More than 100 Cuban-American gathered in Miami, Florida, to mark an emotional 50th anniversary of their covert exodus to the US.
More than 14,000 Cuban children were spirited out of the country between late 1960 and 1962 on the so-called Pedro Pan flights organised by Catholic Church leaders following the Cuban revolution.
Pedro Pan veterans cheered as they hugged friends they had not seen since their childhood as they marked the anniversary on Friday. They waved American and Cuban flags and sang the camp songs they learned upon their arrival – Spanish children’s tunes exhorting communists to leave Cuba while promising “Americans” they would be friends.
The last thing 13-year-old Mercedes Argiz’s father told her before she boarded the plane from Cuba, just days before the Cuban Missile Crisis, was: “I will see you for Christmas.” She never saw him again.
She flew from northern Virginia to join the others in Miami to mark the anniversary of the exodus and tour the south Florida refugee camps in which they first stayed.
Operation Pedro Pan – Spanish for Peter Pan – was organised at the behest of Cuban parents fearful of the new communist government’s efforts to take control of their children. Most of the refugees spent time in one of several Florida refugee camps before they moved into foster homes or orphanages around the country.
The children thought they would be reunited with their parents within a few weeks. But heightened tension between the two countries following the missile crisis – the nuclear stand-off over missile sites on the island – meant many had to wait years to see their parents again, and some never did.
Cuban officials and some researchers have long claimed the effort was a CIA-backed plot to create a brain-drain from the island. The US government denies those accusations.
The effort drew its name in part from an unaccompanied minor from Cuba named Pedro who came to the attention of the late Bryan Walsh, an Irish priest who headed the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami. Mr Walsh, who died in 2001, was instrumental in providing care for the young refugees.