June6, 2000

Cuban doctors vanish in Zimbabwe

'Kidnapped to Cuba,' note says

By Chris Gaither And Sandra Marquez Garcia. Published Tuesday, June 6, 2000, in the Miami Herald

A desperate note written by two dissident Cuban doctors is the last trace of two would-be defectors who were reportedly abducted hours before a scheduled asylum interview in Zimbabwe, according to witnesses and diplomatic sources.

Leonel Cordova Rodriguez, 31, and Noris Peña Martinez, 25, members of a Cuban medical assistance mission in Zimbabwe, were taken from their home by armed soldiers in the pre-dawn hours Friday, just days after making international headlines for publicly denouncing Fidel Castro.

The hastily written note was slipped into the hand of an Air France employee Friday in Johannesburg, South Africa -- the country next to Zimbabwe -- as security agents attempted to force the doctors aboard a Paris-bound jet with a connection to Havana. Diplomats believe the two were returned to Zimbabwe after Air France refused to board the distraught doctors, who threatened to kill someone if placed on a plane back to Cuba.

Oluseyi Bajulaiye, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative for Zimbabwe, said the two doctors were in police custody in Harare, the nation's capital, Monday, although he had not seen them.

His agency was negotiating access to the Cubans. "I am rather concerned about the way that the [asylum] application has been handled so far,'' Bajulaiye said.


As part of a contingent of some 150 Cuban doctors on assignment in Zimbabwe, Cordova and Peña were envoys of Cuba's ``doctor diplomacy'' strategy, which exports high-quality health care to underdeveloped nations to earn much-needed hard currency and political favor abroad.

United Nations officials said Zimbabwe appeared to have violated national and international laws by deporting the Cubans before their asylum case could be heard by an immigration committee.

``We have very strong reason to believe that they are justified in their fear of persecution if they went back to Cuba,'' said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.


The international refugee agency's office in Harare had been assisting the two doctors with their asylum petition.

Staff members grew concerned when the pair failed to show up on Friday for their scheduled interview.

``They have not been seen by us since they missed an appointment,'' Janowski said. ``We're concerned about them being returned to Cuba.''

An eyewitness at the gate of Flight 993, scheduled to leave for Paris at 7:40 p.m., said the Cubans, flanked by two Zimbabwean soldiers, were crying and shouting, ``We don't want to go back.''

After the doctors threatened to kill someone if forced to board -- saying ``We have nothing to lose'' -- the flight's captain decided not to allow the doctors on board, the witness said.

The plane left the Cubans on the ground.

The witness provided information only on the condition of remaining anonymous.

Before the crew left, Peña slipped a three-page account of the abduction, written on a paper with South African Police Services letterhead -- apparently, part of an investigation diary -- into an Air France crew member's hand, according to U.N. officials.

The account -- written in English, one of the official languages of Zimbabwe and South Africa -- left a paper trail for U.N. officials. On the margin of the first page, the doctors made an urgent plea for help, writing ``KIDNAPPEDS'' in large letters.


Upon arriving in Paris, the crew member hand-delivered a copy to his neighbor, whom he knew to be a Cuban American living there, and faxed another copy to U.N. officials in Geneva. The neighbor's sister is an immigration attorney in Miami.

``Please, we are very concerned about our lifes and the well being of our family,'' the letter, written by Cordova, reads. ``The High Commissioner of the United Nations for Refugees was to be informed [of] what happened and that we are traveling, kidnapped, to Cuba.''

The letter and the eyewitness account offer a glimpse of their harrowing abduction: dragged from their bed at 4:17 a.m. by two machine gun-carrying Zimbabwean soldiers. Given no chance to pack, they were taken by military jeep to an immigration department ``near the Old Shell House.'' Their captors refused to let them call their lawyer and tried to force them to sign papers placed before them and give fingerprints.

At 12:30 p.m., the doctors were told they would be taken to the President's Office. Instead, they were brought to Harare International Airport, where they were met by the Cuban ambassador, the Cuban consul and the chief of the Cuban medical mission.

They boarded an airplane and were taken to Johannesburg.

The two had been in Zimbabwe for a only a month when they sought asylum at the Canadian embassy. The following day, May 24, they appeared at the Harare office of the Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper, and granted an interview. ``We want to go to Canada and work there if possible,'' Cordova told the newspaper. ``We were sent here under the policies of Fidel Castro so that he can appear to the world as a good man.''

The report was picked up and transmitted by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse news wires.

Following the initial interview with the doctors, the Daily News interviewed Cuban Ambassador to Harare Rudolfo Sarracino, who said the pair had no grounds for asylum because they were not persecuted in Cuba and they came to Zimbabwe freely.

He described Cordova and Peña as opportunists.

Luis Zuñiga, director of human rights for the Cuban American National Foundation, said Cuban doctors enlisted to serve in Third World countries are ``slave workers'' who work for meager wages while bolstering Cuba's image as a donor nation.

``Most of the world thinks these doctors are there voluntarily to help less fortunate people,'' Zuñiga said. ``That is not true. The Cuban government exports these doctors as merchandise.''

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald



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