Pain of Cuban children sent into US exile

Click to follow
The Independent US

It only took half an hour to reduce the Chief of Police to tears. We were talking in the police HQ in the unglamorous neighbourhood of Overtown, and the officers here weren't the linen-suited, cool-talking detectives of Miami Vice. These were real cops with big bellies and guns at their hip, lining up in the canteen for cheeseburgers. And now the biggest, toughest one of all had wet eyelashes as he talked about parting from his mother 39 years ago.

It only took half an hour to reduce the Chief of Police to tears. We were talking in the police HQ in the unglamorous neighbourhood of Overtown, and the officers here weren't the linen-suited, cool-talking detectives of Miami Vice. These were real cops with big bellies and guns at their hip, lining up in the canteen for cheeseburgers. And now the biggest, toughest one of all had wet eyelashes as he talked about parting from his mother 39 years ago.

Chief Raul Martinez left Cuba aged 12 in the biggest political exodus of children in the West, Operation Pedro Pan. Between 1960 and 1962 more than 14,000 unaccompanied minors were sent out of the Caribbean island by desperate families who feared for their children's future under Castro.

A minority of the children were at risk because they had "counter-revolutionary" parents. But most were sent abroad by families concerned about the closure of Catholic schools and the government's literacy campaign, in which thousands of urban children were sent into remote parts of the countryside to teach peasants how to read and write.

To the Cuban middle class, these literacy camps were hotbeds of Communist indoctrination and promiscuity - a fear reinforced when some teenage girls returned from the countryside pregnant. Boys were even more at risk because of military conscription, so there was a rush to get them out of the country before their 15th birthday. "I was very excited by the idea of joining the army," said Chief Martinez, "and that horrified my mother. Somehow she managed to get hold of the right piece of paper and the next thing I knew I was at the airport."

The paper he refers to came from the Miami Catholic Welfare Bureau, which had got permission from the US government to waive visa requirements for Cuban children. Flights were secretly organised through sympathetic airline companies and the Pedro Pan children left the island for the Never-Never Land of America. The operation was named after Pedro Menendez, a 15-year-old boy who left Cuba on his own and turned up in the office of a sympathetic Miami priest in November 1960. That was the beginning of the exodus, which lasted nearly two years. Most children never set foot in their homeland again.

For Chief Martinez, the watershed moment came in the glass-enclosed area of Havana International Airport known as la pecera - the fishtank - where travellers gathered to await departure. "I'd never been on a plane before, and to me it was a big adventure. But when I saw my parents on the other side of the glass and I couldn't speak to them, I was scared. And I remember feeling very upset because one of the guards went through my luggage and confiscated my little bag of toy soldiers."

On arrival in Florida, about half the children were collected by friends or relatives, and the others were kept in transit camps before being sent on to state and foster homes. Chief Martinez had an aunt and uncle in Miami, but they were already struggling on a low income in a cramped two-room apartment. The 12-year-old suffered an abrupt change from being a much-cosseted only child to a latchkey kid. "You know, at home, my mother used to clip my toenails, put my shoes and socks on for me and taste my café con leche to check it was the right temperature. And then suddenly it was, 'Here's 35 cents for lunch. See you at seven o'clock when we get off our shift.' I had to go from childhood to adulthood almost overnight."

Back in Havana, his parents also suffered, and their marriage disintegrated soon after his departure. When I asked Chief Martinez how he coped with the separation, his sharp, brown eyes unexpectedly filled with tears. His father came over seven years later, but relations were strained. "I couldn't help resenting him. I felt like saying, 'Where the hell were you all the time I was growing up?' " It was 16 years before the police chief saw his mother again, because flights were halted after the Cuban missile crisis and later she was trapped in Cuba caring for her own sick parents.

Many Pedro Pan children insist they would either be dead or in jail had they stayed in Cuba. But when I put the same question to Chief Martinez, he replied with disarming candour. "My parents didn't like it but I always wanted to be in the militia. If I'd stayed I'd be in Castro's secret police or I'd be one of those thugs he surrounds himself with on trips to the UN." Whatever the truth about the past, today many of the Pedro Pan children occupy prominent positions in Miami and form the backbone of the right-wing exile community which lobbies to maintain sanctions against Cuba.

The rest of the US sometimes has trouble understanding the depth of passion here. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the case of Elian Gonzales, the six-year-old who lost his mother on a raft crossing over the straits from Cuba almost a year ago. The Elian saga reawakened the pain of past separations, when thousands of children found themselves centre stage in the middle of the Cold War. Havana has also linked Elian with the mass exodus 40 years ago, and a recent Cuban book on Operation Pedro Pan is also known as The Story of the 14,000 Elians. The book alleges that the CIA spread rumours that all children would be taken from their parents and locked in communist camps for ever, or even chopped into pieces and sold as canned beef in the Eastern bloc. The purpose of all this, apparently, was to strip Cuba of its future elite.

So what, in the end, was Operation Pedro Pan? A disinterested mercy mission? An act of psychological warfare, robbing Cuba of the middle class that it needed most, as the current Cuban government insists? Or, as many of the children believe, a programme of mixed motives, blending humanitarianism with realpolitik?

Operation Pedro Pan, presented by Lucy Ash and produced by Polly Hope, is on Radio 4 at 8pm tomorrow.

Comments