- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2000

Awakened by machine gun-toting soldiers at 4 a.m., two Cuban doctors living in Zimbabwe were abducted earlier this month. Their harrowing, Kafkaesque experience vividly illustrates the terrifying reach of Fidel Castro's repressive apparatus. In the wake of Mr. Castro's aggressive public relations operation to get Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba, this recent abduction demonstrates that the Cuban regime continues to favor brutal tactics to silence dissent and prevent defections.

One month after Leonel Cordova and Noris Pea arrived in Zimbabwe as part of a Cuban medical mission, they contacted the Canadian Embassy in order to seek asylum in that North American country. The Canadians then referred them to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. On May 24, the day after their visit to the Canadian Embassy, the doctors dropped into the offices of the Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent, daily newspaper, and gave an interview critical of the Castro regime. "We want to go to Canada and work there if possible," Mr. 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 two doctors would pay dearly for that interview, which was transmitted by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse news wires. On June 2, they were taken at gunpoint from their home by Zimbabwean soldiers, and taken to an immigration office, where their captors tried to force them to sign some papers and took their fingerprints. They were then taken to Johannesburg, South Africa, and almost forced onto a flight connecting to Cuba. While being taken on board, however, the doctors cried out that they didn't want to return to Cuba and threatened to kill someone if forced onboard. The pilots deemed the doctors a security threat and didn't allow them on the flight.

In the process, Mr. Cordova snuck a three-page account of the abduction to an Air France crew person, who subsequently sent it to U.N. officials in Geneva. The note documented the last trace of the their whereabouts.

"Please, we are very concerned about our lifes [sic] and the well being of our family," the letter reads. "The High Commissioner of the United Nations for Refugees was to be informed what happened and that we are traveling, kidnapped, to Cuba," it added. The word "KIDNAPPED" was written in large letters on the margin.

That note saved the doctors. The U.N. high commissioner asked to meet with the Cuban doctors. Authorities in Zimbabwe, a country which has close ties to Cuba, for days denied knowledge of their whereabouts, and the Cuban embassy in Zimbabwe refused to answer inquiries regarding the doctors. Finally, last week, after being missing for six days, they resurfaced in a prison in Zimbabwe. The United States has repeatedly called on Zimbabwe to free the doctors and said the African country appeared to be breaking the Geneva conventions and international law by continuing to hold them.

Havana has insisted that it had nothing to do with the abduction, but in the note, Mr. Cordova said that the Cuban ambassador, the Cuban consul and the chief of the Cuban medical mission were all at the airport the doctors were brought to in Zimbabwe, before they were forced onto the plane for Johannesburg.

"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 U.N. high commissioner .

Mr. Castro has proven once again his willingness to use force to suppress dissent. Of late, he has posed as a defender of family values but Mr. Castro really hasn't changed at all.

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