Friday, May 28, 2010

Escape from Havana: An American Story (CNBC)

I just caught an intriguing documentary on CNBC called "Escape from Havana: An American Story" about Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) the mini airlift that spirited 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S. between 1960 and 1962.  [A reader, Maria Estorino, comments that it will be shown again on Sunday, May 30th and Monday, May 31st at 10 p.m. - Thanx Maria.]

I think what I liked most about the documentary is that (for mainstream cable) it featured a refreshingly broad range of stories and opinions on the revolution, on U.S. Policy, and on Operation Peter Pan itself.

[For a completely different take on the "balance" of the documentary see Alberto de la Cruz's cynical rant at Babalu Blog here.  He says he did not watch it to be fair or to actually listen to the experiences or opinions of any of the Pedro Pans (except for the only one, Carlos Eire, he already agreed with), but only because watching it "serves to vindicate my cynicism and distrust" in the MSM. Well, if you've already made up your mind before opening your eyes, your eyes will only see what it lets them, and it might be better just to keep them closed in the first place].

There was an especially interesting section on the CIA spreading false rumors about a Castro plan to send kids to the USSR, indirectly leading many worried parents to send their kids alone to the U.S. via Pedro Pan instead in order to save them, or so their parents thought. 

I'm glad to see that they included not only the moving story of Maria de los Angeles Torres as a Pedro Pan herself, but also her research and analysis as a political scientist who has wirtten about the exodus with the critical eye of a scholar.

Here are the six featured Cubans - all of whom are "Pedro Pans" themselves:

Carlos Eire - Author of "Waiting for Snow in Havana" and Professor of History and Religious Studies, Yale University. Carlos last saw Cuba 48 years ago when his parents put him and his brother on a plane bound for America. "For me, Cuba is some other dimension, like some other planet – because I can’t go there."

Tomas Regalado - Mayor of Miami, Florida. Regalado was a young boy when his father, a journalist and critic of Castro, disappeared. "A lot of militia guys banging on the doors and calling the name of my father. A lot of guns. They came into the house and my mother was crying. It was a very bad day."

Maria de Los Angeles Torres - Political Scientist and Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, University of Illinois, Chicago. Maria was just 5 years old when Fidel Castro took over. Her parents supported the revolution that brought him to power, but their hopes for the future soon turned to fear. "My parents were horrified with the firing squads and they had a very close friend who as 17 at the time he was arrested. He was... killed by a firing squad."

Candi Sosa - Singer/Songwriter. As a young child, Candi caught Castro’s attention when he heard her sing. He tried to take [send?] her away to study in Russia. Her parents refused. The revolution really hit home when Candi’s father was arrested for treason. "It was a torturous time. He got very traumatized…to lose that whole sense of well-being, to lose everything you possess."

Carlos Saladrigas - Chairman and CEO, Regis HRG and founder of the Cuba Study Group. Carlos arrived in Miami – alone and penniless – at the age of twelve. Prevailing has been his mission ever since that fateful day when he was airlifted away from his home. "I had a tough time. I mean I cried by guts out daily. But that particular moment, it was full of hope and expectation, and a sense of adventure, too."

Silvia Wilhelm - Activist, Founder and Executive Director, Puentes Cubanos. Silvia arrived alone in Miami when she was 14 years old. She was sent to live in Buffalo, NY boarding school. She remembers the Bay of Pigs invasion and learning that the American trained Cuban exile forces were defeated by Castro. “That’s when I really realized, I’m not going back. I’m here for good.”

I would have also liked to hear the stories of Nelson Valdes and Roman de la Campa both Pedro Pans who have written movingly and sometimes critically of the experience.  Also, I wonder what percentage of the Pedro Pans were Afro-Cuban - given the demography of the exodus at that time, I'd imagine less than 5 percent.  Anybody know?

Try to catch the show - well worth watching and arguing about over a glass of ron anejo and a pan con lechon.


  1. It'll be showing again on Sunday, May 30th and Monday, May 31st at 10 p.m.

  2. As a "Peter Panner" (St. Joseph's Boys Home, Helena, Montana) I found the coverage to be scant (1/2 hour plus commercials) but fairly balanced. While there was C.I.A. "Cold War" disinformation, it was of minimal impact,compared to the harsh and unequivocal steps being taken by the new regime to stifle dissent, once in power. Most parents of these children had been in favor of the revolution, but the "English-speaking" Castro (we saw on T.V.) and whom they saw back then as savior from Batista tyranny and catalyst for democracy/elections, soon shifted to authoritarian mode, almost over night.

    My parents faced constant surveillance, threats, trumped up charges and legal departure was denied them. The possibility of incarceration became quite real and in desperation, they spirited me out. My circumstances were shared by many other Peter Panners with whom I've spoken and confirm my belief that 28,000 parents would not send their children to a foreign land (without assurances of ever seeing them again) on the basis of mere rumors or disinformation. We need to keep common sense within reach, specially when analysing the past. I OPtaciana