(Editor’s Note: This is second of a three-part series recounting the heavy price paid by families as a result of Fidel Castro’s successful guerrilla war on the Caribbean Island of Cuba. With the fall of Dictator Fulgencio Batista, Castro and his revolutionary army entered Havana in victory, Jan. 8, 1959.)
By Nick Diaz
THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY of my arrival on these American shores compelled me to relate some stories of my half-century as an exile of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. My growing nostalgia has brought many personal, family, and political experiences to the surface.
My mother, Idania Diaz, and I arrived in November, 1960, which was Presidential Election Day in America – John F. Kennedy vs. Richard M. Nixon. We had little in the way of personal belongings upon arrival in America, except for a little cash and a few pieces of jewelry my mother smuggled on her person. I celebrated my 13th birthday a month later. My father, Nicanor Diaz, arrived exactly one year later.
Of the thousands of stories of the Cuban exodus, the effort code-named “Operation Peter Pan” is still largely unknown and must be told. It chronicles the biggest exodus of children ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.
Consider that from Dec. 26, 1960 to Oct. 22, 1962 more than 14,000 unaccompanied children, ages 6 to 18, left Cuba for the U.S.A. Many valiant and dedicated people in Cuba and the United States worked together for the success of “Operation Peter Pan.”
In the 1930s, between 7,000 and 8,000 Jewish children were smuggled out of Nazi Germany to England and other countries.
In the Communist takeover of Spain, which led to the Spanish Civil War, thousands of children were evacuated to France, Belgium and England.
When the Communists in Spain were heading for defeat, some 5,000 children were sent to the Soviet Union.
In 1940, during the Battle of Britain, about 1,000 British children were sent to North America for safety. At the end of World War II, some 5,000 orphans were brought from Europe to North America for adoption.
Before Castro, people used to immigrate to Cuba. I remember the rich and vibrant Chinese population in Cuba, prominent in retail, banking, and international commerce. Also I remember the Jews from Eastern Europe, people who migrated to Cuba during the early part of the 20th century.
Yes, even Americans, most of whom not surnamed “Hemingway,” lived on the island paradise by choice. My parents hired an American to tutor me in the intricacies of the English language. Some readers may doubt the effectiveness of such tutelage. Looking back 50 years, however, I reflect on my parents’ wisdom in this regard. As usual, they got smarter as I got older!
THE LARGEST HUMAN EXODUS in this hemisphere began soon after Castro took control of the Cuban government. The first of those particular immigrants arrived in America in January, 1959, immediately following the fall of Fulgencio Batista. They came with money from their savings and belongings they were able to carry. As Castro added more restrictions, people were forced to leave Cuba with nothing.
This created a terrible burden on relatives and friends who had arrived earlier and willingly provided support to the newcomers. The responsibility to help later fell to private charities and the U.S. Government.
The latter category included my parents and me.
By the end of 1960, some 4,000 “refugees” had arrived and by December 1961, 12,000 – with 200 arriving in Miami each day. By 1971, 261,000 were established in Miami and almost as many elsewhere in the U.S.
During the 1980 “Mariél exodus,” 125,000 left, but two million more seeking to emigrate were stranded in Cuba when Castro closed the door. In 1997 Cuban exiles numbered two- to three-million all over the world; the numbers would have been greater if leaving Cuba had not been restricted.
Belying popular belief — the result of 38 years of Castro’s propaganda echoed by the American press and left-wing establishment– Castro’s revolution affected Cubans from all walks of life. The brutality of his repression has been felt since January 1959.
Opposition to the revolutionary government began immediately. Many Cubans realized Castro was moving toward a Communist dictatorship. This included many who had fought by his side against Batista. As the situation worsened from 1959 and 1960, many thought Castro would be overthrown. However, his control grew and his cronies became entrenched in civilian and government positions. Cubans became concerned that unseating Castro would lead to a bloody civil war like the 1930s struggle in Spain.
On May 1, 1960, Castro publicly denied he was a Communist, despite launching his slogan, “Cuba sí, Yankees no!” and Communist indoctrination schools. In July, he began to confiscate properties owned by Americans, Spaniards, Chinese and Jews. In October 1960 he adopted a plan similar to that developed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It created neighborhood committees to spy on residents and control each city block.
THE RADICALISM OF CASTRO’S REVOLUTION spread to education, raising my and other parents concerns. Rumors that Castro was planning to confiscate the more than 1,000 secular and religious private schools (which did materialize) made parents fearful about their children’s future.
Some private schools began closing–intially thought to be temporary–because of increasing pressure from Castro’s regime to change to Marxist textbooks to indoctrinate the children. After private schools closed, many parents kept children home instead of sending them to public schools, where Communist indoctrination had already begun.
Many Cuban parents remembered accounts about the end of the Spanish Civil War, when 5,000 children were sent to the Soviet Union for indoctrination, while others were held as hostages. They were fearful the same thing would happen in Cuba.
Many parents were reluctant to leave Cuba because of the unlikely belief that Castro would be overthrown in a matter of month, or that they could not abandon an old or sick family member, a spouse or a brother who had become a political prisoner, or others because they were involved in the anti-Castro movement.
Parents couldn’t leave Cuba, but wanted their children to be saved.
In the fall of 1960, rumors circulating in Cuba and among Miami exile circles added to the fears of parents in Cuba. Their main concern was the prospect of losing the “patria potestad,” which meant parents would lose the right to make the decisions about raising their children. Instead, the government would decide such things as where each child would live, each child’s school and curriculum. This did materialize later on.
The departure of Castro’s 12-year-old son, Fidelito, from Cuba to be educated in the Soviet Union seemed to confirm this rumor.Creation of the Young Communist Pioneers – replacing the Boy Scouts – and the Association of Young Communists added panic to the situation.
Some children already absorbed into these mass organizations began to show the effects of indoctrination – parroting Castro’s slogans and Communist jargon and becoming informants. In some instances, parents became fearful of their own children and self-censored what they said in front of them to avoid being denounced to authorities.
THE FUTURE DID NOT LOOK PROMISING for families under Castro. Many parents reluctantly concluded it was time to get their children out of Cuba–even if they had to leave unescorted.
In October 1960, the first unaccompanied Cuban child arrived in Miami. He was sent by his parents who thought that relatives and friends would take care of him until Castro was overthrown. They had no way of knowing their relatives in the U. S. were nearly destitute.
That 15-year-old boy was passed from family to family on a daily basis because no one was willing or able to take responsibility for his welfare. This had an adverse psychological affect on him. He was scared, hungry and had lost 20 pounds when taken to the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami Nov. 15, 1960.
The man who brought him pleaded with the bureau for a foster home or a boarding school for him. The boy’s name was Pedro (Peter). The organizers would use his name for the effort to get unaccompanied children safely out of Cuba and proper care in the U.S.: “Operation Peter Pan.”
Join me Thursday for my final installment of the series.–©Nick Diaz 2012.
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This commentary was published in its original form June 8, 2010 at www.thetentacle.com and is used with permission of the author and The Octopus, LLC.
You may contact Mr. Diaz at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Nick Diaz was born and reared in Havana, Cuba. He is a mathematics teacher at St. John Regional Catholic School in Frederick, Md. A graduate of the University of Dayton (Ohio), Mr. Diaz was retired in 2003 after 30 years with Frederick County (Md.) Public Schools. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Frederick Community College, for which he served as chairman in 2011. He and his wife Marianne reside near Middletown, Md.)