Operation Pedro Pan

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower approved the implementation of a secret, multifaceted plan by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on March 17, 1960, to covertly remove Cuban leader Fidel Castro from power. Castro had assumed power in early 1959 after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, and was determined to do whatever it took to end Cuba’s neocolonial relationship with the U.S. Castro’s agrarian reforms, his nationalization of American-owned businesses in Cuba, and his economic agreements with the Soviet Union had convinced Eisenhower that he was a dangerous communist.

Dwight Eisenhower and Fidel Castro
In 1960 Pres. Dwight Eisenhower approved a secret CIA plan to overthrow the Cuban government led by Fidel Castro.(Wikipedia)

The Eisenhower administration’s decision to treat Castro as a Cold War adversary resulted in a steady deterioration in the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. during the remainder of 1960. Things came to a head on October 19 when the U.S. imposed a trade embargo against Cuba, and the next day the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Philip Bonsal, was recalled.

About a week later Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, the director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Miami, got a call from the State Department asking him to go to Washington, D.C. There he was asked to participate in a clandestine operation to smuggle Cuban children into the U.S. He agreed and was eventually given unprecedented authority to issue “visa waivers” which were smuggled into Cuba and that allowed any unaccompanied Cuban child between the ages of 6 to 16 to ostensibly study in the U.S. The U.S. government did not, however, create a special visa program for the children’s parents.

The program, which came to be called Operation Pedro Pan, was part of the CIA’s plan to overthrow Castro. It was a psychological warfare campaign run by CIA officer David Atlee Phillips (alias Maurice Bishop), designed to rob Castro of Cuba’s best students and solidify anti-Castro feelings in their parents. Phillips had previously managed a disinformation campaign in support of Eisenhower’s CIA-sponsored military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954.

Catholic Opposition to Castro

The CIA’s decision to have the State Department ask Msgr. Walsh for help made sense because Castro was feuding with the Catholic church. The Cuban Catholic church was very conservative and aligned with the country’s oligarchy. Most of its priests were from Spain, which had governed Cuba as a colony from 1511 until 1898. In 1960 Spain was ruled by fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who had assumed power after winning the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Franco’s government was ruthless, having killed between 30,000 and 50,000 political opponents through the use of forced labor and executions in concentration camps. Franco’s fascist Falange party emphasized Catholicism, and the Spanish Catholic church had supported him during the war. (Franco had also received military support from fascist dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.)

In November of 1959 the Cuban National Catholic Congress had conducted an enormous outdoor mass in Havana’s Civic Plaza. Castro accused “the privileged class” of trying to turn the event into a rally against his agrarian land reforms.

Then on January 20, 1960, Castro made a nationwide TV address in which he read from a letter he said had been seized from a recently arrested counter-revolutionary. It identified the Spanish Embassy in Havana as a support center for anti-Castro Cuban Catholics. Spain’s Ambassador to Cuba Juan Pablo Lojendio was watching the broadcast and became so agitated that he went to the studio and interrupted Castro’s broadcast. Castro’s responded by expelling him from Havana and ending diplomatic relations with Spain.

In late March Cuba’s Catholic bishops drafted a pastoral letter denouncing the growth of communist influence they were seeing in Cuba’s government. It wasn’t publicly issued, supposedly due to pressure from Castro. But on Sunday, May 22, an anti-communist pastoral letter was read in the churches in Castro’s home province of Oriente. In early June the Catholic Archbishop of Havana, Msgr. Evelio Diaz, a Castro supporter, was summoned to the Vatican for consultation for failing to sign that letter.

On Sunday, July 17, Catholic parishioners, mostly women, marched out onto the square in front of Havana Cathedral after attending a mass dedicated to “victims of communist persecution” while chanting “Cuba, si, Russia, no!” A similar, demonstration occurred at another Havana church the following day. Castro responded that night with a speech on Cuban television wherein he claimed that the demonstrations were coordinated by the U.S. State Department and the priests involved were “fascists.” He criticized “those false Christians who go to church to conspire instead of pray,” and called on “good Christians” to get rid of “those who want to make the temples trenches” against his revolutionary government.

The Cuban clergy read a pastoral letter to all of their congregations across the island on Sunday, August 8, that criticized the “increasing advance of communism” in Cuba. The letter, which was signed by the archbishop of Havana, Manuel Arteaga, proclaimed “Catholicism and communism respond to two concepts of man and the world that are totally opposed to each other and that can never be reconciled.” Castro, who was raised a Catholic, responded a few days later by claiming that the U.S. had encouraged Franco to pressure “fascist” Spanish priests in the Cuban church to criticize his revolutionary government. “They are not only traitors to Christ but to their people and to the fatherland,” he said.

