NYTimes Story ‘Blown Way Out of Proportion,’ Says Cuban American Historian
The New York Times pits Florida Governor Ron DeSantis against Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, with Cuban Americans as the target
“DeSantis vs. Miami’s Archbishop, With Cuban Americans in the Middle,” screamed a March 15 New York Times headline that put Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, a vocal advocate for immigrants, in the crosshairs of the city’s feisty Cuban-American community, with additional pushback from Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis..
The origins of the controversy date back to early 2022, when Archbishop Wenski sharply criticized the Republican leader’s efforts to restrict the resettlement of unaccompanied minors crossing the border in the state.
“DeSantis is trying to stop all federal programs in Florida that serve these unaccompanied kids as well as services to Cubans (and Haitians, Venezuelans, etc.) released by the U.S. under its ‘parole’ authority,” charged the archbishop in a Jan. 14 column entitled, “Why is Governor Going After Children?” for The Florida Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper.
Archbishop Wenski warned that the governor’s policy could shutter the Church-run Cutler Bay shelter, which has cared for about 50 children under COVID-19 restrictions.
And in an effort to build his case by tapping the experience of local Catholics, the archbishop equated the large numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the border today with the historic Operation Pedro Pan airlift that brought 14,000 Cuban children to America in the tumultuous aftermath of the 1959 Cuban revolution.
“Sixty years after Pedro Pan … there are new waves of unaccompanied minors,” from Central America, he wrote “[T]hey are not much different from those Cuban children of 60 years ago. The desperation that has led the parents of today’s unaccompanied minors is not unlike the desperation that motivated Cuban parents 60 years ago.”
The archbishop’s attempt to establish a connection between the Cuban children participating in the Pedro Pan airlift 60 years ago, and the children and teenagers from Central America now fleeing gang violence and poverty, set off a simmering debate within Miami’s Cuban-American community. The ensuing discussion, spilling over into public meetings and local media, prompted some Cuban-Americans to rally around the archbishop. But it also spotlighted the specific conditions on the ground that inspired the two-year evacuation of Cuban children, a joint effort by the U.S. State Department and the Catholic Church.
For additional perspective on the Pedro Pan airlift, the Register reached out to Carlos Eire, the T. Lawrason Riggs professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, and an award-winning author of academic and non-fiction works. Eire and his brother were among the thousands of Cuban minors airlifted to this country between 1960-1962. He described his childhood in Castro’s Cuba in Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003), which won the National Book Award in Nonfiction and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Learning to Die in Miami (2010), his second memoir, retraced the often traumatic process of his resettlement in the U.S.
In an email exchange with Register Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Eire shared his views on Archbishop Wenski’s comments, while dismissing the Times’ coverage of the dispute as politically motivated and “blown way out of proportion.”
Archbishop Wenski equated the Pedro Pan airlift that brought more than 14,000 children fleeing the communist takeover with the arrival of large numbers of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America fleeing poverty and gang violence. Why were his remarks controversial for some Cuban Americans?
His remarks might have been controversial to some in the Pedro Pan community because the archbishop made what philosophers call a “category mistake” — that is, he erroneously assigned a quality or action to one category of immigrants that can only properly be assigned to a totally different category.
The circumstances surrounding the migration of unaccompanied minors vary immensely, as do the circumstances of all migrations. The two waves of juvenile migrants compared by the archbishop are vastly different in a multitude of ways.
The purpose of the Pedro Pan airlift was not to send kids to the U.S. permanently, as immigrants who would end up living here. We were refugees. So were our parents. Much like the Ukrainians now fleeing from Russia, the intention of the migration was to return home someday — hopefully soon.
The current wave of migration mentioned by the archbishop is not of this sort, and this is one of the main reasons the comparison was a category mistake.
What were the conditions on the ground in Cuba at the time your parents agreed to send you to the U.S.?
At the time that our parents decided to send us to the United States, there was an ironclad certainty that parents would lose control of the education of their children, as well as of their futures. To begin with, all education in Cuba was placed in the hands of an aggressively communist and atheist totalitarian dictatorship. Education had already turned into nonstop total immersion in indoctrination.
