Operation Peter Pan: How the US stole 14,000 Cuban children

As part of Operation Peter Pan, Cuban parents were encouraged to send their children to the US to “escape Communism”.

Operation Pedro Pan and the Exodus of Cuba’s Children
By Deborah Shnookal
University of Florida Press, 2020, 313 pp., $85

Since the Cuban Revolution in January 1959, successive United States governments have waged both overt and covert war against Cuba. The most violent of these was the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961.

But around the same time, the US decided it would also use a softer propaganda option: it encouraged Cuban parents to send their children to the US to “escape Communism”.

Deb Shnookal has done a great service in minutely researching this escapade in both Cuba and the US, using official documents and personal memories. She reveals the multifaceted impulses that drove Cuban parents to send their kids into the unknown, as well as the cynical US techniques that split up Cuban families.

All of this is told in the context of the deep social revolution that was turning Cuban society upside down. The revolution, as Shnookal puts it, “was not just made on behalf of Cuba’s children but largely made by young Cubans.”

The US succeeded in extracting some 14,000 kids, mostly adolescents, but some younger. They were either deposited with relatives or thrown onto the tender mercies of the Catholic Church as orphans and fostered out to US families.

Many were very successful in the US, but others suffered terribly.

The CIA and other US agencies deliberately spread rumours in Cuba, backed up by fake documentation, that the Cuban government was intending to take all children into its care as wards of the state, thus, overthrowing the right of parents to raise their own children.

Well-heeled Cubans were already spooked by the political and economic changes sweeping the island. Even though the rumour campaign was transparently false, it didn’t take much to scare them – their maids were learning to read and talking back to them.

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An ad in Cuban newspaper Verde Olivio, December 6, 1961, directed at domestic servants. "Companera Domestic: Study! The Revolution will help you." Image supplied by Ocean Press

There was a “pull” factor involved as well. Unaccompanied Cuban children arriving in the US were automatically given education scholarships.

The US/Cuba border had been “porous” for the rich for a long time. The Cuban elite was in the habit of sending their kids to the US for schooling. Now, middle-class people further down the ladder could emulate them.

Another influence was the outrageous role of the Catholic Church in spreading fear. The Church, in the name of “defending the family”, ruthlessly broke up families.

Besides these “push” and “pull” factors were the dramas of the revolution.

Apart from the Bay of Pigs invasion itself, there were US-fostered underground terrorist groups conducting bombings in Havana, right-wing guerrillas in some rural areas and tumultuous public debate. To the rich, it felt like the world was ending.

Shnookal suggests that perhaps the key element was the 1961 literacy campaign.

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A young literacy brigadista and his pupil during the Cuban literacy program. Image: Prensa Latina archives, supplied by Ocean Press

The revolutionaries had promised to end the 23.6% illiteracy rate in Cuba. To make good on that they inspired 100,000 young students, the majority of them women, to go to rural areas to teach reading and writing.

The thought of their daughters going independently among the poorest of the poor – Black people at that – was terrifying to patriarchal reactionaries.

Shnookal’s account of this, based on first-person narratives and Cuban archives is perhaps the most rewarding part of the book. The stories cover the whole gamut of human emotion wrought by dedicated struggle to raise the cultural level of the peasantry - there was plenty of room for laughter and tears in the Cuban Revolution.

The campaign’s transformational moral effect was to deepen and unify the revolution by introducing urban youth to the suffering of rural Cubans. Many of the teachers kept in touch with their students for the rest of their lives, taking their children to visit.

The student volunteers needed their parents’ permission to participate. But that counted for little among the Catholic anti-communists, who construed the youth mobilisation as proof that children were being taken from their parents.

US authorities granted a Florida-based Catholic priest, Bryan Walsh, the right to issue visa waivers to Cuban children for entry to the USA. Shnookal points out this was both extremely unusual and made a mockery of the US constitutional separation of church and state.

Walsh sent signed, blank waiver forms to Catholic Church networks in Cuba and, in cooperation with the right-wing networks, the waivers were copied by the thousand and completed by parents.

The CIA used the system for getting some of their agents out of Cuba. Airlines were given fake names of children for flights but adults on the run from Cuban authorities would claim the seats at the last moment.

The irony of it all is, of course, that the Cuban authorities never attempted to take children off their parents.

Neither did they try to stop the flow of children, for a number of reasons. They had violent right-wing murderers to pursue as a higher priority and Cuban intelligence took advantage of the lax US immigration procedures to smuggle their own agents into the Florida right-wing groupings. 

But, most of all, it was actually legal for Cuban parents to send their children wherever they wished for their education.

Many of the conservative parents hoped that the US would make good on its invasion threats, overturn the revolution and thus their kids would return. Others intended to gain entry to the US by using their children’s presence there as a lever.

Many never saw their kids again.

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