The Miami Herald
January 12, 1998, p. 7

Professor Plans to Sue CIA Over Cuba Airlft Papers

ELAINE DE VALLE Herald Staff Writer

A university professor in Chicago plans to file a lawsuit today against the Central Intelligence Agency to force the release of any documents that it may have about the airlift of Cuban children to the United States after Fidel Castro seized power.

Maria de los Angeles Torres , a DePaul University associate professor of political science, was herself one of the 14,000 children who came without visas or parents from Cuba in a 1960-62 program known as Operation Pedro Pan. For five years, Torres has been writing The Cold War and the Politics of Refugee Children, a book about the Pedro Pan children and U.S. policies during the operation. But several requests for CIA documents that she says she needs to finish the book have been denied, she said Sunday in a telephone interview.

``Nobody involved with the operation hides the fact that the CIA was involved,'' said Torres . ``Why is it that the CIA will not put forth the information? I have no idea.''

At the time, the CIA was deeply involved in a number of plots against the Castro government -- ranging from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to various assassination plots against the Cuban leader allegedly ordered or encouraged by the John F. Kennedy administration. Torres suggests that Pedro Pan may well have been one more such scheme.

Question of fear

``I have questions about some of the CIA psychological operations in that one of the things they were trying to do was scare and create terror in Cuba,'' she said. ``The fear of parents of what was going to happen with their children was exploited.''

But most of the children and parents who benefited from Pedro Pan view it more as a vast humanitarian rescue mission.

``I owe these people my life, and I owe the Americans my coming over here,'' said Marilyn Barroto, a Key Biscayne resident who came to America when she was 16 as a Pedro Pan child. ``So, I don't see why she wants to go through the trouble.''

There are many reasons the information should be made public, Torres said. Among them: an obligation to those who came here through Pedro Pan.

`Compelling need to know'

``There is a compelling need to know about this. There are 14,000 children and their families whose lives were dramatically affected . . . They have a right to know.''

Some other Pedro Pan participants support Torres .

``No matter how painful the truth might be, we would rather know everything,'' said Elly Chovel, second vice president of the Operation Pedro Pan Group, an organization of mission participants. ``We are adults. It's sort of like when you're adopted. There comes a time when you want to know why, no matter how much it hurts.''

Her first request, Torres said, was denied by the CIA because of national security concerns. When she appealed, and requested information that did not identify agents, the CIA said the documents did not exist.

Matthew Piers, Torres ' husband and one of her attorneys, and co-counsel Dana Sukenik say the documents fall under the Freedom of Information Act and a presidential order of April 1995 to declassify most official documents that are more than 25 years old.

``There's lots of precedents for the release of government documents including CIA documents,'' Piers said.

Plan grew in scale

Operation Pedro Pan was launched to provide visa waivers for thousands of Cuban children under the age of 16 so they could be spirited out of Cuba without their parents.

Torres said the original reason was to rescue the children of underground anti-Castro revolutionaries.

``Parents . . . were afraid their children would be arrested and killed,'' she said. ``But how a program that started out for 200 adolescents grew into 14,000 unaccompanied minors is something that I think the documents will help us understand.''

What does she expect to find?

``You had a lot of people who were very concerned about the safety of children and some who were driven by maybe an almost exaggerated fear that the children would be brainwashed.''

The operation, she said, may also have been a covert way to get adult Cubans into the United States at a time when the U.S. Congress was hostile to Cuban immigration.

An escape route

``It became the quickest way for parents to leave Cuba,'' Torres said. ``They would send the children and we would claim our parents.''

But it didn't work for everyone. Torres was lucky. Her parents were able to come to the United States months after she arrived. Others had to wait years -- or were never reunited.

Then the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis erupted and the operation stopped as the world came to the brink of nuclear war, leaving about 8,000 of the children already on U.S. soil without immediate hopes to reunite with their parents. Years later, many of them did.

Msgr. Brian Walsh, a young Catholic priest in Miami when Castro took power in 1959, helped launch the Pedro Pan operation and became like a ``second father'' to thousands of Cuban children.

Walsh said Sunday he was familiar with Torres ' concerns.

But Walsh said he doesn't know, and really doesn't care, if allegations about Pedro Pan and the CIA are true.

``Governments take political positions, and hopefully, sometimes, those positions coincide with humanitarian reasons,'' Walsh said. ``That's the real world.

``Thank God that in this case, whatever motivated the government, that it gave these parents the right to choose where these children would be raised and how they would be educated.''