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Cuban-Americans struggle with memories of childhood airlifts

airlifted Cuban children
The Cuban revolution sparked the mass exodus of children to the U.S.  

Operation Pedro Pan left many stranded in U.S.

January 12, 1998
Web posted at: 10:13 p.m. EST (0313 GMT)

CHICAGO (CNN) -- After Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and began establishing a communist government, thousands of Cuban children were airlifted to the United States in the early 1960s in a U.S.-sponsored operation known as Pedro Pan.

The mass exodus of 14,000 unaccompanied children from the Carribean island nation was a well-meaning effort to save the children, but the operation took a great emotional toll on the boys and girls involved.

Maria de los Angeles Torres came to the United States on the airlift 36 years ago. Now a political science professor at DePaul University, she is filing suit against the Central Intelligence Agency to get information about the airlift.

CNN's Patty Davis reports
icon 2 min. 32 sec VXtreme video

Torres, who is writing a book about the ordeal, says the CIA is refusing to give her documents she believes will answer the many questions she has about the operation. The CIA says it doesn't have any documents to turn over.

According to a report in The New York Times on Monday, the children were flown out of Cuba from December 1960 to October 1962 in the operation, which the United States and the Catholic church in Miami put together.

It was named Operation Pedro Pan, a reference to Peter Pan. The Times reports that it is the largest child rescue ever recorded in the West.

The children's families were anxious to get them away from communism. Most children were reunited with their parents months or even years later. Torres was reunited with her parents four months after she left.

But many children were left stranded in the U.S. after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 stopped flights to and from the island. These youths were under the care of the Catholic church, living in orphanages, foster homes and delinquent facilities.

Some families were reunited when the children were adults; some were never reunited.

young Maria de los Angeles Torres
Torres was airlifted as a young girl  

Many Pedro Pan children say they are grateful they now live in the United States, but they are haunted by the memories of their childhood ordeal.

"We left very early in the morning," Torres said. "We were to tell no one that we were leaving because there was always a fear that the Cuban government wouldn't let us go."

Monsignor Bryan Walsh, who was 30 at the time, was the architect of the U.S. end of the operation. He says the United States and the church were simply responding to the needs of desperate parents.

"The right thing to do was to respond to those parents who were concerned about the religious faith of their children," Walsh said.

Alfredo Lanier, a journalist with The Chicago Tribune, was 14 when his parents sent him to the United States.

"I remember being terribly homesick," Lanier said.

Correspondent Patty Davis contributed to this report.


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