CubaBrief: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuba’s First Lady, and the high price paid to save thousands of children from communism

Prior to Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, the last two democratic governments of Cuba played an important role in advancing international human rights while scrupulously respecting civil liberties in Cuba. Ramón Grau San Martín was president of Cuba during two periods, the first between 1933 and 1934 and the second between 1944 and 1948, and since he was a bachelor his niece, Maria Leopoldina Grau-Alsina, was the first lady of Cuba during his first tenure. She was better known as Polita Grau. She actively resisted the dictatorships of General Gerardo Machado, and Fulgencio Batista but initially supported the 1959 revolution. However following the start of firing squads by Fidel Castro in 1959 she turned against the new regime and was actively resisting it by 1960.

First Lady of Cuba Maria Leopoldina Grau-Alsina better known as Polita Grau

First Lady of Cuba Maria Leopoldina Grau-Alsina better known as Polita Grau

In May 1961 the Cuban dictatorship confiscated private schools, including Catholic schools, and most seminaries in an effort to eliminate religious education. In September 1961, the Castro regime at gunpoint collected 131 priests, brothers and a bishop, placing them on board the Spanish ship Covadonga and deported them from Cuba. Many of the remaining priests were sent to forced labor camps. Over 300 priests, brothers, and nuns were expelled from Cuba in 1961 alone.

President Ramón Grau San Martín with his nieces and nephews

President Ramón Grau San Martín with his nieces and nephews

Together with her brother Ramón Grau-Alsina, nicknamed “Mongo”, and Albertina O’Farrill (the wife of a Cuban diplomat) and Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh of the Archdiocese of Miami beginning on December 26, 1960 Polita Grau assisted the exodus of thousands of Cuban children from the Castro dictatorship. Eloísa Echazába, a young woman rescued by Operation Peter Pan, interviewed Albertina O’Farrill in 2011 and asked her about it.

Parents feared losing their parental rights and their children being indoctrinated. Feminist author and columnist for CubaNet News, Ileana Fuentes and also one of the girls rescued from a life under the Castro dictatorship, wrote an account of Operation Peter Pan on the 60th anniversary of the start of the exodus that she has translated to English for this CubaBrief. Eloísa Echazába has shared a 20 minute video that provides an overview of the exodus.

Cuba expert Tania Mastrapa found that parental fears were well founded reporting in Volume 2 of the 2013 Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice, “state control over children was officially validated in Articles 37, 38,and 39 of the 1976 Cuban Constitution, which read that the communist state controls education and parents are obligated to educate their children to be useful citizens in a socialist society.” Parents who wish to teach their children something other than communist indoctrination to their kids face up to a three year prison sentence.

This still continues today in Cuba.

Two Christian pastors were jailed for homeschooling their children, and an independent journalist was beaten and jailed for covering their trial in April 2019. Pastor Ayda Expósito was released from prison on April 3, 2020, and her husband Pastor Ramón Rigal was released on July 1, 2020.

Reverend Ramon Rigal, his wife Rev. Ayda Expósito and their two children.

Reverend Ramon Rigal, his wife Rev. Ayda Expósito and their two children.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide on December 23, 2019 reported that Liusdan Martínez Lescaille, a twelve year-old Jewish boy was forbidden by Cuban educational authorities from entering his school wearing a kippah ( also known as a yarmulke) since December 11, 2019.

Olainis Tejada Beltrán and Yeliney Lescaille Prebal, and their children Liusdan Martínez Lescaille, Daniel Moises

Olainis Tejada Beltrán and Yeliney Lescaille Prebal, and their children Liusdan Martínez Lescaille, Daniel Moises

His younger brother, Daniel Moises, was also subjected to the same ban and officials threatened to open legal proceedings against his parents (Olainis Tejada Beltrán and Yeliney Lescaille Prebal), jailing them and taking custody of their children for “threatening the children’s normal development.”

This is the same regime that for decades has taken children out of school during the school day in order to gather outside the homes of dissidents to shout these brave men and women down for the Castro dictatorship in acts of repudiation (actos de repudio). They indoctrinate them in school and use these children for acts of hatred against non-violent dissidents.

