HBO HAS RECENTLY aired the documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, about the migration of over 10,000 children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany and elsewhere before World War II.
Victor Andres Triay is an expert on Communist Cuba’s Kindertransport, Operation Pedro Pan, which involved 14,048 children. Triay is Associate Professor of History at Middlesex Community College and the author of Fleeing Castro: Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children’s Program and Bay of Pigs: An Oral History of Brigade 2506.
Myles Kantor: What was Operation Pedro Pan?
Victor Andres Triay: Operation Pedro Pan was a loosely organized effort designed to help Cuban parents send their children to the United States between December 1960 and October 1962. The parents, unable to leave themselves for numerous reasons, chose to make a great sacrifice and sent their children to escape radical Communist indoctrination in Cuba. [Operation Pedro Pan organizer Monsignor Bryan Walsh died on December 20, 2001.]
Myles Kantor: Why did so many Cuban parents send their children into exile?
Victor Andres Triay: The lives of all Cubans radically changed when the Castro regime turned toward Communism. [On April 16, 1961, Castro declared the Cuban Revolution to be socialist and declared on December 1, 1961, "I am a Marxist-Leninist and I shall remain a Marxist-Leninist until the day I die."] No group was more vulnerable to the totalitarianism of the regime than children. The island's public and private schools were closed, and the children were forced to attend new, regime-run schools that acted as centers of ideological indoctrination.
Children in the Castro regime schools were inducted with a sense of fanaticism about the Revolution, an adoration of Castro, atheism, and an irrational and almost pathological sense of hatred for the USA. Anti-clericism and a mocking hatred for religion were also encouraged. Those children not overtly displaying Revolutionary values (neutrality was not acceptable) were persecuted directly and indirectly. [Many such youths would soon be sent to forced labor camps called UMAPs, or Military Units to Aid Production.]
In other words, the environment for children was repugnant for the parents. The fact that it was a totalitarian state, the parents had no way to shelter their children from the regime—its ideology and its repression.
Other parents feared the children would be taken off to the countryside for indoctrination (and Cuban children in fact were and are sent away to the countryside to separate them from their parents), or to Russia. Many others sent their teenage sons because they feared they would be drafted (the draft age was 15). Imagine that: anti-Communist parents having to watch their sons take part in Castro's expansionist military! [Georgie Anne Geyer observes in Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro, "Cuba [in 1989], with slightly more than ten million persons, was probably the world’s most completely militarized country—57,000 troops in Angola, 5,000 to 7,000 in Ethiopia, and hundreds and thousands from South Yemen, to Libya, to Nicaragua, to Mozambique, to Syria, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania, Guinea Bissau, North Korea, Sao Tome, Algeria, Uganda, Laos, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone."]
Others had teenage kids who had already been involved in anti-Castro activities and they needed to get them out of the country. This explains why a disproportionate number of the Pedro Pan children were teenage boys, although there were thousands of girls and young children as well.
Myles Kantor: Why didn’t the Operation Pedro Pan parents leave with their children?
Victor Andres Triay: Parents had many reasons for not leaving with their children. It is important to note that they all thought it was going to be a short separation. Many simply made sense of it by taking the view that their children were going to the USA to study abroad until things calmed down in Cuba.
At any rate, your question is important for another reason. There were a large number of families who left Cuba together during those years and did not send their kids over alone. Those who did send the kids alone could not leave for different reasons. Some had other relatives they could not immediately leave; some still owned a little bit of property or a business they felt they would lose if they left.
Mostly, however, there was a panic and a desperation to leave. It was clear to many families that they were going to do anything possible to leave Cuba as quickly as possible. A Communist takeover could have spelled disaster for them and their family lives; time was, thus, of the essence. The fact was that the children were able to receive the documents to leave on Operation Pedro Pan much more quickly than their parents could get the documents required of adults to leave.
So, given an immediate opportunity to save their children, they took it; they did not know what would happen or if the government would shut down emigration the next day (remember, this was a totalitarian government that pretty much ruled by decree). If they sent their kids out on Operation Pedro Pan, they could at least get them out. Plus, once the kids were in the USA, they could hurry the process of getting their parents’ exit documents.
Myles Kantor: Did Fidel Castro know about Operation Pedro Pan? If so, why did he let it occur?
Victor Andres Triay: It would be impossible for him not to have known. He let it happen for the same reason he let everyone else out during those years: he was getting rid of his domestic opposition, present and future. Plus, he had not consolidated his power to the point he did later.
Myles Kantor: What was the fate of the Pedro Pan children?
Victor Andres Triay: Around half the Pedro Pan children went immediately to relatives at Miami International Airport (many in this group don't even know they were Pedro Pan). Most of the rest went to camps around Miami and many were subsequently sent to foster homes, group homes, etc., around the USA. Many drifted back to Miami eventually, and many others settled as adults where they were sent as Pedro Pans or elsewhere.
Myles Kantor: What is your assessment of the claim that Operation Pedro Pan was a propaganda tactic to besmirch the Castro regime?
Victor Andres Triay: The idea that Operation Pedro Pan was nothing more than a CIA propaganda ploy is the most asinine notion that exists in relation to Operation Pedro Pan. Parents who sent their children to the USA on Operation Pedro Pan did so because of what they were seeing with their own eyes! My blood boils when I hear the theory of Operation Pedro Pan as nothing more than a propaganda tactic. It is totally perverse. I have the same reaction a Jew does when they hear the ludicrous idea that the Holocaust never occurred, or that of a Northern abolitionist in the 1850s when he heard the slave owners' (or their Northern supporters') propaganda that the slaves were content and grateful to be slaves.
I guess that the best way to distort or tarnish something is to respond to it with The Big Lie. This notion of Operation Pedro Pan as nothing more than a propaganda tactic is just that, a Hitlerian/Stalinist type of Big Lie.
Myles Kantor: What percentage of the Pedro Pan children reunited with their parents?
Victor Andres Triay: Fortunately, nearly all of the children were reunited. For some, it was a matter of a few weeks or months. Most of those whose parents were unable to leave before the 1962 Missile Crisis, however, had to wait until 1965—commencement of the Freedom Flights [from 1965 to 1971, 260,561 Cubans came to America through airlifts organized by the U.S. government]—or longer.
In this regard, they were definitely more fortunate than the children of Kindertransport, many of whom, I understand, never saw their parents again. The Operation Pedro Pan children nevertheless suffered a great deal (some for the rest of their lives) from their separation.
Myles Kantor: Is there a consensus among the Pedro Pan children in support of or against the Operation?
Victor Andres Triay: I can tell you that most of the Pedro Pan children I have spoken to, while scarred by the experience, are grateful to their parents and to the people who helped get them out of Cuba. The terms most used are "saved" when referring to their being brought to the USA, and refer to their parents as having made a "great sacrifice."
Interestingly, the best people to ask about the moral justification of the program are those who fit the profile of an Operation Pedro Pan child, but could not get out of Cuba and had to spend their childhood and young adulthood in Communist Cuba. I know a lot of them, and they are the group that is most astounded by those who question Operation Pedro Pan. They all say that they wish they had been able to leave on Operation Pedro Pan and not lived through the hell of Communism—which nearly ruined them as human beings.
Myles Kantor: What is the historical significance of Operation Pedro Pan?
Victor Andres Triay: Operation Pedro Pan was the largest unaccompanied children's refugee movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere. The Cuban Children's Program revolutionized social services in the USA. From a more human point of view, it demonstrated the foresight the parents of Operation Pedro Pan children and Cuban exiles overall had. After years of debate, one only needs to look at Cuba today to see whose version of the Castro regime was correct.