The Miami Herald
July 8, 2000

2 Cuban doctors leave Zimbabwe

They're free to go where they want


 Two Cuban doctors who languished for more than a month in a Zimbabwe prison
 after seeking political asylum left the country Friday on a commercial jet for
 Stockholm, Sweden, according to diplomatic and U.S. government sources.

 Once in Sweden, Noris Peña Martínez and Leonel Córdova Rodríguez are free to
 go anywhere they want, the sources said, including the United States, which
 offered to take the doctors in shortly after the Zimbabwe government attempted to
 deport them back to Cuba.

 ``In Stockholm, they will decide what they want to do,'' said a Western diplomat,
 speaking on condition of anonymity. ``There's nothing to prevent them from
 leaving. They have U.S. recognition.''

 The Cubans, granted a two-month tourist visa by the Swedish government, were
 quietly released from a detention center in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, on
 Wednesday. The representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for
 Refugees kept the pair in an undisclosed location until they left the country,
 officials said.

 Officials expected the physicians' arrival in Stockholm late Friday.

 ``They are in good condition, they are very happy,'' said Dominick Bartsch, an
 agency spokesman in neighboring Zambia. ``As far as we are concerned, the
 case is closed.'' He refused to offer further details of the release.

 The U.S. State Department, which has called for Zimbabwe to fulfill its
 international obligations, applauded the doctors' release.

 ``That's the appropriate step that needed to be taken under the international
 treaties of which Zimbabwe was a part,'' spokesman Philip Reeker said.

 In Miami, Mina Fernández, a cousin of Peña, said she expects the doctors to join
 her here within a week.

 ``I feel very emotional and happy because now she is finally coming to a free
 country,'' said Fernández, owner of the Primor Bridals shop on Miracle Mile in
 Coral Gables.

 U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has lobbied to win the doctors liberty, also
 said she expects the two to settle in Miami.

 ``I hope their journey to freedom doesn't stop in Sweden,'' said Ros-Lehtinen,
 D-Miami, chairwoman of the House subcommittee on international economic
 policy and trade. ``I hope they'll be able to continue on to the U.S. That's what
 we'll work feverishly for.''

 The doctors' flight to freedom is the most recent twist in the month-long Cold
 War-style drama, which featured a pre-dawn kidnapping and a last-ditch effort by
 Cuban President Fidel Castro to avoid the embarrassment of losing the doctors to
 the United States.

 The Immigration and Naturalization Service offered the doctors refugee status on
 June 9, but they remained in a Harare prison after Castro appealed to President
 Robert Mugabe, a longtime ally.

 After two weeks of negotiations, the U.N. refugee agency stamped the doctors'
 Cuban passports with the Swedish visas on June 22, according to a Ros-Lehtinen
 aide. But the doctors were apparent victims of bad timing -- diplomats accurately
 predicted that their release would not come until after Zimbabwe's national
 elections, which were held the weekend of June 24 and 25.

 Mugabe's advisors recommended that he free the Cubans immediately after the
 elections, but he disregarded their counsel, U.S. diplomats told Ros-Lehtinen's

 Princeton Lyman, a former top-ranking State Department official who served as
 U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria, said Sweden carries a strong
 international reputation as a neutral country and has been a major donor to Africa.

 Sweden is also ``very generous'' with asylum offers, Lyman said. That could be
 important, he said, because the U.N. usually frowns upon ``asylum shopping.''

 ``The general rule for refugees is: The first country you go to, if it's a safe country,
 is the country you apply to,'' he said. ``In this case, there could have been some
 deal that they fly on from there.''

 Helena Gustavsson, spokeswoman for the Swedish Foreign Ministry in
 Stockholm, said she had no information on the Cuban doctors' case.

 The United States accorded refugee status to 85,000 people last year -- 2,018 of
 them Cubans. The status requires the same well-founded fear of persecution
 needed for political asylum, but offers the refugees funds to resettle in the United

 ``My understanding is that there's no reason [the doctors] can't come to the
 United States from wherever they are,'' said a U.S. official, speaking on condition
 of anonymity.

 The two doctors, sent to Zimbabwe on a medical assistance mission with 150
 other Cuban physicians, sought asylum at the Canadian Embassy on May 24
 and the U.S. Embassy on May 26. Both embassies referred the Cubans to the
 U.N. refugee agency, which helps asylum-seekers find countries to take them in.

 But after leaving a Zimbabwean refugee center to stay with a friend, the Cubans
 disappeared June 2, the same day of their hearing before the Zimbabwean
 eligibility committee, a body that hears claims for political asylum. The doctors
 were taken from their beds and flown to Johannesburg, South Africa, where Cuban
 diplomats and Zimbabwean security agents tried to force them aboard a
 Paris-bound Air France flight with a connection to Havana.

 Air France crew members refused to board the doctors after the pair managed to
 write a note saying they were being ``kidnapped.'' South African authorities sent
 them back to Zimbabwe, where they were imprisoned.

 An end to their saga appeared imminent when the United States offered to take
 the doctors in. Diplomats planned to fly the Cubans to Nairobi, Kenya, where INS
 officials planned to process paperwork and fly the doctors to the United States.

 But a last-ditch communique from Castro blocked the plans, officials said. Castro
 asked Mugabe, once a leading African communist, to ship the doctors anywhere
 in the world -- except the United States.

 Córdova's wife, Rosalba, was ordered to move out of the family's home in Cuba
 with their three children after his defection.

 Zimbabwe government officials in Harare and Washington could not be reached for
 comment Friday. The Cuban government has not released a statement about the