While watching the Netflix series, “One Day at a Time,” centered on a Cuban family residing in the United States – great series, by the way, the grandmother spoke of ‘Pedro Pan.' She monologued thousands of children were sent to the United States to escape the oppression occurring in Cuba and described leaving her older sister at the airport. Only children 16 and under could leave, but her sister had just turned 17. Although the heartbreaking story was fictionalized in the series, I’m sure it was more than true for a lot of children that had to leave their siblings. I remember learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis in school but didn’t recall any teachings on the ‘Pedro Pan’ program. The story moved me enough to research the program and to learn more about it.
In 1960, a Cuban boy named Pedro was brought to the office of Father Bryan O. Walsh, the Director of Catholic Welfare Bureau. Pedro was sent to Miami unaccompanied to live with relatives to escape Castro. Fidel Castro closed Catholic schools, formed ‘youth groups to engage children of all ages in communist ideology,' enrolled children into a military camp and sent children to study on collective farms in Russia or one of the Soviet satellite countries. Castro also had thoughts on ending ‘Patria Potestad,' the legal rights of parents over their children.
Pedro’s relatives were suffering hardship and requested Pedro be cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. Walsh anticipated far more “Pedros” and requested assistance from the government to care for the unaccompanied children residing in Miami. His request was granted, and he established the “Cuban Children’s Program” in 1960. Around the same time in Havana, Mr. James Baker, the headmaster of Ruston Academy, was creating a plan to get as many children as possible to Miami. With a common goal amongst both men, Baker and Walsh met on December 12, 1960. It was decided that Baker would oversee the children’s departure from Cuba and Walsh would oversee their care in the United States. The program was coined the name ‘Operation Pedro Pan’ after an article written by reporter Gene Miller for the Miami Herald in 1962 titled ‘Peter (Pedro) Pan Means Real Life to Some Kids.’
Under the sponsorship of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, a grand total of 14,048 unaccompanied children left Cuba for Miami between December 26, 1960 and October 23, 1962. They were told to ask for ‘George’ once they reached the Miami airport, ‘George’ being an employee that would meet the children at the airport. Ages ranged from 6 to 16 years. The operation wasn’t restricted to just Catholic Cuban children, but included children that were African, Caucasian, Asian, Protestant, Jewish and non-domination children that resided in Cuba.
The children were given visa-waivers and permission to live in the United States where they were educated and taught English. They were housed in foster homes, orphanages, boarding schools and were housed by sex and age. There were many children that did need the assistance of the Catholic Welfare Bureau once they reached Miami as they were fortunate enough to have relatives that could provide care. The objective of the operation was to care for as many children as possible until they reunited with their families. Therefore, children were not to be put up for adoption but to remain in foster care.
The Pedro Pan Operation ended on October 22, 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis stopped commercial flights between Havana and Miami. Although family reunions began as early as after the arrival of the first group of Pedro Pan children to arrive in Miami, other families that could not leave Cuba for the United States before the Cuban Missile Crisis had to wait until Freedom Flights from Havana to Miami began in December 1, 1965. These Freedom Flights occurred twice a day and gave precedence to parents and immediate family members reuniting with their children (under the age of 21) in the United States.
Some children had a wait of a few days to as long as a few years to be reunited with their family. Unfortunately, Castro made it increasingly difficult for their parents to leave Cuba. It’s reported that almost 90% of the Pedro Pan children were reunited with their families by June 1966.
You can find out more about Operation Pedro Pan from the children themselves: