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Lost boys of Cuba? Hardly

The young De Cespedes brothers were among 14,000 `Pedro Pans' airlifted to Miami in 1961. They soared in exile -- but at a cost.

February 19, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

Florida City, Fla. — EIGHT-year-old Jorge de Cespedes was scared, lonely and heartbroken, but he was making a killing in wholesale.

It was 1961, and the place was a sweltering, insect-plagued refugee camp on the edge of the Everglades. For Jorge and his 11-year-old brother, Carlos -- and 14,000 other Cuban children over the next 20 months -- the camp was their first stop in the United States after fleeing Cuba through a secret U.S. funded airlift dubbed Operation Pedro Pan.

Like other parents, Fernando and Esther de Cespedes feared that Fidel Castro's revolutionaries might ship their sons off to Russia for communist indoctrination.

Most of the children didn't stay at the camps for more than a couple of weeks before they were sent on to foster homes or orphanages. But the De Cespedes brothers wound up staying longer, and they, along with the other 900 children then at the Roman Catholic Church camps and group homes, got an allowance of $1.40 on Fridays -- four quarters and four dimes -- if they produced a letter to their grief-stricken parents.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Operation Pedro Pan: An article in Monday's Section A about Cuban children airlifted to Miami in the early 1960s said Havana's La Salle Academy -- one of the private schools closed when Fidel Castro nationalized education -- was Jesuit-run. The academy was run by the De La Salle Brothers, another Roman Catholic teaching order.

"Boys that age, they hate to write, even when they're homesick," says Jorge de Cespedes, who still has a boy's mischievous smile.

So he collected a quarter from each of the other boys, along with some details on their families, and hired older girl refugees to draft customized letters at 10 cents apiece.

"It was great. I haven't had 60% margins since then," jokes Jorge, now a 54-year-old Miami medical products magnate.

LIKE many "Pedro Pans" now in their 50s and 60s, the De Cespedes brothers left their comfortable home in Havana after Castro nationalized education by closing all private schools, including the Jesuit-run La Salle Academy the boys attended.

The brothers were told they'd be back in a couple of months -- as soon as the revolution fizzled.

They left the island with visas clandestinely issued by church officials using signed U.S. State Department documents with spaces left blank for names. The papers were smuggled in through diplomatic channels. The brothers flew out on the daily Pan Am flight to Miami on May 26, 1961, ostensibly to spend the summer studying English. It would be five years before they saw their mother and father again.

"Did we miss our parents? Of course. But as a kid it was different," recalls Carlos de Cespedes, a 56-year-old who, despite a receding thatch of salt-and-pepper hair, looks boyish when he smiles. "Living at a camp with 900 kids! We played football, raised hell. It was an adventure."

The boys' first camp in this suburban gateway to the Everglades was an insect-ridden refurbished military barracks with sports fields and gravel parking lots traversed by snakes. After a year, when Carlos turned 12 and had to move to a camp for older boys, in Miami, the brothers lived for their Friday-night reunions at church-sponsored dances and other events.

Jorge, now a stouter, mustachioed version of his brother, says he was entrepreneurial even before leaving Cuba. He would fish and sell his catch to restaurants, even though he didn't really need the money.

In Florida, their letter mill was the first of many enterprises the brothers undertook to pass the time waiting for their parents.

On the weekends, they hitched rides to stores miles away to fetch sodas, candy and transistor radios to sell at a markup. They took jobs cutting grass, cleaning the camp dining halls and emptying out the lockers of their Catholic school at semester's end. Carlos rescued textbooks left behind by wealthy classmates and carefully erased doodles and other markings so he could sell them.

Their industriousness -- and their skill at hiding their savings for five years from larcenous campmates -- netted the brothers $1,500, which became the start-up cash for life in exile when their parents arrived with only the clothes on their backs.

The reunion was joyous, but reconnecting as a family took time. Jorge had begun to regard Carlos as his only authority figure.

The elder brother chafed under the reasserted parental guidance after they moved to an apartment rented with the boys' savings.

"I was a 16-year-old punk, leaving the house at 9 p.m. My mother would ask me where I thought I was going at that hour and I'd think, 'Who do you think you are?' "

Their father, a dentist in Havana, and their mother, a college professor, had to cope with diminished careers and social standing. Fernando worked illegally as a dentist, treating fellow exiles, and Esther got a job at a contact lens factory.

But the boys prospered. They attended private schools in Miami that the U.S. government, through the church, paid for. Both earned scholarships and college degrees, Carlos in chemistry at Emory University and Jorge in business administration at Florida International.

Over the last three decades, the brothers have built their Pharmed Group of healthcare businesses into one of the largest independent distributors of medical supplies in the country.

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