Children were also being forced to join the so-called “Pioneers,” a paramilitary organization similar to the Nazi Youth in the Third Reich or the Pioneers in the Soviet Union and all its satellites. Children could be forced to do tasks that were falsely called “volunteer” work in labor camps during the summer, or sent on various sorts of “revolutionary” missions within Cuba or abroad.
This applied to boys and girls alike. For boys there was the additional certainty of forced military service at the age of 18. Then, there was also the possibility of children being sent to the Soviet Union and its satellite states, something that had already begun to happen routinely.
Parents had no power to stop the Cuban government from imposing all of these “revolutionary” tasks and “benefits” on their own children.
What kind of supervision did you receive before, during and after your arrival in the U.S.?
Before departure, our parents continued to carry on with life as best as possible. But after the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, the spy houses set up on every block in towns and cities — the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution — kept an eye on all children and hounded parents such as mine who were seeking to get us out of Cuba. Upon arrival in the U.S. we were all greeted by representatives of the Pedro Pan program and dispatched to whatever location had been predetermined for us: some with relatives, some to foster homes, most of us to the camps, which were an intermediate stage to placement in some other sort of foster care environment, either with a foster family or in an orphanage or boarding school.
After arrival, it could vary a lot depending on one’s placement. But the Pedro Pan program did keep track of everyone, even if slowly and somewhat haphazardly. My brother and I ended up in one horrific foster home in Miami for nine months while awaiting reassignment to an uncle who had been relocated to a small city in the Midwest. We had fallen through the cracks and it was only by accident that some social worker noticed our plight.
The New York Times’ story said the children on the Pedro Pan airlift were mostly upper middle class and middle class, suggesting that there were sharp differences in class between the children fleeing Cuba on the airlift, and unaccompanied minors crossing the border. Was that the case?
The vast majority of Pedro Pan kids were middle class, not upper class or upper middle class. Cuba had a huge middle class, perhaps the largest in all of Latin America. Many Pedro Pan kids were lower middle class, and poor too. And not all of us were white, or Catholic.
It is true, nonetheless, that the principal reason we were separated from our parents was political rather than economic. In this respect, the two groups do differ substantially.
Are the Cuban Americans who disagreed with the archbishop’s comments concerned that he is downplaying the totalitarian nature of the Cuban government? Is this partly an attempt to clarify the nature of the regime amid progressive efforts to justify its human rights violations?
Yes, it is highly probable that some Cuban exiles are upset by the archbishop’s category mistake for this very reason. It rankles me. I assume it rankles others, too.
It’s all too common for the crimes of Cuba’s totalitarian dictatorship to be overlooked. And, unfortunately, even more common for that dictatorship to be constantly praised by progressives.
So some in the Pedro Pan community believed that the archbishop had ignored or dismissed the unique experience of political refugees?
Political refugees who arrive penniless in the host country almost always experience a sharp decline in status, income and living conditions and most of them tend to never recover from this devastating loss. In contrast, most of the migrants who are fleeing poverty and crime are seeking to improve their lives in the host country.
Has the refugee crisis caused by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine stirred memories of your own flight to the U.S.?
Most certainly, yes. And all of them have lost all of their possessions, as well as their homeland, and most of them have had to leave loved ones behind. That kind of loss is very familiar to me. Lord have mercy.
When you arrived on the Pedro Pan airlift America’s immigration system still functioned. Now it is broken, with endless delays for people who seek to come here legally. Does this fact help explain Archbishop Wenski’s remarks?
Yes, this sad fact probably had something to do with the archbishop’s remarks. What has been going on at our southern border is an absolute horror and disgrace, for sure.
Any further thoughts?
I want to emphasize that this incident is being blown way out of proportion. This is not at all a big deal. The archbishop angered some Cubans. Happens all the time. He may speak Spanish, but deep down, he does not seem to understand Cuban exile culture — a difficult task for anyone, even those who are part of that culture.
Progressives and liberals are over-represented in journalism. The fact that Ron DeSantis — a bogey man for those who lean left — added comments of his own made it seem as if once again those conservative Cubans were on the wrong side of history.
Another way of saying this is that this story in the NYT is more about the way in which The Times loves to skewer Cuban exiles than about anything the archbishop said.
- cuban americans
- ron desantis
- the new york times
- archbishop thomas wenski
- operation Pedro pan