Pedro Pans Descend on Miami for 50th Anniversary, but Program Still Mysterious

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A half century after their parents first sent them out of Cuba and to the United States, more than 100 former members of Operation Pedro Pan will return to Miami today.

As part of a 50th anniversary weekend, Pedro Pan veterans and their families will tour today three camps around Miami where they were briefly housed before relocating to foster homes and orphanages around the U.S. and in Puerto Rico.

"It was a very traumatic experience for all of us," says Carmen Romanach, who was a child relocated during the operation. "The bond is very special. When you see us together we are like kids again."

"We went through the same experience together, so we feel like brothers and sisters," says Romanach, who is also a director of the Operation Pedro Pan Group organizing the tour. "It's part of the history of the United States and Cuba."

At least 14,000 children left Cuba via Operation Pedro Pan from 1960 to 1962, as Fidel Castro consolidated power following the Revolution. The program was run by the Catholic Church and was the brainchild of Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, then the head of Catholic Charities in Miami.

But much mystery and controversy still surrounds the operation. María de los Angeles Torres, who has written a book on both the program and her own experience as a Pedro Pan child, says the story behind Operation Pedro Pan is much more complicated than most admit.

First, many more than 14,000 children may have been relocated, she says, and a great number of them were never reunited with their parents, as originally intended.

Second, at least 80 of those children have since claimed that they were victims of sexual abuse by priests in the United States.

That reality makes the program's anniversary a bit more difficult to celebrate, she says.

"Everybody has to deal with their own personal stories how they want, both politically and personally," Torres says. "My work is not about pointing fingers or saying that we were victims, but about trying to figure out what really occurred."

Torres also says her experience, and that of the thousands of other kids who passed through the program, holds a lesson for groups currently trying to help children in other parts of the world, especially Haiti.

"Sometimes, good-hearted people end up doing things that inadvertantly hurt the children they are trying to help," she says.

The Operation Pedro Pan Group tour starts today at 8:30 a.m. at the Miami Beach Resort and Spa at 4833 Collins Ave. The group will then visit three old camp sites (Kendall, Matecumbe, and Florida City) before an afternoon visit to the Operation Pedro Pan monument in Little Havana. Tickets are sold out.

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