Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Panama leader visits Cuba as countries renew ties

Eye patients to receive free operations via Havana program

HAVANA, Cuba (AP) -- President Martin Torrijos of Panama arrived Wednesday in Cuba ahead of dozens of eye patients traveling here for free operations through "Operation Miracle," a program Fidel Castro's government designed to help disadvantaged people throughout the region.

The visit was the latest sign of warming relations between the two countries after a restoration of diplomatic ties following a rupture last year when the previous Panamanian president pardoned four Cuban exiles accused of trying to assassinate Castro.

"I think it is my obligation [to visit] as a sign of my thanks for the opportunity being given to many humble Panamanians to recover their sight," Torrijos told reporters upon his arrival.

Traveling with a delegation that included the Panamanian ministers of health and labor, Torrijos was greeted at the airport by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage. He was expected to meet with Castro in the early evening at the Palace of the Revolution, where the Cuban president keeps his offices.

Torrijos visited Cuba in August to join Castro in restoring diplomatic ties after the one-year diplomatic rupture.

The Panamanian president had opposed the pardons former President Mireya Moscoso issued in August 2004 five days before she left office.

Torrijos is the son of Omar Torrijos, a populist military strongman who had friendly relations with Castro. Before the pardons, the two nations had been on relatively good terms since restoring ties in the early 1970s.

In the earlier diplomatic flap, a Panamanian court found Cuban exiles Luis Posada Carriles as well as Gaspar Jimenez, Guillermo Novo and Pedro Remon innocent of plotting to kill the Cuban president and sentenced them to prison terms of seven to eight years on lesser charges. They were allowed to go free on Moscoso's orders.

Posada, whom the Cuban government has branded the Western Hemisphere's No. 1 terrorist, is being held in federal custody in the United States on immigration charges. He was picked up in South Florida in May on charges he sneaked illegally into the United States through Mexico and was sent to a Texas detention center.

Castro himself publicly accused Posada of leading the plan to kill him at a summit of Ibero-American leaders in Panama in November 2000. Havana also accuses Posada of helping blow up a civilian Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 73 people, and of orchestrating the bombings of hotels in Cuba in 1997, including one that killed a young Italian man.

Venezuela has urged the United States to extradite Posada, who was born in Cuba but later became a naturalized Venezuelan citizen. Cuba is not seeking Posada's extradition to the island, saying he should be extradited to Venezuela or tried by an international tribunal.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.