Now-Grown 'Pedro Pan' Seeks to Unravel CIA Mystery
LIZ BALMASEDA, Herald Columnist
"So tell me again why you are suing the CIA?''
My friend took a deep breath and contemplated the miles of beach before us, the waves shimmering in sunlight, the ocean that separates us from Cuba. She had answered this question so many times to reporters, as critics questioned her reasons for stirring up a painful history.
I had questioned her as well in January when she first filed a suit in a Chicago federal court, demanding the release of CIA files pertaining to U.S. actions involving Cuba from 1960 to 1965.
On this morning walk along Miami Beach, she talked about a personal journey that began in July 1961, when she was 6, that took her to strange crossroads during her early adulthood, and hit a disturbing snag when she pressed for more information about the history surrounding her traumatic departure from Cuba.
My friend Nena, Maria de los Angeles Torres, is a child of Operation Pedro Pan, sent to Miami by her parents days after her sixth birthday. She is also a relentless investigator of history, a professor of political science at Chicago's De Paul University who set out six years ago to unravel the mysteries of the transport of more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States. It was the largest migration of children in the hemisphere, yet its backstage drama remained a mystery.
She had looked in the eyes of her older daughter, Alejandra, then 6, and shuddered at the thought of an abrupt separation. What prompted thousands of parents to hastily put their daughters and sons aboard Miami-bound airliners, unsure of the next time they would embrace? It was the early 1960s. It was already evident to many parents that the brazen new leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, had no intention of fulfilling many of his promises. He had promised he would respect religious education, for instance, but closed the parish schools. And there was talk of a law, Patria Potestad, that would declare Cuban children state property.
Is that why Pedro Pan happened, out of spontaneous panic? Or was it part of a larger scenario involving intelligence efforts to foment revolt? Or was it something entirely different, something yet to be revealed?
Nena Torres wanted to know. Although she was separated from her parents for just three months, she knew there were children who didn't see their parents for years or even decades, 8,000 of them trapped in separation when U.S. policy changed in 1962. She knew the heartbreaks of fellow ``Pedro Pans,'' the sporadic stories of abuse in foster homes, the fundamental nostalgia that comes with being torn from your homeland.
In 1992, she began research for a book on Pedro Pan. She interviewed the now-adult children, scoured three presidential libraries and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. She read the collection of the children's letters at the University of Miami.
She found the exile witnesses to be generous with detail and chronology. But she hit a brick wall when she approached the Central Intelligence Agency.
When they refused to give up any information, she appealed. The CIA denied her appeal.
She tried again, this time through a lawyer. The CIA response: They searched where they were ``required to do so by law'' and came up with zilch.
Six years later, she filed the lawsuit. Prompted by the legal action, the CIA requested a meeting in March. Its lawyers and public information officials told her their researchers had spent 600 hours looking for applicable documents and could only find one memo. Written on CIA stationery, it was from a social worker reporting to a CIA intake officer in Opa-locka, discussing the declining flow of Cuban children that week.
``My logical question is, `OK, what about the report the week before and the report the week after?'' said Torres , who was in Miami this week doing research for her book and lawsuit.
Recently, the CIA moved to dismiss the case, requesting a summary judgment. Meanwhile, Torres and her lawyers asked the judge to let them depose the CIA file-searchers and to turn over documents officials carried to the March meeting. The judge granted their request.
The CIA's stonewalling has only strengthened her resolve. The agency was not a peripheral player in the Cuba story of the early 1960s. President Eisenhower's March 1960 policy put the CIA in charge of all Cuba operations. Yet, after five months, the agency has given up just one memo.
In contrast, the outpouring of support from fellow Pedro Pans has been overwhelming. She has found that her peers also want the right to remember without political agendas clouding their memories.
``In war situations, memory becomes a militarized zone and when you try to reconstruct your own personal recollections of that era, it is looked upon as an act of subversion,'' my friend said, turning away from the sea. ``There are 14,000 personal histories involved here. I'm just saying, open up, let us see what went on. Let us draw our own conclusions, even if there are 14,000 conclusions. That's why I sued the CIA.''