In December 1985, while signing a bill to designate the week Human Rights Week in the United States, Ronald Reagan declared that the day was to “take stock, to survey the globe with an eye not so much towards words, as to actual deeds, to measure the world against the noble assertions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to reaffirm our commitment to the cause of human dignity.”  Even today, worldwide celebrations take place to celebrate the cause of human rights. In Lagos, Nigeria, the United Nations Information Center distributed 200 copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Brazilian government held a World Forum on Human Rights where activists could attend seminars and roundtables, and in Armenia, young people could participate in the photo contest called “My Contribution to Promotion of Human Rights.” The struggle for human rights seem an inherent part of humanity’s progress and reflect human rights as a moral universal code; they supposedly apply equally everywhere.  Although a powerful narrative and outline of what humanity’s future could look like, this tale obscures the historical context of the rise of human rights. Looking carefully at this context exposes several important questions about the nature of human rights – how have people defined human rights over the course of time, how have human rights been (or not been) applied to certain groups, and in what ways do the application of rights benefit some and injure others?


The 1960-1962 Operation Pedro Pan can help make sense of some of these questions by exposing cracks in the triumphalist narrative of human rights. During this brief time period, the Catholic Church in Miami and the United States government flew over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children into the city to escape the increasing radicalization of the Cuban Revolution. Fifty years later with the anniversary of the venture, Miami Dade Public Schools created a curriculum guide for teachers and described those parents who participated as “having exercised a fundamental human right which antecedes any constitution or law.” The language of right to education became a critical component in explaining the endeavor to American observers. At the same moment parental rights to education were deployed and expanded to Cuban exiles, those same rights were hotly debated on the domestic scene and used as a way to retract the rights of African-Americans. Operation Pedro Pan thus reveals the fluid nature of rights discourse and undermines the notion that human rights have always been about the protection of all peoples equally.

Increasing Radicalization

In 1959, a young Fidel Castro’s revolution overthrew the U.S.-supported Batista regime in Cuba. Fidel’s revolution incited support from a variety of populations in Cuba. Many upper- and middle-class Cubans threw their support behind the charismatic revolutionary in hopes that Castro would restore democracy to Cuba. Americans living in Havana also supported Castro in the beginning of the revolution. Many U.S. citizens living in Cuba feared the chaos a new government might bring, but ultimately decided that Batista’s increasing oppression required a remedy. With Batista’s ejection, Cubans and Americans living in Havana triumphed in the possibility of a new future in Cuba.



These hopes did not last long and soon supporters of the revolution became nervous about Castro’s plans for the future. As Castro ousted more liberal-minded reformers from his government while including greater numbers of Communist members it appeared that he was heading Cuba down an increasingly leftist road.  For these former pro-Castro supporters, it was alarming that he sought more intimate ties with the Soviets and found in them a willing ally to provide economic and military support. And when he publicly declared his leftist leanings by nationalized foreign and Cuban controlled business and canceling promised elections anxiety only increased.  Violent repression also increased. Castro sought to eliminate all opposition to his control. To advance this agenda, those accused or suspected of disloyalty were sent to military tribunals. Those found guilty were executed and, within the first two months of Castro’s regime, more than three hundred people suffered this fate.  The increased use of brutal oppression towards any form of dissent spurred a counter-revolution movement populated by many former Castro supporters.

Difficult Decisions and Operation Pedro Pan

Children took on increasing importance in the wake of the revolution. Castro understood Cuban children as the future of a new nation which would embrace radically different social, political, and economic structures. Because Castro envisaged increased political participation by children in Cuba’s future, education took on increasing significance in facilitating the realization of this new society. If children were to be the bearers of the revolution they must be properly educated in what those responsibilities entailed.

In keeping with his communist beliefs, Castro closed down private schools attended by mostly middle and upper class Cubans. With so many children and youth now out of school, Castro put them to work in his fledgling literacy campaign. The campaign began as a means to increase the reading rate among Cuba’s population, especially among the rural population that lacked access to many of the educational opportunities found in the cities. The children and adolescents formerly attending now-closed private schools now traveled into the countryside to help teach basic reading and writing skills. As former private schools pupils helped meet the need of educating others, they simultaneously received core training in the tenets of the revolution. It was meant to be a win-win situation, but while revolutionaries considered this an important step in equalizing the educational imbalance between rich and poor that existed under Batista, many who opposed Castro saw it as an attempt to separate children from families. This was the ultimate forms of communist indoctrination.

Exacerbating these new policies were rumors concerning the exact nature of parent-child relationships in Cuba. One of the most widely circulated rumors was that parental rights were to be terminated. The rumor swirled in underground circles that patria potestad, or the rights of parents over their children, would end when children turned three years old. Once they turned three they would be turned over to the state which would take care of all physical and mental education.  With the combination of rumors and steps taken by the new regime, many parents saw sending their children away from the island as the only way to protect and save them from Communist indoctrination. Due to the historically close ties between Cuba and the United States, a large Cuban community existed in Miami, Florida. As parents in Havana considered their options, many made the difficult decision to send their children to the Cuban community in Miami as a safe haven. Although a difficult decision, many parents thought the separation would only last a short while.

