Castro Calls Defection of Cuban Doctors 'Shameful'

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - Cuban President Fidel Castro said in Havana Monday that the defection of two Cuban doctors in Zimbabwe is "shameful." The doctors are awaiting release by Zimbabwean officials after the United States on Friday granted them "refugee status."

Noris Pena Martinez, 25, and Leonel Cordova Rodriguez, 31, were abducted by Zimbabwe armed soldiers last week and nearly shipped back to Cuba after they requested political asylum at the Canadian embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital..

Zimbabwe authorities, for several days, denied they had detained the doctors. When they finally admitted seizing the physicians, Zimbabwe officials also admitted they had tried and failed to return the doctors to Cuba.

The doctors were dispatched to Zimbabwe as "doctor diplomats" by the Castro regime. The Castro government has been sending teams of doctors throughout the third world since 1963 in hopes of spreading good health and goodwill for the Cuban dictator.

On Friday, Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL) had written a letter to the US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Tom McDonald, requesting political asylum for the doctors. Much to Diaz-Balart's surprise, he received a prompt response from McDonald.

Diaz-Balart wrote, "I was very disappointed to hear that the United States embassy in Harare turned the asylum-seeking (pair) away and denied them an interview with US officials. I hereby request that these two Cuban physicians be granted political asylum; their return to Communist Cuba would subject their lives to grave danger."

McDonald responded, "Allow me to set the record straight. The two Cuban doctors came to this Embassy on May 26 and both were interviewed by Embassy personnel. As officers of the Canadian High Commission in Harare did before them, our Consular Officer advised the Cubans to conclude the process of being declared refugees by the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)."

"The UNHCR's favorable determination is a necessary pre-condition for Doctors Cordova and Pena to be admitted to the United States as refugees. The United States Government cannot grant political asylum to individuals outside its territory," McDonald said.

McDonald assured Diaz-Balart that the embassy wants to see the "two Cuban doctors treated as properly as you do."

"Currently, the doctors are voluntarily staying together at the Government of Zimbabwe's Goromonzi Detention Center. I have spoken with very senior members of the Government of Zimbabwe for several days and have urged them, as we move forward toward resolution of the matter, to respect the international conventions on treatment of refugees, "McDonald said.

McDonald also said an official from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) regional office in Nairobi is on scene in Zimbabwe to conduct interviews with the Cuban doctors.