Operation Peter Pan, the Estela Bravo documentary screening at the CineCuba film festival, tells the story of the “airlift” of 14,000 children from Cuba at the height of the Cold War. In 1961 and 1962 these children were flown out of Cuba, ostensibly to save them from communist indoctrination. Some never saw their families again. Many never saw Cuba again.
Though the justification for the actual Operation Peter Pan was the protection of children and parental rights, in reality it destroyed both.
Cuban parents were frightened into believing that they would lose parental authority and rights over their children. In reality these parents were unwitting participants in a counter-revolutionary psychological operation. Fake draft legislation depriving parents of control of their children was circulated in Cuba to create parental panic. Many affluent Cubans were convinced their children would be sent to Moscow for indoctrination with communist ideals. Visa waivers were issued only for children, not their families. So panicked parents sent their children off to America alone. This initiated a brutal rending of families. The separation trauma did immeasurable emotional damage to the kids being “protected” from communism.
The operation began when the U.S. State Department approached the Catholic Church proposing the Church act as a social agency to deal with “liberated” Cuban children. It is now a truism that children are generally not safe in the residential care of the Catholic Church. But apparently it seemed like a reasonable alternative at the time to raising them in a communist state. Unlike Aboriginal families in Canada, Cuban parents voluntarily entrusted their children to the Church.
The Cuban children were sent to the U.S. in class waves. The more affluent the family, the earlier they were likely to send away their children. From what is apparent in the film, they were all white children. Upon arrival in Miami, these children were granted political asylum via visa waiver. For many of these children, that is where their nightmare began.
Once in the U.S., they were placed in orphanages, camps and reform schools. Of course, many of the children suffered sexual abuse at the hands of priests or their foster families. Others were forced to work as farm or domestic labour. One heartbreaking story is told by Cuban filmmaker Marina Ochoa whose brother was part of the program. His double-sided letters home consisted of nothing but child’s printing of two words: “Mommy, come.”
Operation Peter Pan is now generally accepted to have been another anti-Castro CIA operation, although this is still denied by the Church. The documentary contains much archival footage of the Peter Pan children shot in the contemporary style of propaganda footage. Candi Sosa, one of the children, was an accomplished child singer, and a special subject for the Cold War camera. Her moving renditions of Cuban folk songs display a young person’s burning desire to return home. Young Candi singing these songs would have been particularly moving at the time. The subtext is that all Cubans would be able to return to a Cuba once it was liberated from godless communism. One can imagine what the Peter Pan operatives had in mind for these children; a children’s crusade of freedom fighters ready to return and take back Cuba from communism? But what actually resulted was just a lot of heartbroken kids growing into adulthood with ambiguous feelings, at best, about America.
Some of the lost children of Cuba eventually do go home again. The film closes the circle with a group of Peter Pan children from all corners of the U.S., now aging adults, returning to Cuba. They travel together as a mobile support group to share the pain and the healing. But many of the travellers know their wounds are too deep to heal. They return as merely tourists in their own pain.
Upon their return to the modern rainbow of Cuba, they are feted. When they attempt to explain their travails to a Cuban children’s theatrical troupe, it is particularly poignant. The youth of modern Cuba are remarkably well adjusted compared to these scarred seniors harbouring wounded inner children. In explaining the Cold War atrocity that transformed their lives to the children they might have been, a therapeutic circle is completed. The wounded children find some peace in the possibility of today’s Cuban children.
Estela Bravo directs Operation Peter Pan in the very orthodox and understated documentary style. Individuals tell their story with a minimum of artifice, as little artifice is required. Anyone can understand the wrenching trauma that such a forced separation would bring to a child. But everyone who views this film will scratch their heads in wonder at what these parents must have been thinking in sending their kids off on a one-way trip to pain. The historical travails of the Cold War, the command economy, the American blockade and the Plan Zero years aside, nothing hurts deeper than separation trauma, whether from family or home. Estela Bravo’s film quietly explains how 14,000 families of a small nation were politically duped into condemning their most beloved to the deepest hurt.
Operation Peter Pan’s Canadian premiere will take place Sunday, November 3, at the CineCuba film festival.
Humberto DaSilva is a union activist whose ‘Not Rex Murphy’ video commentaries are featured on rabble.
For more film reviews, see our Film Festivals in Toronto page.