A report by Erin Blakemore for History.com.
“What are you doing here?” The social worker peered at Carlos Eire, shocked to find the Cuban 12-year-old in a home for delinquent boys in Miami, Florida. “You’re supposed to be with your uncle.”
By 1963, the preteen had been living in the foster home for months, accompanied by his brother and a revolving cast of characters—boys from troubled backgrounds who constantly tried to convince the Eire boys to join their gangs and commit petty crimes. Carlos knew he was no delinquent, but he figured he had no choice. It had been a temporary solution, a place to live after he had been put on a plane in Havana by his mother, who told him she would rejoin him soon in the United States. But she hadn’t come yet. In fact, nobody had claimed him.
Unbeknownst to Eire, someone had dropped the ball. For months, a Cuban uncle living in the United States had been prepared to claim him and put an end to his time as an exiled child with no guardian. He had simply been lost in the system.
“They fixed the problem really fast after that,” recalls Eire today. “But we spent many months [in the home for delinquent boys] needlessly. You can multiply these things by the hundreds or thousands.”
Eire is referring to the 14,000 unaccompanied children brought to the United States from Cuba during Operation Peter Pan, a covert program that helped school-age kids escape repression in Cuba. The program was designed to protect Cuban children whose parents were being targeted by Fidel Castro’s new regime—and to shield them from the Communist ideologies feared by the U.S. at the height of the Cold War.
From 1960 to 1962, Cuban parents who had heard of the program took advantage of visa waivers to put their kids on flights to the United States. Some never saw their children again.
Unlike this century’s unaccompanied minors, thousands of whom have entered the foster care system or been detained in camps after seeking asylum in the United States, Eire and the other children of Operación Pedro Pan, as it was known in Cuba, were welcomed by the United States government. The program was a U.S.-sanctioned one—and the Eisenhoweradministration and private citizens who helped make it happen were motivated not just by the human rights of children who faced repression and political retaliation in Cuba, but by ideology.
Though begun for the children of Cuban dissidents being targeted by the Castro regime, the program was eventually opened up to cover all Cuban children whose parents wanted them to leave the island. During the Cold War, many thought it was worth any price to rescue children from indoctrination into Communism—even if it meant sending them to the U.S. without any chaperones.
Eire’s family thought so, too. The son of a judge, Eire grew up in wealth and privilege in Havana. But things changed in 1959, when Castro became Cuba’s dictator and Eire’s family found themselves in the crosshairs of the new regime. “We were under watch all the time,” says Eire.
Suddenly, the idyllic Cuba of Eire’s childhood became a “hell” in which he was forced to praise Castro’s regime in school, limit his movements, adjust to life under surveillance and watch his family succumb to the effects of paranoia and stress. Under suspicion and worried their children might be sent to work camps in Soviet satellite states in retribution for their parents’ views, Eire’s parents decided to participate in a new visa waiver program, news of which circulated in whispers.
It was the brainchild of Father Bryan O. Walsh, director of a Catholic charity in Miami. In 1960, he arranged foster care for a Cuban child named Pedro Martinez, an unaccompanied boy who had come to the United States as a refugee. Fearing both harassment of the children of Castro’s political enemies and Communist indoctrination of those kids by Castro’s regime, Walsh decided to help other Cuban minors sent to the United States by parents who felt threatened.
Soon, private donations—many from Cuban businesses and individuals in exile—flooded in to finance the program, and the Eisenhower administration provided both visa waivers and funded a Catholic charity-run organization that arranged foster care for refugee children. With the help of James Baker, an educator at an American school in Cuba, Walsh spread word of a program that would waive visa requirements for Cuban children entering the United States and care for them until they could be reunited with their parents.
The U.S. press cooperated with Walsh’s request to keep the program out of the news. Operation Peter Pan’s funding was a secret, and from the eyes of Cuban officials, it simply looked like Cuban parents arranging legal migration for their children in compliance with Cuban laws.
Since Cubans and Americans alike expected Castro to be toppled from power soon, nobody anticipated that parents and children might be separated for years—or never see one another again. Though many children and parents were reunited within a few months, about 60 percent became the responsibility of the United States government. Some never reunited with their families at all.
