It started in November 1960 when Catholic priests handed out pamphlets to their congregations in churches throughout Havana. The priests said the information sheet, known as the Apocrifa, the Acts of Parents Authority, was proof the revolutionary government was going to take children away from their parents to indoctrinate them to be good communists, going so far as to send them to the Soviet Union.
Many of the middle class Habaneros believed every word of what the leaflets purported, and the result was thousands of parents sent their children, often only infants, outside of Cuba for the supposed safety of Miami and other parts of the United States. The program was known as Operation Peter Pan, and when the Cuban government finally realized what was happening and shut it down two years later, more than 14,000 children had left, many never to see their parents again. It was one of the cruelest anti-revolutionary programs devised, created and supported by the Catholic Church in Havana and Miami, in coordination with the CIA and State Department. Operation Peter Pan was facilitated through special visas arranged by James Baker Headmaster of Ruston Academy, an American school in Havana. Baker was working with Father Bryan O. Walsh, Director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami, supported by the Church in Cuba.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine how the Catholic Church could be involved in such a callous ruse that struck at the heart of Cuban society – the family. However, it’s not the first time the Church thought taking children away from parents was appropriate. Just ask the Indigenous people of Canada.
The painful history of the Residential Schools in Canada has been brought back to the public’s attention recently, with the discovery of more than 200 Indigenous children in unmarked graves at one of the schools in British Columbia. Supported by the Canadian government, the program allowed administrators to forcibly take children from their parents in order to teach them to become proper, white, Christian Canadians. To obliterate their heritage. The Schools ran from the late 19th century up until the 1990s, the vast majority under the supervision of the Catholic Church. Thousands of children were involved, and reports of physical and mental abuse at the hands of those in charge were commonplace. It continues to have a deleterious affect on Indigenous communities.
Operation Peter Pan also left permanent damage on those families torn apart by the anti-revolutionary lie. Hundreds of children found themselves in orphanages or Church run foster homes, many suffering physical and emotional pain; parents living forever with the guilt of separation. To this day there are still defenders of the program, on strict ideological reasons, ignoring the harm done on a personal level. Much of the same rationale has been used to justify the Residential Schools, with the government of the time explicitly stating that native culture could not assimilate except by the removal of children from their homes.
While the Canadian government is making efforts at reconciliation, the full extent of the suffering at the Schools is yet to be determined.
On the Cuban side, Operation Peter Pan became just one of many anti-revolutionary propaganda schemes, part of America’s continuing regime change strategy including acts of terrorism, economic blockade, and other harmful policies aimed at punishing the Cuban people for supporting their government. Current US President Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail to overturn many of the extra restrictions implemented by former president Donald Trump. To date the new administration has done nothing.
The anti-revolutionary propaganda that was the basis for Operation Peter Pan claimed that the Cuban government was so politically corrupt that they would rip innocent children from their parent’s hands. It was a lie. The government never considered anything so fundamentally disgraceful. It is unfortunate the same could not be credited to the Canadian government.
Cuba consistently faces international criticism over alleged human right issues, often based on specious or even unfounded rationalizations. The Canadian government has yet to face similar condemnation over this actual and devastating abuse.
The tragedy of Peter Pan was based on ideology. Residential Schools were defended on cultural grounds. In both cases, the Catholic church played a critical role in causing so much pain and heartache. The Church has yet to apologize for either crime against innocent children.