In advance of papal visit, Cuban seeks apology for Operación Pedro Pan
Share this on

In advance of papal visit, Cuban seeks apology for Operación Pedro Pan

Of all the complicated episodes of Cuba-U.S. history over the past 55 years, perhaps none is sadder than the organized exodus of more than 14,000 children from Cuba to the United States that occurred between late 1960 and the fall of 1962.

Mass exodus

Dubbed “Operation Peter Pan,” (Pedro Pan) the migration of the unaccompanied children was spearheaded by Cuban parents who, fearing Fidel Castro and his rhetoric of revolution, sent their children to the United States.

The operation was sponsored by the Catholic Welfare Bureau, which worked with the U.S. Department of State to have visa requirements waived.

While about half of the children were met and then cared for by relatives or family friends, the others were put into the care of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, which placed them in temporary shelters and then assigned them to homes in more than 30 states.

Many of the children were eventually reunited with their parents, but some were not. And some, although eventually reunited, bear emotional scars that will affect them forever.

Roberto Rodríguez Díaz is among them.

“Controllable” children

Rodríguez was 11 years old at the time he was sent to the U.S. by his parents. After arriving, he cycled through a series of camps and a foster home in Florida before being sent to a Texas reformatory, the latter, he says, after attempting to report that he had been sexually abused by the director of one of the camps.

The violations weren’t just sexual, however, and they weren’t uncommon. According to Rodríguez, many children in the camps were given psychotropic medication to make them “controllable.”

Kids who ended up in sponsor families didn’t necessarily fare better. In his case, Rodríguez claims his foster family simply went to their parish in Pompano Beach, Florida, to ask for a Cuban child, “just like they’d ask for bread,” he says.

He states that the families were not subject to background checks of any sort and, he says, “we (Cuban children) were turned into slaves because they made us work for them….”

Child slaves

Rodríguez’s report isn’t an isolated one. In an episode about Pedro Pan broadcast on Latino USA earlier this year, Nena Torres, a Latino Studies professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago, talked about her own experiences as a Pedro Pan child, as well as what she learned about the experiences of other Pedro Pan kids, including those who were sexually abused, while interviewing them years later.

Famous Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, herself a Pedro Pan child, is quoted in the broadcast , saying that, like Rodríguez, she and her sister were treated like “the help” by the German family who took them in.

The group Operation Pedro Pan, Inc., responded to the broadcast by saying that the total number of Pedro Pan kids who were abused was less than one percent. For Rodríguez, that’s hardly a comfort, especially since he was among that one percent.

He blames the Catholic Church for the abuse he and other Pedro Pan kids suffered, and that’s the reason why he’s spent the past several weeks devoted to seeking an audience with Pope Francis, who will arrive in Cuba later this week.

Why is he seeking a one-on-one meeting with Pope Francis? To ask that the pontiff issue an apology for the treatment of the Peter Pan kids.

Waiting for an apology

“The idea to contact the Holy Father came after hearing about (other) apologies he has given,” Rodríguez told Latin Correspondent, “and the changes he has made to bring the church into the 21st-century.”

Rodríguez believes Pope Francis cares about children and is concerned about the church’s problems with abuse, and he says that if he is able to speak with Pope Francis directly, he is confident a papal apology will ensue.

Rodríguez has been dogged in his pursuit, conducting hundreds of searches online, reaching out to people in Rome, and seeking audiences with high-ranking officials within the Catholic Church in Cuba “It has not been an easy road,” Rodríguez admits, saying that he has spoken to Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Monsignor Tumir in Havana to ask for their intervention.

Rodríguez, who returned to Cuba for the first time four years ago and who has written a book and made a documentary about his experiences (both titled “Coro de Silencio”), says that he has spoken to “many other Pedro Pans” who also want a papal apology. “It is all we have ever wanted,” he says.

“It will bring closure a moment of Cuban history that cannot be ignored.”

Liked this article? You might also like:

Cuba to release prisoners prior to papal visit