In 1960, rumors spread through Cuba that Fidel Castro was planning to take children from their parents and put them in military schools or send them to the Soviet Union for communist indoctrination.
In response to the perceived threat, the United States began Operation Peter Pan, or Operacion Pedro Pan. The Central Intelligence Agency ran the program between 1960 and 1962. The idea was to fly children of parents who were opposed to Castro’s government to the United States and place them in homes here.
The Catholic Church in South Florida was instrumental in helping to place the children in homes. By the time the program had ended, about 14,000 children had been transported to Miami and then placed with friends, relatives and group homes in about 35 states.
Many of the children had to endure traumatic experiences and difficult adjustments. They were separated from their parents and sent to places such as Nebraska or New Jersey that had to resemblance to their tropical island homeland.
The success or wisdom of the program remains a source of controversy. Castro has long argued that the CIA was responsible for creating the rumors of government child abductions to raise fears and undermine his rule. The CIA has denied those charges.
Castro has accused the CIA of fomenting Cold War paranoia and trying to disrupt the stability of his regime in preparation for the Bay of Pigs invasion, another charge the U.S. government denies.
Many in the Cuban exile community in Miami disagree that the program was unwarranted, believing Operation Peter Pan was necessary to remove the children from Castro’s totalitarian state and give them lives of freedom. They argue that the children were political refugees who deserved asylum here.
A number of the children went on to achieve success as Americans. Mel Martinez grew up to become a Republican U.S. senator from Florida. Willy Chirino is a celebrated Latin musician. Luis Leon became the an Episcopal priest and rector at historic St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. Leon delivered the benediction at President Obama’s second inauguration in January 2013.
According to Associated Press Reports, Martinez had faced threats and harassment as a teenager playing basketball in 1961. The threats convinced his parents that he should go to the United States as part of Operation Peter Pan.
Martinez told the AP that the experience made him stronger. "It's taught me to be self-reliant," he said. "It's taught me to stand up to adversity. And it's taught me that there's a wonderful God. A lot of Pedro Pan people have been very successful, not to say that there's not some tragic stories, but we just learn to make do."
Martinez landed in Miami and soon wound up living in Orlando. He taught himself English and attended Catholic Mass each day. But it was not easy.
"The memories are just of this deep, deep loneliness and feeling of being alone in the world and of just, I guess, despair," he told the AP in a 2004 interview.
Operation Peter Pan helped set the course for U.S. immigration policy toward Cubans and the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that followed.