Mel Martinez was only sixteen years old and spoke little English when he boarded a plane and left his parents and his native Cuba behind, headed toward the United States.

Eleven-year-old Jose Azel also fled the island nation as an unaccompanied minor, bound for America. His father told him he was sending him away for his safety. It was to be the last time the two saw one another; a few years later Azel's father, unable to migrate to America, died in Cuba.

The lives of Martinez, Azel and thousands of Cuban children were forever changed, amid rumors that Fidel Castro's totalitarian regime was planning to take minors from their homes and ship them to Soviet Union work camps. Seeing Cuban schools closed by Fidel Castro's communist government and fearing that families would be separated, Fr. Brian O. Walsh, director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, organized a massive airlift he called Operation Pedro Pan (in English: Peter Pan) to bring Cuban youth to safety in the United States. Between 1960 and 1962, Operation Pedro Pan airlifted more than 14,000 children from Havana to the U.S.

Operation Pedro Pan Found Support from Government and Business

While the Catholic Welfare Bureau was the principal organizer of Operation Pedro Pan, Father Walsh garnered support both from the federal government and from private business.

Tracy Voorhees, who was President Eisenhower's Personal Representative for Cuban Refugees, suggested that the Eisenhower Administration could provide funds to support the immigrant children, once they reached Miami. And the Department of State relaxed requirements for the Cuban minors, announcing in January 1962 that the children would no longer need visas to immigrate to the United States.

Before the revolution, a number of American companies had done business in Cuba, forming the American Chamber of Commerce in Havana. After Castro's regime expropriated the companies, Esso Standard Oil Company, the Freeport Sulfur Company and other corporations provided funding for Operation Pedro Pan. Because Castro closely watched all major monetary transactions, the businessmen developed a circumspect method of transferring funds through donations to the Catholic Welfare Bureau, and through small checks to Cuban-Americans in Miami, who in turn wrote checks to a Havana travel agency. Since Castro refused to permit Cuban pesos to be used to purchase airline tickets, all travel expenses had to be paid in American dollars.

Shelters Opened Across the Country

Ideally, the unaccompanied minors flooding into Miami would be met by Cuban-American family members, who would take them into their homes. But more than half of the incoming refugees were not reunited with family members, so were placed in shelters managed by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. At first the Catholic Welfare Bureau housed the incoming child refugees at Camp Matecumbe, the converted Marine barracks at Miami's Opa-locka Executive Airport. When Camp Matecumbe filled to capacity, special homes were opened in cities across America. The Catholic Welfare Bureau helped to open residential homes in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Lincoln, Nebraska; Wilmington, Delaware; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and several hundred homes across the country. Cuban-American citizens helped to manage the homes.

Operation Pedro Pan ended after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when air travel between the two nations was suspended. For the next three years, Cuban parents had to travel to the U.S. via Spain or Mexico, in order to be reunited with their children. In December 1965, the United States adopted a program of “Freedom Flights” to permit Cuban parents to once again travel directly to the U.S. According to the Catholic Welfare Bureau, after the institution of the Freedom Flights, more than 90% of Cuban child immigrants were eventually reunited with their parents.

Where Are the Children Now?

Many of the 14,000 Cuban child refugees who were airlifted by the Catholic Welfare Bureau during Operation Pedro Pan went on to learn English, become American citizens, and achieve great things in the United States. For example:

Mel Martinez was housed in two youth facilities, then in two foster homes. After becoming an American citizen, Martinez entered politics and was elected Orange County (FL) Chairman, then served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, then U.S. Senator from Florida. He was the first Latino to become head of the Republican National Committee. As HUD Secretary, he served as an ex officio member of President Bush's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. A devout Roman Catholic, Martinez opposed abortion and was one of the authors of the Palm Sunday Compromise, which allowed the federal government to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case in an attempt to prevent her death by dehydration.

Martinez returned to private enterprise, serving as chairman of Chase Bank Florida and its operations in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He now serves as chairman of the Southeast and Latin America for JPMorgan, Chase & Co. 

Jose Azel is Senior Scholar at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (CCAS). He is author of the acclaimed 2010 book Mañana in Cuba: The Legacy of Castroism and Transitional Challenges for Cuba.

Other notable Cuban-Americans who entered the United States during Operation Pedro Pan include:

  • Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez, bishop of St. Augustine. Bishop Estevez, who earned his doctorate from the Gregorian University in Rome, is fluent in English, Spanish, French and Italian. He was formerly spiritual director of St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach, and served as campus minister at Florida State University.
  • Carlos Eire, professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, and author of many books including A Very Brief History of Eternity. His memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy won the National Book Award in Nonfiction in 2003, and has been translated into many languages, but is banned in Cuba. His latest memoir Learning to Die in Miami Confessions of a Refugee Boy explores the exile experience.
  • Eduardo Aguirre, United States Ambassador to Spain and Andorra appointed by President George W. Bush. Before that, Aguirre served as the first Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).  Aguirre was bestowed the Order of Isabella the Catholic Gran Cruz by Spain, the Order of José Matias Delgado (Grade of Grand Officer) by El Salvador, and the Order of Christopher Columbus (Grade of Grand Officer) by the Dominican Republic. In 2004 he was awarded the Americanism Medal by the Daughters of the American Revolution. 
  • Guillermo “Bill” Vidal, 2011 Mayor of Denver and author of Boxing for Cuba: An Immigrant's Story.
  • Miguel Bezos, stepfather of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
  • Agustin de Rojas de la Portilla, inventor of the extended-wear contact lens
  • Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami Dade College

End of a Repressive Chapter in Cuba's History

On Friday, November 25, Cuban president Raul Castro announced that his brother Fidel, who had led the island nation for nearly fifty years, had died. Cuba said goodbye to the communist dictator whose iron-fisted rule had made Operation Pedro Pan a necessity.

Carlos Eire, one of Operation Pedro Pan's immigrant children, discussed the legacy of Cuba's “maximum leader” in a syndicated post in the Washington Post. Eire wrote:

One of the most brutal dictators in modern history has just died. Oddly enough, some will mourn his passing, and many an obituary will praise him. Millions of Cubans who have been waiting impatiently for this moment for more than half a century will simply ponder his crimes and recall the pain and suffering he caused.

Why this discrepancy? Because deceit was one of Fidel Castro's greatest talents, and gullibility is one of the world's greatest frailties. A genius at myth-making, Castro relied on the human thirst for myths and heroes. His lies were beautiful, and so appealing. According to Castro and to his propagandists, the so-called revolution was not about creating a repressive totalitarian state and securing his rule as an absolute monarch, but rather about eliminating illiteracy, poverty, racism, class differences and every other ill known to humankind. This bold lie became believable, thanks largely to Castro's incessant boasting about free schools and medical care, which made his myth of the benevolent utopian revolution irresistible to many of the world's poor.