, Freedom Flights began on December 1, 1965. Close to 90 percent of children who were still in foster homes were reunited with their parents by June of 1966.
Operation Pedro Pan still exists as an organization. Because the program was ad hoc and had no official registry in order to protect the families, the records of the young people who arrived in the United States during those years are incomplete.
If you—or someone you know—came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor during those years, Operation Pedro Pan would like to hear from you. They are gathering stories and facilitating reunions where they can.