Updated Aug. 14, 2015: As the American flag flew above the US Embassy in Cuba Friday for the first time in more than 50 years, two people who fled the country as part of Operation Pedro Pan told America Tonight they have mixed feelings about the countries celebrating renewed ties.
“I can’t watch it,” said Carlos Eire, a Yale professor who left Cuba when he was 11. “It would be like watching members of my family being beheaded,” he told America Tonight.
Eire said the steps the United States is taking to rebuild relations with Cuba, is one of the “stupidest things an American president had done.” Until Cubans enjoy free speech, freedom of the press and free elections, Eire won’t return to his home country.
Lissette Alvarez, the daughter of Cuban performers Olga Chorens and Tony Alvarez, described Friday’s ceremony as bittersweet.
“It’s so emotional to see the American flag in Havana,” she said. “It looks so beautiful, but what is happening is a different story. There is nothing the government has done to change the conditions on the island.”
The actions of the United States, she said, is “just helping these people have more repression.”
“I love my country,” she said. “I will go back to rebuild, but [only] when there is freedom of speech and no people in jails for what they think.”
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Original article: Carlos Eire was 11 when he left Cuba. He packed a tiny duffle bag filled with three changes of clothes, a hat and a book, and boarded a flight to Miami alone, never realizing it would be the last time he would see his father alive.
It was 1962 and the height of the Cuban revolution. Food was rationed and scarce. And with rumors of indoctrination camps, many parents decided it was better to send away their children, like Eire, to America.
Over two years, more than 14,000 Cuban children were quietly smuggled out of their country by Catholic Charities and with the support of the U.S. government. Before the current child migrant crisis, Operation Pedro Pan was the largest recorded emigration of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.
“I was scared about leaving my parents. But, I felt life was so horrible that seemed better to me,” Eire, now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, told America Tonight.
Between 1960 and 1962, two flights a day packed with Cuban children landed around Miami. There, the children were housed in shelters, before project leaders placed them in longer-term care with relatives or in orphanages, foster homes and boarding schools across the country. Many thought their stay in the U.S. would be brief.
“The plan was to reunite as quickly as possible, either in the United States….Or most people believed the Castro regime would collapse, and we’d return to Cuba,” Eire said. “But my parents told me frequently, ‘You know, there’s a chance this is permanent.’”
For nearly all the Pedro Pans, it was a permanent move, with parents following within a few years. And while their experiences vary, their mark is permanent too.
Reverend Luis Leon, the rector at St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., remembers a sinking realization around him that Castro was there to stay.
"The rumors were that the children were going to be sent to Russia, to be educated in Russia, so there was a lot of nervousness about that happening to your children,” Leon said.
The summer before he fled alone to America, he remembers going on a lot of fishing trips with his dad. At age 11, Leon knew that his father, who was sick, would never be able to follow him to the U.S.
He also remembers clearly the hectic moments of boarding the plane. "When they finally gave us the final go-ahead to get on the plane, it was pretty rushed,” he said. “I just had a glance back towards my mother and she was waving good bye.”