The History of Operation Pedro Pan

By Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh
Operation Pedro Pan Website
March 1, 2001

Pedro Pan was a program created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (Catholic Charities) of Miami in December 1960 at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity for them to send their children to Miami to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. After the break in diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961, the Catholic Welfare Bureau was authorized by the U.S. Department of State to notify parents in Cuba that visa requirements had been waived for their children. This enabled the children to travel by commercial flights to Miami.

Father Bryan O. Walsh, the Director of Catholic Welfare Bureau, became aware of the plight of unaccompanied minors in November 1960 when a Cuban man brought a fifteen-year-old Cuban boy to his office. The boy, Pedro, had come to Miami to live with relatives. The family was in dire straits and the CWB was asked to provide foster care. Father Walsh realized that unaccompanied minors were always found among refugees seeking a safe haven. There would be many more “Pedros”. Father Walsh bought the matter to the attention of Mr. Tracy Voorhees, sent by President Eisenhower to assess the needs of Cuban refugees in Miami. Mr. Voorhees recommended that the President approve funds for the care of unaccompanied minors. This meant that if the children could get to Miami, funds would be available to their care.

Mr. James Baker, the headmaster of Ruston Academy, an American school in Havana was at the same time organizing a network of Cubans and expatriates to help get their children to Miami. On December 12, 1960, Mr. Baker and Fr. Walsh met to discuss how they could work together. This was the beginning of Operation Pedro Pan. Mr. Baker would get the children out of Cuba and Fr. Walsh would provide shelter care for those who had no one here.

In the course of twenty months between December 26, 1960 and October 23, 1962, over 14,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in Miami under the sponsorship of the Catholic Welfare Bureau. Those included youth from all parts of the island. While the majority was Catholic, several hundred were Protestant, Jewish or non-believers. Very few were from wealthy backgrounds. These were already in Miami with their families. Most were of the middle class or lower middle class and included children of different racial background, Black and Chinese.

A network was established which reached all over the island. At the heart of this network was Miss Penny Powers, a British citizen. Other names included Pancho and Bertha Finlay, Dr. Sergio and Serafina Giquel, Sara del Toro de Odio, Ramon and Polita Grau, Albertina O’Farril and many others whose names are known only to God.

Family reunions began in Miami shortly after the first arrivals. Approximately 50% were united with family members at the airport. Eighty-five (85%) of the 7,000 taken into care by the CWB were between the ages of 12 and 18 upon arrival. Seventy (70%) were boys over the age of 12. Because many of the minors were older teens, they became independent very quickly and statistical information on reunion with their parents is not available. Likewise such information is not available on those who went to live with relatives upon arrival. However it is reasonable to assume that the rate of family reunion of those who went to live with relatives is a high if not higher than those who were united while still under care.

Commercial flights between the US and Cuba ceased with the Missile crisis of October 1962. This began a three-year period during which travel was through third countries, Spain and Mexico. Twice a day Freedom Flights began in December 1, 1965 under an agreement between the two governments for the purpose of family reunion. Parents of unaccompanied minors were accorded first priority. Close to 90% of those still in care were reunited with their parents by June of 1966.

After the Freedom Flights started in Dec. 1, 1965, the delays in family reunion were due primarily to the regulations of the Cuban Government in delaying the emigration of certain professionals and its refusal to let young men between 15 and 26 emigrate with their parents because of military service obligations. In the relatively few other cases where such reunions did not eventually take place this was due to parental deaths, or a father or mother staying behind to take care of an elderly parent. The agency has no record of any case where a minor was lost. The agency has not received any request from anyone in Cuba asking for information on the whereabouts of a child. During the past thirty years, it has been relatively easy for people to travel to Cuba to look for family. Nor has the agency been asked by a former unaccompanied minor for help in finding a lost parent. Reports that great numbers of minors lost contact with their families is simply not true.

Every effort was made during the entire Operation Pedro Pan to avoid publicity and to avoid any effort to use it for political propaganda. The agency was often criticized for this by some elements in the exile community in Miami who wished to use the image of the children. The agency maintained minimum contacts with Cuba other than with the parents whose children were under its care. At no time was the Catholic Church as an institution in Cuba involved. Individual priests and religious did seek and receive visa waivers. Thousands of visa waivers were sought in Miami by exiles and sent to their relatives in Cuba along with required $25.00 money order for the round-trip airfare. Within Cuba many networks were organized by Cuban parents to spread knowledge about the operation throughout the whole island.

The biggest problem for the Catholic Welfare Bureau as the number coming grew week by week, was the lack of facilities to care for the minors in Miami. This was solved by asking Catholic Charities agencies around the country to provide foster homes and group care homes for the young exiles. This care was provided in over 100 cities in 35 States. All such foster and group homes were licensed by the state authorities. Special group homes, staffed by Cuban house-parents for Cuban adolescent boys were opened in several cities such as Wilmington, Delaware, Fort Wayne Indiana, Albuquerque New Mexico, Lincoln Nebraska, Jacksonville and Orlando Florida as well as Miami. Contrary to reports, no children were placed in reformatories or facilities for delinquent children. This would not have been permitted under state law.

No children were placed for adoption, since the whole purpose of the program was to safeguard parental rights. The Cuban parents who sent their children to the US were exercising a fundamental human right which antecedes any human constitution or law.

The Catholic Welfare Bureau had no means of influencing Cuban parents to send their children to the United States. In fact every effort was made to avoid publicity or propaganda. This was not its role or mission. Rather the CWB responded to the desire of Cuban parents to protect their children from Marxist-Leninist indoctrination after the experience of the literacy campaign in the summer of 1960 and the closing the Catholic and private schools in June of 1961. What the Catholic Welfare Bureau did was to provide a means for the Cuban parents of that period to exercise their fundamental human right to direct the education of their children.

Unfortunately their fears have been proved by history to have been altogether too true. In January 22, 1998. Pope John Paul II in his Homely in the Instituto Superior de Cultura Fisica “Manuel Fajardo” in Santa Clara said: “Eperiences not easily accepted and often traumatic is the separation of children and the substitution of the role of parents as a result of schooling away from home even during adolescence. These experiences place young people in situations which sadly result in the spread of promiscuous behavior, loss of ethical values, coarseness, premarital sexual relations at an early age and easy recourse to abortion” What the parents learned when their sons and daughters returned from the Literacy Campaign of 1960 is still going on. In his Homily in Santa Clara, the Holy Father referred to “a problem which has existed in Cuba for years, people being obliged to be away from the family within the country, and emigration which has torn apart whole families and caused suffering for a large part of the population.’ The Cuban government because of its ideological stance has imposed and is still imposing these sufferings on the Cuban people. No one can deny that separation from one’s family is always traumatic and painful. How could it be otherwise? However, at times its is necessary because it is the lesser of the two evils. The real heroes of Pedro Pan were the parents who made the hardest decision that any parent can make.


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