Polita Grau, her brother Ramón Grau-Alsina and Albertina O’Farrill saved thousands of children from this fate. They paid a high price for their courageous action. They were jailed in 1965, and sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1966 for their opposition to the communist dictatorship and for organizing the Peter Pan exodus. Polita spent over 12 years in prison before being sent into exile in 1978, and Mongo was sent into exile in 1988 after he had spent over 22 years in Castro’s prisons. Albertina spent 14 years in prison before being exiled. Others in the network also jailed with them in 1965 were Nenita Caramés (maiden name Gloria Álvarez), Alicia Thomas, Hilda Feo Sarol, Nena Nietze, Estrella Arián y Margot and Julia Calvo, participants all in the Operation Pedro Pan network that was headed by the Grau siblingsThis was the largest children’s rescue operation in recorded history, and Carlos Eire, one of those children, and today a Yale professor in a 2011 address in Miami gave his reflections on the significance of Operation Pedro Pan looking back a half century later.

CubaNet News, December 26, 2020

Operation Peter Pan: Over 14,000 Cuban children saved from Castro’s dictatorship.

The author, one of the girls sent to the U.S. in Operation Peter Pan, shares her perspective about the largest exodus of minors in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

 By Ileana Fuentes

Originally published in Spanish on December 26, 2020 in CubaNet News.

Miami, United States. – Sixty years ago, on December 26, 1960, a political exodus of Cuban children began, an exodus without precedent in the Americas. Many years earlier –between 1938 and 1940- an exodus of Jewish boys and girls had taken place in Europe; their parents had wanted to take them to safety, far from the murderous hands of German Nazism.

That exodus, which was coordinated from London, saved the lives of more than 9,000 minors under age 17 who escaped from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. They crossed the English Channel to Great Britain from ports in Belgium and the Netherlands. About 7,500 of them were Jewish, many of whose parents were already in German concentration camps and would die during the Holocaust. That operation was named Kindertransport –child-transport-; the first flight took place on December 2, 1938 and rescued 200 Jewish orphans from Berlin. The last Kindertransport flight took place in May 1940. 

The Cuban minors’ exodus saved 14,048 boys and girls from Castro’s dictatorship. I was one of those girls. Informally, the program was dubbed Operation Peter Pan. It remains the largest children’s rescue operation in recorded history. Escape was possible via air flights –through PanAm, National and KLM airlines- to the United States. The first flight left Jose Marti Airport at Rancho Boyeros on December 26, 1960. Only two children managed to board that flight.

After several weekly flights during the next 23 months, Operation Peter Pan ended abruptly on October 22, 1962, on the seventh day of the grave October Cuban Missile Crisis in which Cuba, the United States and the Soviet Union –the entire world, really- saw themselves at the brink of a nuclear conflict. The possibility of such confrontation would become Fidel Castro’s utmost wish, as confirmed in the correspondence between the Cuban megalomaniac and Nikita Khrushchev, as well as in the Soviet leader’s autobiography.

Operation Peter Pan was coordinated from three sites: Havana, Miami and Washington, DC. In Cuba, a brave group of educators and Catholic leaders began networking with parents and teachers throughout private schools, for the most part. The brain behind this network was James Baker, the headmaster of Ruston Academy, an American school in Havana. Several individuals collaborated with him: Dr. Sergio Giquel, an orthodontist, and his wife Serafina, who kept “dental patient files” for future Peter Pan children in their office; Frank Finlay, president of KLM Airlines in Cuba, and his wife Berta, a former teacher at Ruston; and a British national named Penny Powers. 

Polita Grau, Albertina O’Farrill and Ramón “Mongo” Grau (Polita’s brother, niece and nephew of former Cuban president Ramon Grau San Martin) took over the reins of Operation Pedro Pan later on. The Cuban regime accused Polita, Ramon and Albertina of spying for the CIA and sentenced them to 30-year prison terms. Polita, for instance, served 14 years of that sentence.

In Miami, the soul and brains of this exodus –and of the relocation of thousands of boys and girls throughout Catholic orphanages across the nation- was a Catholic priest, an immigrant from Ireland (later named monsignor} named Bryan O. Walsh. Father Walsh was then the director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, and with the Children’s Welfare Program, he established the Cuban Children’s Program. The Catholic Bureau was authorized by the U.S. Department of State to process student visas for minors in Cuba and to notify parents there when the paperwork was ready for the children to travel. Bryan Walsh can be credited for the success of this rescue operation; he narrates these events in his essay “Cuban Refugee Children, written between 1971 and 1972.