There was also armed Catholic resistance to Castro’s government. In February a secret organization of Cuban Catholics, calling themselves La Cruz (The Cross), announced they were launching an anti-Castro terrorism campaign in Cuba, and had already marked all key communists in Castro’s regime for assassination. They began their efforts by distributing thousands of propaganda leaflets in Havana’s prosperous Miramar and Vedado neighborhoods. La Cruz subsequently took credit for an enormous explosion on Sunday, June 26, at a Havana munitions dump that reportedly killed two people and wounded more than 200. And the group bragged that earlier in the month they had nearly assassinated Cuban government leader Che Guevara.

The CIA also wanted to take advantage of the Catholic church’s involvement in Cuba’s educational system. The best schools in Cuba were private, and many of them were Catholic schools. Even the public University of Havana had been a Catholic school for the first 114 years of its existence. Castro had promised to improve public education for all Cubans, including the rural poor, and he immediately began to do it after assuming power in 1959. But in addition to teaching traditional topics, his education program required students to take political courses that supported his revolutionary government. Catholic school officials feared that Castro’s education reforms threatened the continued existence of their schools.

The CIA exploited the situation by scaring Cuban parents into believing a proposed Cuban law had been uncovered that would allow Castro’s government to take legal custody of their children in order to politically indoctrinate them. On October 26 a CIA radio station on nearby Swan Island broadcast this fake news about the proposed new law and Cuban Catholic church leaders met to organize their opposition to it. The announcement created a tremendous amount of panic among devoutly Catholic Cuban parents.

The Cuban government had, in fact, proposed a new education law, but it didn’t include the government taking custody of children. It proposed that all teachers in Cuba, including those at private schools, had to be state employees in order to provide “truly democratic education, without privilege or discrimination.” Church leaders said this would limit religious freedom by depriving parents the right to give their children a strictly Catholic education. But the government said priests were trying to “use the Catholic faith to divide the national conscience” and Castro wanted all private schools to include the political courses he had required public schools to teach.

A secret network of people in Cuba, including James Baker, head of the prestigious Ruston Academy in Havana, was able to easily persuade frightened parents to send their children to the U.S. using the secret visa waiver program. The parents were promised that their children could be seated on regularly scheduled commercial flights to Miami and would be taken care of after arriving there. CIA agents in Havana, including Penny Powers, Polita Grau, and her brother Ramón, were among those who helped to promote and coordinate the program.

The first of the Operation Pedro Pan children were flown from Cuba to the U.S. in December of 1960. They were confused and terrified by having to say goodbye to their parents at the airport in Havana. After they arrived in Miami most of them were sent to large camps in Miami-Dade County run by Catholic Charities, which received financial support from the U.S. government. The nights in camps were filled with the sounds of children crying for their parents.

The exodus of unaccompanied children from Cuba accelerated as the conflict between the Cuban Catholic church and Castro grew. The church continued to issue pastoral letters criticizing the growing communist influence in Castro’s government. Church leaders also complained that Castro was trying to force Catholic schools to close. Castro responded with severe public criticisms of the church’s leaders.

In December of 1960 Alberto Muller, the leader of the Catholic college student group Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil (DRE) (Student Revolutionary Directorate), and the nephew of a Cuban bishop, announced that he had returned to Cuba to lead the DRE’s armed resistance against Castro’s government. The DRE had been one of the rebel groups allied with Castro’s 26th of July Movement during the Cuban Revolution. But in February he had led a student protest in Havana against the placement of a wreath at the monument of Cuban national hero José Martí by Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, who was visiting Cuba to discuss trade deals. Gunfire erupted when police broke up the protest, and it delayed the beginning of Mikoyan’s speech at a nearby location, embarrassing Castro. Muller was subsequently expelled from the University of Havana and eventually fled to Miami. Muller had acquired support from the CIA during his stay in Miami.

On January 6, 1961, Cuban militia in Havana seized the printing plant of the Catholic publication Quincena, which had been critical of Castro, and the headquarters of the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Workers Association. Later in the month the DRE responded with a coordinated student strike against Castro at five Catholic schools in Havana. They also called for a nationwide private school student strike on February 5. The success of that strike prompted the Cuban government to criticize the new John F. Kennedy administration for increasing the CIA’s support of Catholic counter-revolutionaries. This was the Cuban government’s first attack on Kennedy, who had assumed office on January 20 and was the first Catholic U.S. president.

