- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Cuban doctors' plight

Tom McDonald, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, yesterday said his embassy is doing its best to help two Cuban doctors held in Zimbabwe to win political asylum in the United States.

Mr. McDonald, in a letter faxed to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, told the Florida Republican that "my staff and I are pursuing a speedy and hopefully successful conclusion to this case."

"We at [the] embassy want to see those two Cuban doctors treated as properly as you do," he wrote to the Cuban-born congresswoman.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said she was pleased with the prompt response from the ambassador, who received her letter by fax on Monday.

"I believe this shows U.S. officials are taking this case seriously," she told Embassy Row. "I just hope the Clinton administration doesn't capitulate to Castro's demand for their return."

Mr. McDonald said an official from the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Nairobi, Kenya, visited Dr. Noris Pena Martinez and Dr. Leonel Cordova Rodriguez at a detention center in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, last week.

He granted them "conditional refugees status … based on their well-founded fear of persecution should they return to Cuba."

Dr. Cordova, 31, and Dr. Pena, 25, arrived in Zimbabwe in February as part of a group of 150 medics, part of a Cuban program to send medical experts to Third World countries. They requested asylum in Zimbabwe, but the government tried to deport them.

"The government of Zimbabwe expelled the two doctors on June 2, probably at the request of Cuban Ambassador Rodolfo Sarracino," Mr. McDonald told Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen.

"In transit to Cuba via South Africa, through, the doctors protested vociferously at the Johannesburg airport, and South African authorities put them on a plane back to Zimbabwe."

Mr. McDonald said he has urged senior government officials to transfer the doctors to the custody of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, as Zimbabwe is required to do under international agreements.

"As I write this letter, the Cuban doctors continue to be held by Zimbabwean immigration officials, in spite of substantial and ongoing efforts by me, this mission, the INS and the local officer of the UNHCR," Mr. McDonald said.

"We understand that the decision to grant them their freedom rests with the highest levels of the Zimbabwean government," he said. "Meanwhile, we will continue to pursue resolution of this case with vigor."

'Ambassadors build'

Ambassadors may be better at building relations than building houses, but more than two dozen diplomats have agreed to get their hands dirty today to help build homes for the homeless in Northeast Washington.

"They are going to arrive in their limousines, and the first thing we are going to do is hand them a tool belt," said Floyd Nelson, associate director for external affairs of Habitat for Humanity International.

Habitat conceived of the "Ambassadors Build" to draw international attention to the homeless and to promote an even bigger effort next year, titled "World Leaders Build."

Former President Jimmy Carter, Habitat's most famous volunteer, will be in South Korea pounding nails for the event that hopes to attract presidents and prime ministers to similar efforts around the world, Mr. Nelson said yesterday.

"Housing and homelessness are big problems worldwide," he said.

As for today's event, "these ambassadors are going to get dirty, and everybody's going to work," he said.

Mr. Nelson has helpfully suggested that the diplomats wear clothes "appropriate for construction, such as jeans, khakis and hard-sole shoes."

The countries that have agreed to send ambassadors or lower-ranking diplomats are: Britain, Burundi, Cameroon, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Macedonia, Moldova, Namibia, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Switzerland, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

The diplomats are expected to help out between 8:45 a.m. to noon at the construction site, 2001 Rosedale St. NE.

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