James Baker travelled to Miami on this rescue mission for the first time in December 1960; he met with Father Walsh on the 12th. In that meeting, they crafted a very close collaboration. They lay the foundation for private donations, such as from Esso Standard Oil (an American company) and Shell Oil Company (a British company). Members of the former U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Havana, now in exile, joined the fund-raising effort and helped with the exchange of documents and letters through diplomatic pouch.

On December 2, 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration assigned special funds –US1 million at first- for Cuban refugee assistance, and the Center for Cuban Refugees was founded in Miami, best known to Cubans as “el Refugio”. Those funds also provided the initial funding for the Cuban refugee children’s program. The Catholic Bureau took charge of Catholic children, who were the majority; the Bureau of Children’s Services took charge of Protestant children; and the Jewish Children and Family Services took charge of the Jewish children, who were few.

On December 15, a group of businessmen delivered to Father Walsh a letter from James Baker with a list of the first 125 names of Cuban minors that were ready to leave Cuba unaccompanied once their student visas arrived in Cuba. The great exodus of Cuban boys and girls was starting. More than 130 Catholic Charities entities joined the effort. Father Walsh and his team set up a waiting system at Miami airport where the daily flights from Havana were arriving. From the onset, they established a close working relationship with officers from Immigration and Naturalization Services at the airport to help them identify and process the unaccompanied minors. Together with Dade County government and the Archdiocese of Miami, they set up refugee camps in the old Kendall barracks and at Camp Matecumbe, a county facility that served as a summer camp for boys.

The Catholic Bureau already had custody of a few dozen Cuban minors without abled relatives from among the larger community of refugees, who were being taken care of by several communities of nuns. Some of them were housed at a huge residence that businessman Maurice Ferré –later mayor of Miami- had facilitated to Father Walsh for the refugee children. However, it was not until December 26 that the first unaccompanied Cuban minors began to arrive officially in Miami through the Peter Pan Operation. On the second flight of the day (on National Airlines), brother and sister Sixto and Vivian Aquino landed at Miami Airport. Operation Peter Pan was officially underway.

On the 28th, another two children arrived; six on the 30th and twelve on the 31st. Never in its history had the U.S. government defrayed the costs of a children’s refugee program. The issuance of student visas for Jim Baker’s kids was taking much too long, putting the continuation of the Operation at risk, especially after the U.S. and Cuba severed diplomatic relations and the U.S. Embassy began to ready itself for shut down. During January 1961, when very small groups of children were making their way to Miami, an exodus operation through Kingston, Jamaica was set up, using KLM Airlines, in collaboration with the Archdiocese of Kingston and authorization from the British government.

This is the moment when the idea of issuing visa waivers to Cuban children between the ages of 6 and 16 emerged. Minors 16 to 18 also received visa waivers after additional verification of personal information. The U.S. Department of State and the Department of Justice collaborated to approve expeditiously the release of visa waivers for Cuban minors. Father Walsh undertook that endeavor as well, often signing the documents himself, authorized as he was to do so.

In addition, schooling for the incoming children had to be solved. Father Walsh and his team recruited former Cuban educators already exiled in Miami, starting with James Baker and his wife Sibyl. Exiled nuns from the American Dominican Academy in Cuba joined the teaching squad. A “Cuban” school was founded at the Home for Cuban Children; later the kids would attend Archbishop Curley High School and the elementary school at the Parish of Saints Peter and Paul.

Gradually, so as not to raise too much suspicion in Havana, the unaccompanied Cuban minors began leaving their homeland. The Kendall barracks and Camp Matecumbe slowly filled up while Father Walsh and his associates organized a national network of Catholic parishes. Those parishes placed at the disposal of Catholic Charities and the Catholic Bureau in Miami their network of orphanages and foster parents –most of them, American- throughout 35 states of the Union: New Mexico, Nebraska, Delaware, Indiana, Colorado and Florida, just to mention a few.

Ninety-five social welfare agencies across the country took part in that relocation. Of the 14,048 unaccompanied minors that left Cuba in those 23 months, 6,584 remained with family friends or relatives already present in the U.S. The other 7,464 remained in the custody of the Catholic Bureau’s Cuban Children’s Program as well as the Protestant and Jewish agencies involved. It must be said that, although most Cuban minors came from middle-class families, working-class neighborhoods –at least in Havana- were canvassed by James Baker’s team on the ground, to determine the needs and wishes of those mothers and fathers regarding their offspring. And to further debunk the Castro regime’s propaganda, there were not only Spanish-descendant unaccompanied minors in the Operation, but Afro-descendant and Asian-descendant children as well.

