For two weeks in 1965 Pittsburghers welcomed 30 students from Venezuela as part of “Operation Amigo,” a program supported by Scripps-Howard Newspapers in various U.S. cities to foster goodwill between Latin American countries and the United States. In cooperation with the North American Association of Venezuela, The Pittsburgh Press hosted the group that arrived in Pittsburgh Sept. 23.
Recently Fernando Balliache of Caracas, Venezuela, one of the students who visited Pittsburgh as part of the group more than 50 years ago, sent an email to the Post-Gazette to thank Pittsburghers once again for their hospitality. “I was one of those lucky kids,” he wrote.
After receiving Mr. Balliache’s note, we checked The Pittsburgh Press archives and ta-da! Coverage of Operation Amigo in Pittsburgh was extensive: more than 30 stories and photo features before, during and after the Amigos’ visit.
A Press article prior to the visit stated that the idea for the program originally came from South American leaders who “felt a new and powerful weapon was needed to fight communism’s anti-American advances in Latin America, especially in the field of education.”
A Sept. 22, 1965, Pittsburgh Press editorial welcoming the students said, “Americans are well aware of Venezuela’s key role in the struggle to preserve freedom in Latin America. It is vitally important, therefore, that the visiting students, future leaders of their country, achieve a thorough understanding of the ideals and goals of the U.S.” It added, “As the young Venezuelans will learn, the United States is not merely a military power but a nation which is striving hard to fashion a better world through industrial, scientific and medical progress.”
Upon the students’ arrival after a flight from Caracas to Miami, then a two-day bus trip north accompanied by a Press reporter, they stayed with families of Peabody High School students — “two-week diplomats,” as one story called them. Only one of the Venezuelan students spoke English, so they were assisted by interpreters.
Photos show the visitors engaged in a wide range of tours and activities, many involving large corporations: Koppers, H.J. Heinz, Westinghouse Electric, Gulf Oil and U.S. Steel. One story said that during a tour of U.S. Steel’s Duquesne Works, the students would see Venezuelan ore being made into steel. At Westinghouse’s East Pittsburgh plant, “the Amigos will see in production giant water wheel generators being produced for Venezuela.” At Gulf Oil, they would learn about research on oil, one of Venezuela’s principal exports. At Heinz, along with the company’s president and international vice president, they sampled food products made by Heinz in Venezuela. At the Heinz lunch, the students were excited that Bingo, described as a syrupy sweet drink manufactured by Heinz in Venezuela, was being served.
The University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University held programs for the visitors as did the FBI’s Pittsburgh office and the Allegheny County courts.
With their student hosts, the Amigos got a taste of life for American teenagers. They ate hamburgers and milkshakes at McDonald’s in the East Hills Shopping Center (“Eating Habits Need No Interpreters,” said part of one headline). They attended classes at Peabody, joined the Pitt cheerleaders at a football game and danced at more than one event (we found a photo of Mr. Balliache dancing the cha-cha with Peabody student Judy Mazefsky, his student host).
The students had a turkey dinner at Stouffer’s restaurant, shopped at the new South Hills Village mall, saw the Ice Capades at the Civic Arena and rode the Gateway Clipper.
Mr. Balliache, who was 14 at the time and the youngest of the Amigos, said a Pittsburgh Pirates game at which the group met Roberto Clemente was “unforgettable.” One photo shows the baseball star giving the visitors a batting lesson.
At a discussion with civic leaders, the Venezuelan students asked questions about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, religion, race relations and the civil rights movement, in the United States.
“Sadly, I never went to your city again and lost contact with the Mazefsky family [which hosted Mr. Balliache]… and all the other kids from Pittsburgh and Venezuela, except Romelia Hurtado, who lives in the USA and still is a good friend,” said Mr. Balliache.
Now 65 and an environmental chemist, he wanted to thank Pittsburghers for the warm reception the Amigos had here. “There is a special site in my heart for all of you.”