By Tom Tracy
For those Cuban parents who elected to send their unaccompanied children from Cuba to the United States in the early 1960s for fear of communist indoctrination under the Castro regime, it was the right decision.
That was the conclusion that St. Augustine Bishop Felipe J. Estévez stated recently during a timely review of the Operation Pedro Pan Cuban refugee experience and of his own history as a Pedro Pan child.
Speaking about the topic as part of a four-person panel of Cuban experts convened recently in Jacksonville and at a time of expected shifts in diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Bishop Estévez shared the personal impact Operation Pedro Pan had on its participants and the motivations that Cuban parents had in cooperating with the church-sponsored plan.
Operation Pedro Plan evacuated more than 14,000 unaccompanied youth to the U.S. where they stayed in church-sponsored orphanages or private homes across some 30 states.
Historians say that more than half of the minors were reunited with relatives or friends at the Miami airport, while more than half were cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau, which was directed at that time by Irish-born Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh in Miami.
“My parent’s instincts were accurate. They wanted to protect me from a state-led indoctrination… and a Marxist-Leninist ideology,” Bishop Estévez told the panel, “and I happen to believe, as my brother and sister do as well (and other Pedro Pan children), that it was an accurate and very good decision.”
The workshop, 55 Years after Peter Pan: The Continuing But Ever-Changing Cuba Exodus was part of a Feb. 11-13 symposium on refugees statewide sponsored by the Florida Department of Children and Families. It was held at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront Hotel.
“There was continuous communication with the family in Cuba so even though we were in the United States – there was a continual rapport going back and forth,” said Bishop Estévez. He said there was good interaction with other Pedro Pan children around the country through letter writing – one way they would contact each other to stay in touch. Bishop Estévez pointed to similar recollections of other Pedro Pan book authors.
Other featured panelists at the workshop on Cuba included Alejandro Angee, assistant professor of sociology of the Department of Social Science, Miami Dade College; Jorge Duany, director, Cuban Research Institute, Florida International University in Miami, and Raul Hernandez, Citizenship Coordinator, New Americans Campaign, Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami.
The panelists touched on the various historical waves of immigration of Cubans to the United States, and the generational differences in attitudes toward the U.S.-Cuban economic embargo, of the places the Cuban-Americans have settled, and of their general affinity for living in South Florida.
The Cuba discussion came at a pivotal time following President Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement last year on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba and a series of actions aimed at easing travel and trade restrictions rooted in place since the early 1960s break in relations with Fidel Castro.
Speakers, including Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, also explored the implications that the new rules might have on the so-called Cuban-Adjustment Act and on future Cuban immigration trends, which are on the rise possibly as a result of the announcement.
To read the full text of Archbishop Wenski’s talk, click here.