Over 14,000 Cuban minors in 23 months: an average of 610.8 children per month, or 140 per week during the program’s 100 weeks. Operation Peter Pan didn’t take place with that mathematical accuracy, but it took place, nonetheless. And, also to debunk the propaganda: no Peter Pan child was kidnapped by the U.S. government, the CIA, or the State Department. It was our parents that made the heartbreaking decision to send us to the U.S. unaccompanied, with passports, visa waivers, vaccines and authorization letters stamped by Cuban authorities, in order to take us out of harm’s way: away from Castro’s communist dictatorship.

There are not enough words to thank that generation of parents for their sacrifice. They shaped history. They made it possible for us to grow up free. May they forever rest in peace.


How Indoctrination Plays Out in Cuba

By Carlyle MacDuff

Learning the letters and sounds in Cuba. Photo:

Learning the letters and sounds in Cuba. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES – Indoctrination works. It would take a fool to deny that. The evidence is overwhelming throughout recorded history. Religions, nationalism and indeed totalitarian politics are consequences despite their evident illogical persuasions. Various forms of supportive propaganda are pursued relentlessly through all available means of communication.

Cuba is an island where the isolated population has for almost sixty years, received only that information provided by a totally controlling authority, where the basic requirements of life are controlled by that same authority along with education.

Virtually from the creche at a year old, throughout grade school education and university. children are subjected by law, to communist indoctrination, indeed it is an offence punishable by three years imprisonment for parents to teach their own children in their own home, anything that is contrary to communism.

School textbooks from the earliest age are designed for indoctrination. C is for Che, F is for Fidel, G is for Granma, R is for revolution and so on. Classroom walls have pictures of the leading figures in the cult of the personality and political slogans.

University students studying for advanced degrees place quotations of Fidel Castro in thesis. All media, newspapers, radio and television are state-controlled and all reporters are committed to complying with the instructions of the state.

Billboards and placards bearing communist slogans are seen throughout the island, no others are permitted. Two successive generations of Cubans know nothing else. Censorship is rigorous with libraries only permitted to display books approved by the state.

Books like Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago being banned. All that has now been imposed in Cuba by the Castro regime upon two successive generations. The Castro’s purpose was to establish a Stalinist type communist state with a conforming proletariat and to date they have succeeded. Capitalism as practiced in China and Vietnam has no place in Cuba.

The obvious purpose is to create a confusion between being a loyal Cuban proud of one’s nationality and support of the totalitarian communist system as if the two are synonymous and creating an internal mental tug of war.

Criticism of communism is defined by law as dissention. The flag of Cuba is promoted as the flag of revolution and only communism is entitled to have revolutions for others such as those of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 are condemned as “counter-revolution”.

Today in Cuba when in discussion if one lays responsibility for regime incompetence – the abysmal distribution system, the shortage of basic commodities, the declining agricultural production, the crumbling infrastructure and describe those as a consequence of the communist system, many Cubans will bristle in reaction, not by denying the evident truth, but by denying that communism – now described as socialism has responsibility, somehow through distortion, the fault lies with the capitalist world..

Propaganda has succeeded!

It is indeed surprising that there remain any with views contrary to those with which they have been indoctrinated since birth, through all those years of indoctrination in the creches, schools and universities, through all the communist controlled media and through the fear of knowing that even the walls have ears of the Party. But many such people are evident to the discerning eye when living in Cuba.

The Washington Post, March 25, 2000

Polita Grau, 84, Dies

Polita Grau and her husband Roberto Lago Pereda in 1934-5

Polita Grau and her husband Roberto Lago Pereda in 1934-5

Polita Grau, 84, who as a teenager served as Cuba’s first lady during her unmarried uncle’s reign and later spent 14 years in prison for conspiring with the CIA to overthrow Fidel Castro, died of congestive heart March 22 at a nursing home here.Her uncle, Ramon Grau San Martin, was Cuba’s president in 1933 and 1934 and from 1944 to 1948. He gave his niece the ceremonial title of first lady during his first term.

