A lot has changed since Hector Romero "won the lottery" and made it to the U.S. He's pictured here at the same Florida home 50 years apart.

It was half a century ago that Hector Romero won the lottery, but the payoff didn’t come immediately. 

The Cuban immigrant’s prize was the opportunity for education, hard work and ingenuity that would earn him a rewarding career in the logistics industry.

Now one of Atlanta‘s best-known customs brokers, Mr. Romero was one of about 14,000 Cuban children sent to Miami during Operation Peter Pan, a clandestine airlift program run by the Central Intelligence Agency from 1960-62.

The exodus came in the aftermath of the island nation’s Communist revolution, spurred by parents worried how their children would fare under Fidel Castro‘s regime. Luckily, Mr. Romero’s mother and grandmother had connections with the Catholic church in Florida, which was arranging housing for the children.

“For me, it was like winning the lottery,” the 62-year-old told GlobalAtlanta, estimating that there were more than a million Cubans under the age of 18 at the time.

In a black-and-white photo taken July 29, 1962, one week after he arrived on the Florida coast, 11-year-old Hector steps up on a crosstie and hangs one hand from his back pocket. His smile carries no hint of fear or regret.

On July 29 of this year, exactly 50 years later, Mr. Romero returned to that very same spot. In a new photo, the house in the background hasn’t changed much, but the boy has become a gray-haired man who has raised three grown kids of his own.

The time and experience in between provided myriad lessons on life, work and patriotism that have colored Mr. Romero’s worldview and the legacy he hopes to pass on.

Living in barracks with other “Peter Pans” upon arrival, Mr. Romero was eventually reunited with his family, who made it to America for his high school years.

He went on to attend Florida International University, where he studied aviation management and eventually landed a job cleaning plane interiors in Miami for an upstart carrier called Delta Air Lines.

In the 1980s he relocated to Atlanta, retiring 28 years later as a cargo sales and service coordinator for Latin America and Asia.

He carries the photos as a reminder of his rare fortune and how dynamic his life has been because he escaped Cuba, a country that has scarcely changed since he lived there. Stories of what became of his old neighborhood, now in shambles, inspire little drive to return.

“I’ve seen a lot of the pictures and all that and the videos of Cuba, and it’s a really sad situation. I think I would be kind of depressed if I go and see that. I have a different memory of Cuba. I don’t want to disturb that,” he said.

To those who complain about life in the United States, even during the recent economic woes, Mr. Romero has one response.

“Ignorance. That’s all I can tell you. They’re ignorant,” he said. “The abundance that we have is just absolutely amazing.”

His proof has come through extensive travel, including an exploratory trip to Taiwan last year. Seeing the world provides appreciation for other cultures and a reminder of the advantages Americans often take for granted, he said.

Mr. Romero’s interest in global affairs has served him well while working as a customs broker over the last five years. He has become a fixture at international events around town, from Chinese banquets to Latin American seminars.

“I think it’s a good investment,” he said of his prolific networking. “It’s a great, great investment. It’s just one way to market yourself, market your company.”

After parting ways with Atlanta Customs Brokers and International Freight Forwarders a few months ago, he could’ve retired again. Instead, he decided to put those networking skills to work on his own venture.

“Now I’m an entrepreneur. It’s the next level before I finish my trajectory of life,” he said, adding that he still feels young.

Along with a partner, Mr. Romero renovated a building near the airport with office and warehouse space. During a GlobalAtlanta visit to the facility, he had athletic equipment, school supplies and a kayak waiting to be shipped to the West African nation of Ghana.

With President Obama setting a goal in 2011 to double U.S. exports over the next five years and with the recession revealing the need for companies to diversify their customer base, now is a good time to be involved in international trade, he said.

While some are wary of selling abroad, Mr. Romero says it’s all about preparing well and finding the right partners. Moving and financing the goods is the easy part, especially in a state with the fourth largest port in the U.S. and the busiest passenger airport in the world.

“It’s just a matter of doing your homework. You have to be careful, just like everything else,” he said.

For more information about Mr. Romero’s company, call him at (770) 688-0630 or email him at hectorromero.chb@mbminternational.net.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...