A street scene in Cuba (YouTube screen capture via The Florida Phoenix).
Imagine you’re 14 and sent by your parents to live on your own in a foreign country.
That was the situation faced by Robert Lara, his 17-year-old brother, Arturo, and approximately 14,000 other minors aged 6-18 back in the early 1960s. They were Cubans, and their parents feared for their physical and mental well-being as the country was becoming increasingly controlled by Fidel Castro and his communist government.
Lara said things came to a boiling point in October of 1962 when Russia began installing offensive missiles on the island.
“You could see the missiles, and you could tell they were offensive,” said Lara. “It was a very scary period.”
Lara said he became concerned along with his parents that the United States might end up in a war with Cuba and Russia.
His parents made the agonizing decision to send Robert and his brother to the United States where they could live safely.
“My parents felt like they had no choice to keep us safe,” said Lara. “It was a very hard decision.”
Under an arrangement between officials in the Catholic Church and the U.S., Cuban youths, including Lara and his brother, were taken from Cuba to facilities in Florida. The program was called “Operation Peter Pan.”
Lara said he and his brother just made it out of the country in the nick of time, flying on one of the last flights before the program was shut down.
“It was all word of mouth,” said Lara. “You couldn’t say anything publicly or you could be arrested.”
At the time, Lara said he never imagined the separation would be permanent.
“My dad was always an optimist and he said this would all blow over, and we’d be back home together in a couple of years,” said Lara.
However, his dad was sadly mistaken. Lara never saw his father again as he died from cancer several years later. Lara said his father’s cancer was never properly treated because he wasn’t a member of the Communist Party. Proper medical care was hard to come by unless you were a member of the party, said Lara.
Lara was separated from his brother when they landed in Florida because of their ages. He said they were able to visit each other but it was difficult at times because they lived in different parts of the state.
His brother eventually moved near him several years later. And they’ve been able to visit each other regularly.
Lara also reunited with his mother back in the mid-1970s. He said she was able to immigrate to Spain, and then the U.S. He said relatives in the U.S. came to California to see her.
“It was quite the reunion,” said Lara. “It was great to see my mother again.”
He said they had kept in touch over the years through occasional phone calls and letters, which he noted were strictly censored by the Cuban government.
She died in 2001 at the age of 89.
Lara said the officials tried to keep the youths busy with a variety of activities, including baseball and other sports.
Lara also noted that the Cubans were always trying to find baseball games with other teams which was somewhat difficult. He said one point, a team of Black players agreed to play them.
However, the Cubans found out they weren’t able to play on the field because it violated Florida’s segregation laws in place at the time.
“It was the first time any of us heard about segregation,” said Lara. “In Cuba, there was a lot of interaction between whites and blacks and no one thought anything about it. We couldn’t believe it was happening in the United States.”
Lara said that overall he was treated well in the U.S. as food, clothes, and schooling were provided for him. He said after living in a refugee camp in Florida, he was sent to an orphanage and then to a group home in Delaware.
After high school, Lara said he had to live on his own. He graduated from Rutgers University, got a job at IBM, and worked there until his retirement several years ago. He eventually moved to Central Pennsylvania, married his wife, Susan, from Rutgers, N.J., and they have two sons, both now grown, and one grandson.
Lara and his wife live in a retirement community in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, about 20 miles west of Harrisburg. He’s thought about going back to Cuba many times over the years.
“I would like to see my country, the place where I grew up,” said Lara. “But emotionally, I don’t feel like it would be a good thing.”
He said the Cuban government still controls all facets of life in the country and it would benefit from any money he would spend over there. To Lara, considering all the pain the government caused him, he can’t see doing anything to help them stay in power.
Lara said while he’d like to see the government overthrown, he just doesn’t think it’s possible.
“The government has been in trouble many times, especially when the Berlin Wall came down. We all thought that would be the end of the government,” said Lara. “But somehow the government survived and remains in power today. The government has a lot of tight control over the people, and it’s hard to see anything changing.”
It’s all vastly different from when Castro and his followers staged a coup and took over the government late in 1959.
Castro promised to improve the country’s healthcare and education systems, which at the time catered only to the rich, leaving others in the country, especially the poor, to suffer on their own.
However, Castro’s promises soon evaporated. He sought closer ties with Russia and demonized the United States. He also nationalized the nation’s industries, took over farmlands, banished nuns and priests, even though Cuba was 99 percent Catholic, and declared himself president for life.
“At first Castro was looked upon as a hero and everyone liked him,” said Lara.”But then everything changed.”
Lara said he was treated well as an immigrant, quite a contrast with the difficulties newcomers face today. But still, he noted it was very difficult growing up on his own without his mother and father.
“It was very traumatic having to leave my parents at my age,” said Lara. “It was very difficult, and something I could never forget.”
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