Ms. Grau, who was born in Havana, was known as the godmother of the anti-communist “Peter Pan” movement, which involved the Roman Catholic Church and encouraged Cuban parents to send their children to live with U.S. families.She and her family secretly distributed invitations bearing U.S. letterhead from their Havana home, helping 14,000 children come to the United States in the early 1960s.

Among them were her daughter and son, whom she sent to friends in Miami while she stayed behind to care for elderly relatives.

Ms. Grau spent four periods of exile in Miami, starting with her senior year in high school. As a college student in Cuba, she was involved in radical campus movements to undermine the regime of Gen. Gerardo Machado.

She was a supporter of Cuba’s 1959 communist revolution, but turned against it after Castro started nationalizing industries.

She and her brother, Ramon, plotted to topple Castro. They were arrested in 1965, charged with being CIA agents and forming an espionage ring in Cuba.

Ms. Grau spent 14 years in prison, until Castro authorized a major release of political prisoners in 1978 as part of a dialogue with Miami exiles encouraged by President Jimmy Carter. Her brother, who was freed eight years later, died in 1998.

The New York Times, November 6, 1998

Ramon Grau Alsina, 75, Cuban Who Aided Children’s Escape

By Mirta Ojito

Nov. 6, 1998

Ramon Grau Alsina

Ramon Grau Alsina

Ramon Grau Alsina, who helped organize an undercover operation code-named Pedro Pan that smuggled thousands of children to the United States from Cuba in the early years of the Castro Government, died Tuesday night in Miami, his home for the last 12 years.

He would have been 76 on Saturday.

Mr. Grau, whose nickname was Mongo, died of complications from pneumonia at Mercy Hospital. He was hospitalized last month for treatment for prostate cancer, said his sister Polita Grau.

Mr. Grau, who published a book about his life last year, came from a wealthy family with a long involvement in Cuban politics.

Born in Havana in 1922, Mr. Grau was the youngest of four children of Paulina Alsina and Francisco Grau San Martin. He was also the nephew of Ramon Grau San Martin, the President of Cuba from 1944 to 1948. When his father died, Mr. Grau was adopted by his uncle.

Mr. Grau and his family spent part of his childhood in Miami Beach because his family opposed the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. He returned to Cuba in the late 1930’s, and, after studying medicine, declared politics his love and became a personal secretary to his uncle, the president. Later, Mr. Grau was elected to Cuba’s House of Representatives.

In 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power, the Graus found themselves again in the opposition. Mr. Grau sent his wife, Avelina Castro, and his children to Miami, and then joined the underground movement against Mr. Castro.

Mr. Grau was later divorced. He is survived by his children, Pedro, Ramon and Pilar Grau, who live in Pompano Beach, Fla., and his sister.

In 1960, Mr. Grau, a Roman Catholic, and his sister joined a handful of others in organizing Operation Pedro Pan, a secret program run by the Catholic Church in the United States with the aid of the State Department, to smuggle out of Cuba children whose parents either feared Communist indoctrination or were involved in the resistance.

The church received the children, housing some in American camps and placing others in foster homes.

Mr. Grau’s role was to distribute thousands of visa waivers, smuggled to him from the United States, to the parents who wanted their children to leave Cuba. He once told a researcher that he had walked the streets of Havana carrying the waivers inside his daughter’s school bag, and a match and a bottle of alcohol in his pocket. If the police stopped him, he said, he was ready to burn the papers.

By the time the 21-month-old program ended, 14,000 children had left Cuba.

Ms. Grau and Mr. Grau were convicted of helping to smuggle the children, as well as of having connections with the C.I.A. and trying to overthrow the Castro Government. Both were sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1966. Ms. Grau was released in 1978, her brother in 1986. The smuggling operation was sanctioned by the United States State Department, but the C.I.A. has denied knowing of it.

Many of the children smuggled through Pedro Pan were separated from their parents for years. Some families were never reunited, and some of the children, now adults, resent the organization’s role in their fate.

But many children said they were thankful for Mr. Grau’s work.

”He took a lot of risks for us,” said Yvonne Conde, one of the smuggled children who lives in New York and is writing about about the Pedro Pan program. ”We can’t forget that.”

Mr. Grau died poor, his sister said. He did not own a car, relying on friends for transportation. He was a frequent guest on Spanish language radio shows and at Cuban political round-tables in Miami.