Song Analysis

Operation Peter Pan

Friday 9 September 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

"Operation Peter Pan spanned from 1960-62 whereby over 14,000 children were sent away from their families in Cuba, some never to reunite again. Pan Am flights took the children to Miami, FL, ’Never-Never Land’, and the children became known as the ’Peter Pans.’ I wrote this song for my daughter, and it is sung for all the daughters and mothers, fathers and brother’s who felt this pain of separation all because of governments and their politics."

By these few lines on the back of "A Sorta Fairytale" U.K. single picture sleeve, Tori introduced this short (1:45) b-side, which at first sounds like a cute lullaby. Except the story behind it isn’t that cute actually.

To develop a bit longer the very synthetic explanation of the artist, we have to draw the political climate of the early 60’s in America. The Cold War is raging and U.S. governement fights fiercely against communism, which had the effect to resurrect the "burn-the-witch" mentality in the 50’s, with a lot of people as well as public personalities investigated by the F.B.I. and the House Committee of Un-American Activities under what is now known as the McCarthyism era. In Hollywood, a lot of artists were blacklisted because they knew communists or sympathised with extreme left people and their ideas. Paranoia was running high and everyone was invited to spy on his neighbors and relatives to report anything suspicious.

In Cuba, Fidel Castro, who had been helped by his friend, revolutionary Che Guevara and the American governement to access power, signs an agreement with the URSS to buy some stocks of petrol and declares he’s a Marxist-Leninist, therefore making the island a communist country. The USA then breaks any diplomatic relations with Cuba. The tension grows between the two countries.

The Operation Peter Pan began in december1960. It was designed to transport children of opponents to the regim from their native country to Miami, Florida, where they would be welcomed by relatives or foster homes. At the time, it was rumoured that the Literacy Campaign launched by Castro to fight against illiteracy had for only purpose the indoctrination of the young generation, and word even had it that kids would be kidnapped from their parents and enrolled in the revolutionary army until they were 18. The Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami, with the coordination of the US Department of State and the CIA proposed to help the families and take care of the children in order to preserve the parents authority.

The idea of the Operation came to Father Bryan O. Walsh, director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, after he met a young Cuban teenager named Pedro (referenced in Tori’s song), who had come to Miami to live with relatives that couldn’t afford taking care of him. Father Walsh discovered that many Cuban minors were refugees with no place to go. The Operation was called Pedro Pan (even though it is widely known as Peter Pan) after that young boy.

Cuban parents were notified by the Catholic Welfare Bureau that visa requirements had been waived for minors, which meant they could send them alone and they would be taken care of by relatives if they had any or by foster homes until they could be reunited. Between 1960 and 1962, over 14, 000 children were thus sent away from Cuba by their parents. The operation stopped after the Missile crisis of October 1962 because the American governement put an end to commercial flights between the States and the island. An agreement was however reached between the two countries to allow two flights per day that had for purpose family reunion. However, some parents died before they could join their children in America and other families, for various reasons (military service, age…) coudn’t travel to America before many many years.

This operation was very controversed and still is to this day as it is heavily rumoured that the kidnapping gossips, that were in part spread on the Cuban radio, were launched by the CIA itself in order to weaken the country. A part of the Cuban exile community and some scholars strongly believe it. One of the "Peter Pan child", Maria de Los Angeles Torres, requested on several occasions that 1, 500 documents concerning the operation be declassified, but the U.S. government always refused to do so, even fifty years later… which, of course, only increased the suspicions surrounding the whole operation.

The 1960 Literacy Campaign launched by Fidel Castro allowed more than 700, 000 people to learn how to read and write and was recognized as a success around the world, despite Castro communist policy and the fact most nations considered him as a dictator after the Missile Crisis of 1962. It is a complex matter but, whatever his beliefs and controversed political behavior were, Castro seemed to take illiteracy and education very seriously and put a great deal of effort in this campaign and none of the kidnapping rumours turned out to be true after all.

Also, the Cold War was a very tense period and both opponents used propaganda on some level to fight each other. That the US government spread such rumours wouldn’t seem silly in this context.

Tori’s song refers to Pedro and to James Barrie’s fairytale Peter Pan. To be more accurate, she refers to the Disney animated film and many of you will recognize the reference in the lyrics to the song "Second Star to the Right", when Peter and Tinkle bring Wendy and her brothers to Never-Never Land in a night flight.

To learn more about the subject