Unfortunately for Kennedy, he had inherited Eisenhower’s secret decision to have the CIA overthrow Castro. Kennedy was relatively young and inexperienced, so despite some misgivings, he allowed the CIA to proceed with its ongoing plan to invade the island using a small, but well-equipped army of anti-Castro Cuban exiles. The poorly planned Bay of Pigs Invasion, as it came to be called, began on April 17 and it was a complete disaster. Castro’s armed forces defeated and captured most of the counter-revolutionary invaders after just three days of fighting. It was a huge embarrassment for Kennedy and the CIA because the involvement of the U.S. government was obvious to the rest of the world. But it was an enormous victory for Castro, and not just a military one. It proved that his numerous complaints during the previous two years power about the U.S. secretly supporting Cuban counter-revolutionaries were true. It also strengthened his support among the Cuban people and disheartened his domestic enemies.

Feeling more secure, Castro boldly announced during his May Day speech that he was expelling all foreign-born Catholic priests from the country and that his government was taking over all private schools, including Catholic schools. He explained that many of Cuba’s Spanish priests were counter-revolutionary “Falangists.” He added that the Catholic church had coexisted with all types of governments through the ages and it should be able to get along with his, because he wasn’t persecuting the religion, just punishing the priests that were conspiring against his revolution.

A few months later he claimed the CIA was still helping Catholics pursue counter-revolutionary activities after 4,000 Catholics protested outside of a church in Havana on Sunday, September 11. Ten days later he banned religious processions in the streets of Cuba and expelled more priests, including some that were Cuban-born. He warned that he would ban all priests “who conspire against the fatherland.” Pope John XXIII responded by expressing his grief and concern over “real persecution” of Catholics in Cuba. The Pope subsequently excommunicated Castro from the church on January 3, 1962.

Operation Peter Pan continued to send children to the U.S. until the Cuban Missile Crisis ended U.S. commercial air traffic with Cuba in October of 1962. By then, more than 14,000 unaccompanied children had been secretly flown to Miami.

Most people involved with the program thought that Castro would soon be overthrown and the children would soon be reunited with their parents. But they were wrong about Castro, and many of the children never saw their parents again. Some of the kids were soon taken in by relatives in the U.S., but more than half weren’t, and many of these children spent several years in the camps while Catholic Charities tried to find enough foster families, boarding schools and orphanages around the U.S to take them. A lot of these children grew up to be happy and successful adults, but others were physically and sexually abused by their guardians. But all of them, even those who believe today that their parents did the right thing, suffered the emotional trauma of being involuntarily separated from homeland and their families.

There are supporters of Operation Pedro Pan who claim that it wasn’t a CIA operation, but a spontaneous reaction by Cuban parents to Castro’s revolutionary government. They point to the Torres v. CIA ruling by a federal court in 1999. María de los Ángeles Torres, a Pedro Pan child, had submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the CIA for all documents related to their participation in the program. The CIA denied her request so she appealed. Her FOIA appeal was denied by Judge Milton Shadur because he saw no evidence of CIA involvement in the nearly 800 pages of unredacted documents the agency allowed him to review. This, obviously, isn’t proof that the CIA wasn’t involved.

The biggest mystery about Operation Pedro Pan is how it was able to operate in Cuba without being detected for so long. Castro had an effective internal security force and was aware a rumor was being spread that his government was planning to take children from their parents in order to put them under state custody. In a speech broadcast on Radio Havana on September 20, 1961, he denied it, and said it was part of plans against Cuba directed by the U.S. State Department and aided by Cuba’s “Falangist clergy.” Perhaps he knew about the children being sent to the U.S. and allowed it continue because, at that time, any Cuban who didn’t want to stay was allowed to leave the country, and he figured the children’s parents would soon be following them? But that would imply he didn’t know about the large number of children that were being sent.

In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson made an agreement with Castro to initiate the Freedom Flights program, wherein the U.S. agreed to pay for airline flights to Miami for Cubans who wanted to leave. The Catholic Welfare Bureau reported that almost 90% of the thousands of Pedro Pan children that were still in their custody were subsequently reunited with their parents by the summer of 1966. Still, that left a few thousand who weren’t, including many of the older Pedro Pan children who had become independent so their whereabouts were unknown.

When Operation Pedro Pan was revealed to the Cuban people it created deep, emotional wounds that still persist today. The child custody battle in the U.S. in 2000 for the Cuban boy Elián González reopened them. The question remains: How did sending unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S., without any guarantee they’d ever see their parents again, protect the human rights of those families?

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent research, Jeff. Thank you!

    Biff and I saw a documentary on the Pedro Pan Project before we visited Cuba this year. It sounded almost unbelievable and the documentary left us with many unanswered questions. Your report fills in many blanks… however, it is still one of the stranger chapters of Cuba’s history.

    As a parent and grandparent, the Pedro Pan Project is just frightening. Can you even imagine putting your children on an airplane to a foreign country with no promise of seeing them again? Unbelievable!

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