November 19, 2010 7:29 pm

My friend, the Cuban Peter Pan

The airlift to Miami of 14,000 children escaping Fidel Castro’s communist regime began 50 years ago next month

In August 1961 a 12-year-old Cuban boy landed alone in Miami with $3 in cash. Carlos Saladrigas’s parents had sent their only child to the US. They feared that Fidel Castro’s new regime would indoctrinate him, or even send him away – to an “educational camp” or the Soviet Union.

Operation Peter Pan – the airlift to Miami of 14,000 children escaping communism – began 50 years ago next month. Most Peter Pans are still in Miami today. I visit the city often, and when I met Saladrigas there I felt he embodied much of the Cuban exile experience: personal success, political failure, sadness. Politically, too, he has made the typical journey of el exilio: from raging against the Castros to seeking dialogue. Now he’s watching a bankrupt Cuban regime try to reform communism, and hoping this isn’t another false dawn.

Like most Peter Pans, Saladrigas left behind a comfortable white existence in Cuba. His father was a civil servant, and his mother ran a clothes store. “We had our home in Miramar, and a nice farm where I spent many happy days of my childhood,” he told me recently.

In 1961, the scrubbed white anti-communist children stirred American hearts. At times Saladrigas felt “a big sense of adventure”. Other times, he didn’t. In Miami he lived first with a depressive aunt, and later with a cousin whose bullying husband soon threw the boy out. Saladrigas recalls, “I did not speak English. On numerous days I would ride my bicycle to the local church where I’d cry my guts out. When my own kids reached the age when my father shipped me to the US, that’s when I fully grasped the impact that this decision must have made on my parents.”

He had initially thought he’d soon return to Cuba. Instead, in 1962 his parents came to Miami. His mother found work sorting tomatoes. His father washed dishes in a hospital. David Rieff, in his book on Miami Cubans, says many families never forgave Castro this humiliation of their patriarchs.

Saladrigas remembers happy times in their little Miami house. He even returned to his old school, Belen Jesuit, which had moved itself over from Havana. But when his mother got cancer, Saladrigas left school and took a job. She died.

I first met Saladrigas in an office above the bank he co-founded. He’s become a rich entrepreneur. Like many Peter Pans – who include several politicians, plus Miami’s current mayor – he’s also a political obsessive.

Politics in Cuban Miami always used to involve violence: from the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, to the estimated 638 attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. In Miami during the cold war, people could be blown up just for advocating dialogue with him.

Saladrigas used to oppose dialogue too. “I come from the hardline,” he told me once. When the pope visited Cuba in 1998, and Miami’s archbishop wanted to send pilgrims across in a cruise liner, Saladrigas was “the leading responsible person” for preventing it. He regrets that now. “It’s been 52 years, for goodness sake, of a failed policy,” he says.

Most exiles long assumed that when Castro died, Cuba would automatically go democratic. But when Castro fell ill in 2006, he simply handed the presidency to his brother Raúl. It turned out the regime was durable. That’s when many exiles sought dialogue with the Castros. However, dialogue hasn’t helped much. Andy Gomez, Cuban-American expert on Cuba at the University of Miami, says: “Trying to negotiate with Fidel and Raúl is useless. They can pull the carpet from under your feet at any time.”

Instead, exiles are now reaching out to ordinary Cubans. Miami’s archbishop recently attended the inauguration of the first Catholic seminary built in Cuba since Saladrigas left. Gomez is teaching students in Havana how to build civil society. These overtures may be just more dead ends, but, Saladrigas says, “My hope is that there are some inside the revolution who care about a legacy. Because I know I care about a legacy, at this stage of my life.” Certainly Raúl Castro is now releasing political prisoners, and says he will abolish ration cards, sack government workers and expand private business. After all, as Fidel recently remarked, the Cuban model doesn’t work.

The exiles always dreamed of return. But, after 50 years, it’s too late. Saladrigas doesn’t expect to live in Cuba again. Instead he says, “I have a dream of returning and doing as much as I can to rebuild my country. There’s only one way to go back: with our heart in our hands and with enormous humility. We are not there to rub in their faces that their life for 50 years has been a massive failure. The Cubans on the island will be the actors of the future. We in Miami are the auxiliary cast.”

I hope he’ll see the day. Presumably the Castros cannot live forever, but it does seem increasingly possible.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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