Operation Peter Pan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Operation Peter Pan (Operation Pedro Pan or Operación Pedro Pan) was a mass exodus of unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States between 1960 and 1962. Created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau headed by Father Bryan O. Walsh, the program provided air transportation to the United States for Cuban children. This operation was the result of wary parents under the newly instated Castro Regime who did not want to give up their parental rights to the Cuban government. Largely unpublicized for fear of being viewed as political propaganda, this underground operation eventually became the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied youth in the Western hemisphere.



Operation Peter Pan was first developed in November of 1960 by Father Bryan O. Walsh, director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau. According Edward J. Neyra in his publication Cuba, Lost and Found, Walsh was inspired by a fifteen year old Cuban boy named Pedro Menéndez who had immigrated to Miami to live with family. His relatives could not support him and they came to the Catholic Welfare Bureau for help. Walsh understood that countless more “Pedros” from Cuba would be immigrating to the United States after the establishment of Communism under Fidel Castro.[1] Speculations that this new government was planning to send minors to the Soviet Union to serve in work camps were causing panic in Cuban parents, who wanted to leave with their families but did not have the means to do so.[2]

Walsh contacted Tracy Voorhees, who suggested the Eisenhower Administration provide funding to aid Cuban immigrants once they arrived in Miami, a mere ninety miles from the coast of Cuba. James Baker, the headmaster of an American school located in Havana, met with Walsh and detailed his efforts with several parents to expatriate their children to Miami. Operation Peter Pan was formed under the agreement that Baker would arrange the exile of children, and Walsh would find shelters for them once in Miami.

Many other key figures assisted in alerting parents throughout the island about this program, including 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 kept only minimal contact with the members in Cuba. Underground organizations led by the involved parents spread information regarding Operation Peter Pan.


As detailed in the Catherine Krull's book Cuba in a Global Context, between December 26, 1960 and October 23, 1962, more than 14,000 Cuban youths traveled to Miami without their parents.[3][4] Until early 1962, the children were required to have a visa and twenty-five dollars for airfare into the United States.[1] Many family members already in the United States applied for visas and saved up money to send to relatives in Cuba. The US Embassy in Havana also played a large role in the issuing of student visas to children leaving the country. On January 3, 1962, the U.S. Department of State announced that Cuban minors no longer needed visas to immigrate to the United States. Nearly half of the minors who arrived were reunited with family, while the majority were placed in shelters by the Catholic Welfare Bureau.[5]

After the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, all flights between the United States and Cuba stopped, marking the cessation of Operation Peter Pan. In order for Cuban immigrants to enter the United States, they were required to fly through Spain or Mexico until December 1965. At that point, the United States began providing Freedom Flights so Cuban parents and their children could reunite.

Demographics of minors[edit]

A large majority of the minors who arrived in Miami were between the ages of 12 and 18, and over two-thirds were boys over the age of 12. They were predominantly Catholic, but those of Protestant, Jewish, and non-practicing backgrounds were also involved. Operation Peter Pan mainly benefited children of the middle or lower classes, as those of wealthier families had likely already immigrated.[5]


As the numbers of children who arrived in the US increased, concern for the availability of shelters grew. In Miami, Camp Matecumbe, the Opa-locka Airport Marine barracks, and several other prominent locations were converted to housing for the immigrated children. Until an article was published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer detailing the efforts of those involved with this operation, all involvement and care for these children was unknown of outside of Miami. The article circulated throughout the US, and more people began to learn about Operation Peter Pan.[1] 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. Laws prevented any relocated children from being housed in reform schools or centers for juvenile delinquents. As Operation Pedro Pan was originally established in order to protect the rights of Cuban parents and guardians, none of the minors were adopted through this program.