Within two years of Batista’s fall, over 100,000 Cubans fled the island and entered Florida.  Along with the number of adult Cubans crossing the border, the number of unaccompanied minors increased, exacting a growing toll on the relatives and friends in Miami who were supposed to take care of them. It soon became apparent that the Cuban community in Miami needed extra support to handle the fleeing children. Monsignor Bryan Walsh, Director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami, foresaw a looming crisis of caring for the minors if something was not done soon.  Acting quickly, Walsh declared that the children needed special care separate from federal refugee programs. He proposed that this care would take place under the auspices of the Catholic Church. The US government agreed. Walsh worked with the CIA, the State Department, and the INS to implement Operation Pedro Pan.  In this Operation, children were flown out of Cuba on airplane flights a few at a time. By flying only a few children out at a time, Castro’s government was less likely to notice the defections. Working clandestinely, the Operation managed to evacuate over 14,000 children from Cuba between 1960 and 1962.

Limits to Rights for All – The Case of Education

If the freedom to choose how to educate their children spurred the decision to send their kids abroad, it also figured prominently in American receptions of the children. Reporters emphasized government decisions over schools and education when they reported on Operation Pedro Pan children. When Gene Miller wrote his article of Pedro Pan children, he stated that they “hadn’t seen the inside of a school since Castro closed schools last year. That was one reason their parents called them aside one day last month and quietly told them that they would have to leave.”  The basic parental right served as an important justification for welcoming the children of Operation Pedro Pan. However, this did not translate into a universal application of rights of education to all groups. Just as the media, government, and private organizations stressed the importance of the right to education and applied it to Cubans, its importance was diminished when applied to African-American parents who sought better quality education for their children.

On NPR – Cuban Children Now Adults in American Remember their Flight to the United States 

With the landmark passage of 1954 Brown V. Board of Education, legal segregation of schools ended. In spite of this legal decision, many localities took their time integrating schools or didn’t even attempt to comply. Charlotte, North Carolina served as an important site in the struggle to desegregate local schools. By the late 1960s, little headway had been made to accomplish in desegregation. In 1969, court proceedings began on the lack of progress, and in the final outcome Judge McMillian declared that comprehensive integration must take place. In consequence, Charlotte’s school district developed a two-way busing plan. In this plan, black students from the city center would be bused to white schools in the suburbs while white students from the suburbs would make their way to African-American schools in the city.

Angry and determined not to let the bussing plan proceed, many white, affluent Charlotte parents joined the local grassroots organization Concerned Parents Association.  The organization’s purpose revolved around stopping the bussing plan. One of the parents in the organization explained, “So many of us made the biggest investment of our lives – our homes – primarily on the basis of their location with regard to schools. It seemed like an absurdity that anyone could tell us where to send our children.”  For this white father, busing became an abrogation of his right to educate his child as he saw fit.  Another parent in the association was more outspoken of the plan when she said, “How in heaven’s name do you think you are going to force me to send my little girl into an area…that I wouldn’t even drive through in broad daylight with locked doors and a gun?”  While many parents did comply with the two-way busing campaign, many others looked to private school alternatives.

There was a dramatic difference in the way Cuban parental rights and African-American parental rights were treated. The comments of parents in Charlotte and the swelling of private schools reveal that in the American south, rights were understood as a zero-sum game. For affluent, white parents in Charlotte, any gain of rights by African-Americans through integration meant a loss in rights for them. In contrast, the concept of rights expanded and crossed borders to incorporate the need to protect the parental rights of Cubans fleeing communism.

The Enduring Conundrum of Human Rights

On December 10, 2013, in observance of Human Rights Day and Human Rights Week, President Barack Obama declared that “Humanity thrives because of our differences; the exchange of ideas among vibrant cultures is a source of innovation, beauty, and vitality. Yet across the globe, our common and inalienable rights bind us as one… Today and always, let us break down the prejudice, amplify the courageous voices that sound the call for change, and reaffirm our unwavering support for the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  The President’s speech presents a neatly packaged understanding of human rights as always having been universal. In addition, his words imagine a history where all people benefited equally from the struggle to affirm human rights. Operation Pedro Pan belies this celebratory message by reminding us that at the very moment the American people and government affirmed the rights of Cubans fleeing Castro’s government, they rejected the rights of African-Americans. The juxtaposition of two contemporaneous rights battles highlights the very fluid and even restrictive nature of human rights rhetoric. The boundaries of human rights discourse contracted and expanded depending on the situation in which they were applied. And, in some cases, promoting the rights for one group was understood as denying the rights of others. Rather than undermining the story of human rights, the exploration of such contradictory moments, as represented by Operation Pedro Pan, serve as an important means to take stock of the movement’s progression and map out its future course.

About the Author: Bethany A. Sharpe is a teacher and a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky. Her research interests focus on US Foreign Relations.

For more information:

  1. Ronald Reagan, Speech December 10, 1985 
  2., accessed July 6, 2014
  3. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Operatin Pedro Pan: A Leap for the Sake of Freedom (Miami: Division of Social Sciences and Like Skills in Cooperation with Operation Pedro Pan, Inc. 2010): 12.
  4. Victor Andres Triay, Fleeing Castro: Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children’s Program (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998): xii 
  5. Maria Torres, The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the US, and the Promise of a Better Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003): 52. 
  6. ibid 
  7. Torres, The Lost Apple, introduction
  8. Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, “Cuban Refugee Children” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 13 (1971): 382. 
  9. Carl Bon Tempo. Americans At the Gate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008): 109. 
  10. Torres, The Lost Apple, 20
  11. Gene Miller, “Cuban Tots, A Raggedy Ann Doll,” The Evansville Press, 10 March 1962. 
  12. Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006 
  13. ibid, 1-2 
  14. ibid, 166 
  15. ibid, 168
  16. White House Press Release, “Presidential Proclamation – Human Rights Day and Human Rights Week, 2013,”, accessed July 6, 2014 
Bethany A. Sharpe is a teacher and a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky. Her research interests focus on US Foreign Relations.

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