Zimbabwe Frees Cuban Defectors

By Julius Mokaya | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Nairobi (CNSNews.com) - After intense international pressure, especially from the United States and the United Nations, Zimbabwe has finally released two Cuban doctors arrested nearly two months ago after seeking political asylum in the southern African nation.

Leonel Cordova Rodriguez, 31, and Noris Pena Martinez, 25, were released from Zimbabwe police custody over the weekend and flown to the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

It was not clear why they did not go immediately to the U.S., which had offered them refugee visas soon after their plight made headlines.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officials in Harare, who had been
negotiating with the Zimbabwean authorities over the doctors' fate, confirmed the two had left and that the UNHCR had witnessed their departure.

Swedish Embassy officials in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, confirmed that the two had been granted temporary visas but were free to apply for permanent asylum in Sweden.

An official at the American Embassy in Harare, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "We are happy the matter is over. The doctors are now free to seek asylum anywhere and the U.S. offer still stands."

Dominik Bartsch of the UNHCR said the doctors were escorted to the Harare airport by Zimbabwean government officials, and were in good health and high spirits.

"They were obviously very relieved. As far as we're concerned, the matter is now closed,"' he said.

"[Rodriguez and Martinez] turned to the UNHCR in Zimbabwe for help and the UNHCR asked Sweden for assistance. They granted them temporary visiting visas for
humanitarian reasons," he added.

The doctors, part of a 152-member Cuban humanitarian mission to the troubled country, approached the Canadian Embassy in Harare on May 23, about a month after arriving in the country, to seek political asylum.

They were advised to contact the UNHCR, and arranged an appointment for the following day.

That night, however, they were reportedly abducted by Zimbabwean security agents - allegedly accompanied by Cuban officials - and put onto an Air France flight to Havana, via Johannesburg.

At the South African stopover, the aircrew refused to carry them any further after they managed to slip a note to the pilot saying they had been kidnapped after denouncing President Fidel Castro.

The South Africans sent them back to Harare, where they were detained without charge.

A senior Zimbabwean immigration official who last week said the matter was beyond his office said he was glad the saga was over.

"The case of the Cubans had been very embarrassing and it took a final decision from the president to free them," he said, seeking anonymity.

The Cuban government has condemned the doctors for their "shameful and immoral conduct" but said the matter would not be taken further if they chose to return home.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, whose ruling ZANU-PF party nearly lost power to the opposition in an election last month, is a long-standing ally of
Castro and an avowed Marxist.

Also See:
Cuban Defectors Still Detained in Zimbabwe (7 July 2000)
Zimbabwe Blocks Cuban Defectors From Coming to US (14 June 2000)
Castro Calls Defection of Cuban Doctors 'Shameful' (12 June 2000)
Cuban Doctors Granted Refugee Status By US (9 June 2000)