Once in the United States, the children who didn’t have relatives or friends to claim them—about 8,000 in all—were housed in temporary camps near Miami. Then they were put in foster homes and institutions all over the country under the auspices of the Cuban Children’s Program (CCP), which was run by Walsh and the Catholic Welfare Bureau.
At first, Eire ping-ponged between homes. He liked his first foster family in a home where he learned English mixed with Yiddish (“I didn’t find out until I moved to the Midwest later,” he laughs). But then disaster struck: The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted, bringing Cuba and the United States close to nuclear war. Suddenly his mother, who had a permit to follow her children to the U.S. in early November, 1962, was stuck in Cuba.
“My mother was trapped,” he says. “No one knew if she would ever get out.” His first foster family had planned on taking him in only temporarily, so he was sent to another foster home run by a married Cuban couple and populated by unaccompanied Cuban children who were considered juvenile delinquents. “They were horrible people,” he says of the people who ran the home. Bullied by children who tried to get him to join gangs and commit crimes, he was fed just one meal a day.
Finally, a Cuban uncle living in Illinois claimed Eire and his brother. The boys were actually supposed to be claimed much sooner, and had been forgotten by their social worker. Their experience was similar to that of other exiled children, many of whom were mistakenly categorized as juvenile delinquents and caught up in a bureaucracy that did not live up to modern standards of child welfare.
After they were claimed, the Eire boys moved to Bloomington, where they were the only Cuban children in town. “I kind of blended in,” says Eire, who went by Charles or Charlie at the time instead of Carlos. Though he recalls some bigotry from his classmates, he also remembers being defended by other children.
Operation Peter Pan ended with the Cuban Missile Crisis. All air traffic stopped between the two countries beginning in October 1962. The influx of Cuban children had been reported on locally in the United States, but details of the program were murky and few outside Florida realized it was happening. “The Communists are certain to call it child-smuggling,” wrote Gene Miller in a March 1962 article in the Miami Herald. “No one is telling exactly how it is done.”
While the boys enjoyed a freedom they had never known in Illinois—Eire calls his years in Bloomington his “Huck Finn years” and fondly remembers exploring the countryside with no fear of the political kidnappings or hassles he worried about at home—their mother tried unsuccessfully to leave Cuba. In late 1965, three years after she sent her children to an unknown fate in the United States, she finally got out after Castro announced his intention to no longer prevent Cubans from leaving the country.
What should have been a happy reunification was met with mixed emotions. The Eire boys were now independent teenagers. With just two days’ notice, they had to pack up their existence in Bloomington and move to Chicago, where they became their mother’s caretakers.
“She had no English, no job skills,” recalls Eire. (He never saw his father again.) When a physical disability kept his mother from finding work, the boys had to support the family instead. Eire’s brother dropped out of high school to work; Eire worked full-time, first as a dishwasher, then at a grocery store, while he attended school.
Despite the challenges of life in exile, Eire appreciates the skills he developed as a child who grew up too quickly. “I learned how to manage my own life. I had to find some kind of inner resources to help me cope,” he says. His early independence—and his experience under Castro’s regime—still resonates in his adult life. “I became self-reliant,” he says.
Eire is now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale. His memoirWaiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy won a National Book Award in 2003. All of his books are banned in Cuba. Eire considers that—and the fact that he has been declared an enemy of the state there—as “the highest of all honors.”
“Most Pedro Panes have come to terms with their parents’ desperate choice,”writes Maria L. Ruiz Scaperlanda for Franciscan Media. Eire certainly has. Sometimes, he says, being separated from family is preferable to staying in a totalitarian regime.
“The overwhelming feeling I had which carried me through all the hard times was that life was so much better here without the Castro regime,” he says. “I didn’t have anyone trying to steal my mind and my soul anymore.”
“I was glad to go to the other side of the Cold War,” says Eire. Operation Peter Pan “was wonderful,” he says. “It allowed 14,000 kids to get out of hell.”