The Miami Herald
Wed, Sep. 13, 2006

Cubans relive journey to freedom

Two Cubans who made headlines by trying to defect in Africa are back in South Florida, working and living the Miami dream


The Highlands at Kendall is about 8,000 miles from the capital of Zimbabwe.

The two-story, suburban house with the shimmering pool, granite kitchen and new sports car in the driveway may as well be on another planet.

And though it has been six years since the two Cubans who live there were dragged from their beds by Zimbabwean soldiers and jailed for 32 days, Noris Peña and Leonel Córdova still relive the nights on a cold floor in a dark prison cell in Africa.

As they build their own version of the American Dream in a West Kendall community of comfortable cookie-cutter homes, the dentist and the doctor -- who recently got a job with Baptist Hospital's urgent care center network -- still sometimes fear they will wake up back in the living nightmare in Harare.

''Everything has happened so fast and we've been so busy,'' Peña said. ``We were telling our friends the whole story the other day, because many of them have not heard the whole story, and it seemed like yesterday.''

Their story starts in May 2000, when the two members of one of Cuba's famed medical missions -- he's a physician, she's a dentist -- requested political asylum from the United Nations in Zimbabwe.

The next day, in an interview in an African newspaper, they denounced Fidel Castro in a story picked up by international wires.

''I didn't just want to jump the border like so many people do,'' Córdova said. ``I wanted to expose Cuba's medical missions for what they were. It was a lie. We didn't go to give medical help to the people. It was an election time [in Zimbabwe], and Fidel sent us there to help his friend.''

Days later, and hours before a U.N. asylum interview, they were abducted at 4:17 a.m. at machine-gun point in their pajamas and taken by military jeep to an immigration office.

Eight hours later, they were taken to Harare International Airport -- where they were met by the Cuban ambassador, the Cuban consul and the chief of the Cuban medical mission -- and flown to Johannesburg, South Africa, to get on a Paris-bound jet with a Havana connection.

In the plane's bathroom, Córdova wrote a desperate note and slipped it to a flight attendant. ''Kidnappeds'' it said in big, black letters. ``Please, we are very concerned about our lives.''

He also threatened to kill someone on board after a South African guard told him it was the only way to get off the flight, he said.

It worked: When they changed planes, the pilot of the Paris-bound jet refused to board the pair.

They were taken back to Harare and imprisoned -- but nobody knew it for about two weeks. U.N. officials, who had said the two Cubans were protected refugees, tried to negotiate access, but Zimbabwean officials claimed no knowledge of their whereabouts.


''It was psychological torture,'' Peña says of the month they spent being shuffled between two prisons.

''Every five minutes they would come and ask questions,'' Córdova said, ``try to pressure us to go to Cuba. They wanted me to sign something that said we had left the prison and went to cross the border on our own. Sure. Like I'm going to do that.

'I knew we would `disappear' if we did,'' he said, making quotation marks in the air.

For 32 days, Peña and Córdova weren't allowed to bathe or brush their teeth. They had only the clothes on their backs.

''After a while, the guards would take pity on us and help us. One gave us a pair of socks,'' she said.

Eventually, through international pressure, they were released to Sweden. One month later, they were in Miami, where Córdova had friends and Peña had family.

They were given the key to the city and testified at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings that fall. They wasted no time getting their lives back on track with English classes and jobs in their fields.

When the twosome were invited to the University of Miami by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen -- the Miami Republican who led the effort to have them allowed into the United States -- they met Andrés Gómez, then dean of international studies. He offered them temporary student housing and meals while they took UM's three-month intensive English course.

''Everything else they did on their own. I saw them, and these people studied seven days a week. They were adamant,'' said Gómez, now a scholar at UM's Institute of Cuban Studies.

Mercy Hospital offered Córdova a symbolic, one-hour-a-day position that turned into more and more hours in the emergency room.

A friend of Peña's got her a job in Atlanta as a dental assistant, and the two were on their way to semi-anonymous lives as regular working exiles.

They made headlines again about a year later when Córdova's wife -- who, along with their two children, was granted a U.S. visa but denied exit by the Cuban government -- was killed in Havana in a motorcycle accident.

His young children -- daughter Giselle and stepson Yusniel -- arrived in Miami two weeks later in September 2001. Peña left Atlanta for Miami to help Córdova.

That December, the two -- who had until then denied rumors of romance -- wed.

''There was always attraction and many things in common,'' said Córdova, who admits he was drawn to Peña in Africa once he realized they had the same dreams and distaste for the Cuban regime.

``But I always told her that my intention was to bring my family here. I never meant to leave my wife.''

Soon after, Córdova took his U.S. medical licensing exams -- and passed.

He did his residency in pediatrics at New York's Lincoln Medical Center. Their schedules were hectic. They never went to the top of the Empire State Building. They never visited the Statue of Liberty.

But they always planned to return to Miami. Córdova kept his 786 area code cellphone all three years in New York.

''This is where our friends were, where we had our climate, our arroz con frijoles and maduros,'' he said.

``This is my home now.''

Córdova has a new job he loves at one of Baptist Hospital's urgent care centers. Peña -- who took Córdova's name -- is still trying to get her dentist's license. She has passed the board exams, but needs to go to school for a couple of years and has applied at Nova Southeastern University.


It will be easier for her to attend classes now that her parents -- who have had U.S. visas for six years -- finally arrived in June and can care for the children after school.

Yusniel, now 17, is a sophomore at Felix Varela High School and works part time at an auto parts store. Giselle, 10, is in the fourth grade.

The couple and Giselle became U.S. citizens in April. Yusniel must wait until he is 18. The family could not get authorization from his birth father in Cuba.

Córdova says his dreams are coming true, though one still eludes him: to return one day to a free Cuba.

''I want to work and invest and help with the development of the healthcare system,'' Córdova said, adding that with recent news of Fidel Castro's poor health, that day is coming sooner rather than later.

''I calculate that in two years I will be in Cuba,'' Córdova said.

"But that won't be the end of the story.''