Cuban Refugees Granted Asylum In Panama

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - The government of Panama has granted political asylum to nine Cuban refugees who survived the crash of an AN-2 Colt airplane in the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday, after an ill-fated attempt to escape from Cuba.

"Our country is willing to give political asylum to the nine Cubans," said Manuel Cohen, the Panamanian Consul-General in Miami.

"Our country is ready to answer in a positive way," he said, citing humanitarian reasons. However, there's no word yet on whether the Cubans would actually go to Panama.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), acting on behalf of the refugees, made the request for Panamanian asylum on Wednesday. Diaz-Balart said he was concerned that the Clinton administration might try to send the refugees back to Cuba.

Diaz-Balart said he's pleased the Panamanians stepped in. "I am deeply grateful to President Mireya Moscoso and the government of Panama for this commendable humanitarian gesture."

Diaz-Balart added the Panamanian action will prevent the Clinton-Gore administration from sending the refugees back to what he called "certain torture and imprisonment in Cuba."

Cohen, asked if he's confident the United States would turn over the refugees to Panama, said, "We don't know that," adding, "We are willing to process a formal request of political asylum once we get it in our hands."

The Clinton White House had no comment on Panama's offer of asylum.

In his letter to the Panamanian government requesting asylum, Diaz-Balart wrote, "These refugees were fleeing Castro's tyranny when the plane they were flying crashed and they were rescued by the Panamanian vessel.

"I am concerned that these refugees will be transferred to the custody of the United States and may subsequently be returned to Cuba by the Clinton-Gore administration. Unless the Cubans are seeking political asylum in the United States, the US does not have jurisdiction over Cuban refugees who seem to have been fleeing to Mexico and were rescued by a Panamanian flag vessel in international waters," Diaz-Balart said.

The Panamanian freighter "Chios Dream" was on its way to New Orleans to pick up grain when the stolen Cuban crop duster crashed nearby in the ocean. The freighter picked up nine of the ten surviving refugees, all of whom are now in Florida for medical treatment. All nine are expected to survive.