Despite claims that large amounts of minors involved in Operation Peter Pan lost contact with their families, records prove this is not true. The agency shows no records of lost minors, and once the Freedom Flights began, nearly 90% of the minors still being cared for under the Catholic Welfare Bureau were able to reunite with their parents.[5]

Originally, many Cubans believed that Castro’s time in power would be short-lived. Minors in the United States and their families believed that they would be reunited in Cuba, but eventually, numerous parents left their home-country behind for what is still known as Cuban Miami today.[6]


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.[7]

Government involvement[edit]

In 1962, the US government commissioned a documentary film called The Lost Apple, which recounted the stories of these children who came to Miami. The film named Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as being responsible for the parents' difficult decisions to send their children away in hopes of better education and freedom. According to Maria de los Angeles Torres, author of the book The Lost Apple: Operation Peter Pan, then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy approved the making of this documentary as part of the US government’s campaign against Communism.[4]

As a refutation to claims that this was an operation of the United States CIA, the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, ruled in a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by Torres that this “evacuation of Cuban children turned out not to be a CIA operation at all.”[1] The ruling was based in part on the court’s review of seven hundred thirty-three pages of documentation provided by the CIA used in an earlier court claim. [2]


The unaccompanied Cuban minors who were part of the Operation Pedro Pan exodus call themselves "Pedro Pans" or "Peter Pans" today. Several are now well-known figures in American culture, including:

  • US Senator Mel Martinez, former Florida Senator and first Latino chairman of the Republican party
  • Willy Chirino, Cuban-American rapper and salsa singer
  • Lissette Alvarez, singer, song-writer and producer currently married to Chirino[8]
  • Eduardo J. Padrón, current President of Miami Dade College
  • Armando Codina, real estate developer and Executive Chairman of Codina Partners, LLC[9]
  • Alfredo Lanier, journalist for the Chicago Tribune[10]
  • Margarita Exquiroz, Miami-Dade County circuit judge and Florida's first female Hispanic judge[11]
  • Maria de los Angeles Torres, author of "The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the U.S. and the Promise of a Better Future” and “In the Land of Mirrors: The Politics of Cuban Exiles in the United States”[12]
  • Ana Mendieta, an artist who has showcased her art in numerous famed national and international museums

As adults, some Peter Pans created the charitable organization "Operation Pedro Pan Group", which helps needy children and preserves the history of Operation Peter Pan.

In culture[edit]

Operation Peter Pan is recounted in countless memoirs and works of writing, including:

  • Waiting for Snow in Havana, in which Carlos Eire describes his experiences during Operation Peter Pan
  • Learning to Die in Miami, another memoir of Carlos Eire about his immigration to the United States from Havana
  • Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children, a publication based on the research and interviews of Yvonne M. Conde
  • The Red Umbrella, a young-adult historical fiction novel by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, which is based on her mother's exile from Cuba as a teenager
  • 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[13]
  • 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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Neyra, Edward (2010). Cuba, Lost and Found. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press. pp. 13–15. ISBN 978-1578603909. 
  2. ^ "Pedro Pan". NPR.org. Retrieved 2015-11-05. 
  3. ^ Krull, Catherine (2014). Cuba in a Global Context. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-8130-4910-6. 
  4. ^ a b Pedro Pan : NPR
  5. ^ a b c "History | Pedro Pan". www.pedropan.org. Retrieved 2015-11-05. 
  6. ^ Kuper, Simon (2010-11-19). "My friend, the Cuban Peter Pan". Financial Times. ISSN 0307-1766. Retrieved 2015-11-05. 
  7. ^ "Agustin Blazquez". www.cubankids1960.com. Retrieved 2015-11-05. 
  8. ^ http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Music/10/24/pitbull.rapper/index.html?iref=24hours
  9. ^ "Effort Begins to List Pedro Pan Children". TheLedger.com. Retrieved 2015-11-05. 
  10. ^ "CNN - Cuban-Americans struggle with memories of childhood airlifts - January 12, 1998". www.cnn.com. Retrieved 2015-11-05. 
  11. ^ http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/04/17/2753999/former-miami-dade-circuit-judge.html
  12. ^ "Maria de los Angeles Torres | UIC News Center". news.uic.edu. Retrieved 2015-11-05. 
  13. ^ Flores, Juan. "Latinos, Cubanos and the New Americanism." Foreword to Cuba on My Mind

External links[edit]