Operation Peter Pan (Operation Pedro Pan or Operación Pedro Pan) was a mass exodus of unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States between 1960 and 1962. Father Bryan O. Walsh of the Catholic Welfare Bureau created the program to provide air transportation to the United States for Cuban children. It operated without publicity out of fear that it would be viewed as an anti-Castro political enterprise.
Father Bryan O. Walsh, director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau developed Operation Peter Pan in November 1960. He was inspired by Pedro Menéndez, a fifteen-year-old Cuban boy who had immigrated to Miami to live with relatives who proved unable to provide for him and sought assistance from the Catholic Welfare Bureau. Walsh understood that many similar youngsters would be immigrating to the United States as Fidel Castro established a Communist government. Speculation that this new government was planning to send minors to the Soviet Union to serve in work camps was causing panic in Cuban families who could not afford to emigrate.
Walsh contacted Tracy Voorhees, a veteran U.S. government official who was serving as the president's Personal Representative for Cuban Refugees, who suggested the Eisenhower Administration could provide funds to support Cuban immigrants once they reached Miami. James Baker, the headmaster of an American school in Havana, met with Walsh and detailed his efforts helping parents expatriate their children to Miami. Operation Peter Pan was formed with the understanding that Baker would arrange the children's transportation, and Walsh would arrange for accommodations in Miami.
Many other key figures assisted in alerting parents throughout the island about this program, including Penny Powers, Pancho and Bertha Finlay, Drs. Sergio and Serafina Giquel, Sara del Toro de Odio, and Albertina O'Farril. To maintain confidentiality, the program's leaders kept only minimal contact with the members in Cuba. Underground organizations led by the involved parents spread information regarding Operation Peter Pan.
Between 26 December 1960 and 23 October 1962, many Cuban youths traveled to Miami without their parents. Until early 1962, the children were required to have a visa and twenty-five dollars for airfare into the United States. Many family members already in the United States applied for visas and sent the necessary funds to relatives in Cuba. The U.S. Embassy in Havana issued the necessary student visas. On 3 January 1962, the U.S. Department of State announced that Cuban minors no longer needed visas to immigrate to the United States. Many Cubans believed that Castro's time in power would be short-lived. They anticipated that minors in the United States would eventually rejoin their families in Cuba. Nearly half of the minors who arrived were reunited with family members, while a majority were placed in shelters managed by the Catholic Welfare Bureau.
Operation Peter Pan ended when all air traffic between the United States and Cuba ceased in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Cuban immigrants needed to travel via Spain or Mexico to reach the United States until December 1965 when the United States established a program of Freedom Flights to unite Cuban parents with their children.
A large majority of the minors who arrived in Miami were between the ages of 12 and 18, and more than two-thirds were boys over the age of 12. They were predominantly Catholic, but Protestant, Jewish, and non-practicing backgrounds as well. Most were children of the middle or lower classes.
As the number of children who arrived in the U.S. increased, concern for the availability of shelters grew. In Miami, Camp Matecumbe, the Opa-locka Airport Marine barracks, and several other prominent locations were converted to housing for them. The program was unknown of outside of Miami until the Cleveland Plain Dealer detailed its size and procedures. Special homes, authorized by state officials and operated by Cuban refugees, were formed in several hundred cities across the nation including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Lincoln, Nebraska; Wilmington, Delaware; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida. Laws prevented any relocated children from being housed in reform schools or centers for juvenile delinquents. The minors were not made available for adoption.
There have been claims that many minors involved in Operation Peter Pan lost contact with their families. The Catholic Welfare Bureau reports that its records contradict that assertion and that once the Freedom Flights began nearly 90% of the minors still in its care were reunited with their parents.
By late 1960, Castro had expropriated several companies that made up the American Chamber of Commerce in Havana, including Esso Standard Oil Company and Freeport Sulfur Company. The leaders of these companies moved to Miami while they analyzed the actions of Cuba's new government. Under the impression that Castro's rule would be brief, they agreed to aid the Cuban children by providing funding for Operation Peter Pan. Through collaborations with Baker, these business leaders agreed to help secure donations from multiple US businesses and send them to Cuba. Because Castro was supervising all major monetary transactions, the businessmen were very careful in how the funds were transferred. Some donations were sent to the Catholic Welfare Bureau, and others were written out as checks to citizens living in Miami. These individuals then wrote checks out to the W. Henry Smith Travel Agency in Havana, which helped fund the children's flights to the United States. It was necessary to send the funds in American currency because Castro had ruled that plane tickets could not be purchased with Cuban pesos.
In 1962, the U.S. government commissioned a documentary film called The Lost Apple, which recounted the stories of the children who came to Miami. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy approved the making of this documentary as part of the U.S. government’s campaign against Communism.
The United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, ruled in a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by Maria de los Angeles Torres that this "evacuation of Cuban children turned out not to be a CIA operation at all". The ruling was based in part on the court's review of 733 pages of documentation provided by the CIA for use in an earlier court claim.
Unaccompanied Cuban minors, known at the time as "Pedro Pans" or "Peter Pans", who participated in the operation include:
Operation Peter Pan is recounted in: