Quiet Cuban airlift altered 14,000 lives

Refuge: Parents fearing Castro sent children alone to the United States, not knowing whether they would see them again.

January 23, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Like Elian Gonzalez, he was just a little boy, from the same town in Cuba, when early one morning he was sent on a journey that he could neither comprehend nor control.

Santiago Rodriguez was 8 years old, and it was only after he and his brother, Alberto, 6, were on the plane that they learned they were going to America.

"I wouldn't have known the United States from Romania at that point," Rodriguez says, about 40 years after he was part of a remarkable airlift of Cuban children whose parents wanted to save them from the country's new Communist regime. "I didn't know anything about Fidel Castro. The last thing I remember was my father giving me a handkerchief and saying, `You might need this.' "

No doubt, for it would be six years before he would see his parents again. Today, the plight of Elian, the 6-year-old caught in a custody battle between the United States and Cuba, brings back memories of his separation from parents and homeland.

Elian, whose mother drowned making the journey across the Florida Straits, has been staying in Miami as his father and the Cuban government battle his relatives and the exile community in the United States over the country in which he should live.

In some ways, the issues are the same as those in the early 1960s, when Rodriguez and about 14,000 other children were ferried out of Cuba in what was dubbed "Operation Pedro Pan."

Soon after Castro swept into power in 1959, many parents began to fear what Rodriguez's did: Castro was closing churches and private schools and sending children to military and Communist programs. One by one, these parents, largely members of the middle and upper classes, came to the same difficult decision: They would send their youngsters to the States, not knowing when or if they would see them again, rather than allow them to grow up under the new regime.

There were two Pan Am flights a day running between Havana and Miami then. Tickets were $25 -- and were the means for most of these children to leave.

Despite the use of commercial flights, Operation Pedro Pan was run quietly to avoid trouble with the new regime. Little has been written about it in the intervening years, and from the vantage point of the present, it seems like something out of a movie, complete with a kindly Irish priest of the sort played by Bing Crosby.

The Rev. Bryan Walsh, now a retired monsignor in Miami, and the city's Roman Catholic diocese were authorized by the State Department to grant visa waivers to any child who wished to enter the United States under the church's guardianship, according to a book, "Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children," written by Yvonne M. Conde. She was a child of the airlift.

"Can you imagine the desperation a parent must have felt to do what my parents did?" Rodriguez says, shuddering at the prospect of having to send his two children away. "As a parent, I'm just astounded by the amount of inner fortitude, and confidence in the U.S., that my parents must have had."

Success story

In his spacious and airy home in Upper Marlboro, overlooking woods freshly bedecked with snow, Rodriguez is worlds away from those first years in America, where as a boy with no friends or relatives he and his brother were sent to live in an orphanage.

He is one of the Pedro Pan success stories -- a classical pianist and artist-in-residence at the University of Maryland, College Park who has won international accolades for his performances and recordings.

Others airlifted here similarly proved to be high achievers: Eduardo Robreno is a U.S. district judge in Philadelphia and the only Cuban-American to rise to that level of the judiciary. Joe Carollo became the mayor of Miami -- ground zero in the battle over Elian. There are doctors, artists, lawyers, writers, accountants, engineers and, of course, mothers and fathers -- the entire range of possibilities that their parents must have imagined for them.

Back then, the parents knew little of what would happen to the children after they put them on the plane. More than a few arrived with notes such as this one pinned to a little girl's dress: "My name is Carmen Gomez. I am five years old. Please be good to me," Conde writes in her book.

Walsh and other operation leaders would meet the children at the Miami airport and begin dispersing them. Some would go to family or friends already living in the States, others to foster homes and orphanages.

The idea was that the children would be reunited with their parents at some point; in reality, it would take months or years. In some cases, it never happened. As relations between the countries deteriorated, especially after the 1962 missile crisis, it was increasingly difficult to get out of Cuba.

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