- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2000

Lifting the U.S. economic embargo to allow the sale of food and medicine to Cuba will do nothing to help the average Cuban, two doctors who recently defected from the island nation testified on Capitol Hill yesterday.

"We consider that only cutting the umbilical chord that sustains [Cuban President Fidel Castro's] empire, and by this we mean suspending any external aid, we can suffocate the malignancy that is killing [the Cuban people] today," said Dr. Leonel Cordova, 31, a general practitioner from Havana, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Speaking as a doctor who served his patients, he said he believed no food or medicine sent from the United States would help the Cuban people if it went through a government organization.

"The U.S. embargo on Cuba does not affect the people of Cuba. The revolutionary leaders have everything, every kind of medicine from the United States," said Dr. Cordova, who defected in May while on a medical mission to Zimbabwe. "No food or medicine will reach the people. It is all funneled through the Cuban government for high-level Communist officials and tourists."

At a luncheon at the Heritage Foundation earlier, Dr. Noris Pena, a dentist who also defected in Zimbabwe, elaborated.

"It is not the external embargo that is the problem with Cuba's medical system, it is the internal blockade. With or without the U.S. embargo, the Cuban people will suffer," she said.

The two doctors said dissidents in Cuba, including doctors, can speak ill of the regime as long as they also denounce the U.S. embargo.

"It is very difficult to tell the truth. If you tell the truth, you go to jail or are dead," Dr. Cordova said.

Dr. Cordova and Dr. Pena were sent to Harare, Zimbabwe, in March, as part of a team of 107 health workers, ostensibly to supply health care to a poor African nation. Dr. Cordova said the real goal was to help Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, a close friend of Mr. Castro's, win re-election.

On April 23, the two doctors decided to defect. Both said they had been contemplating such action for years.

They first went to a Harare newspaper to denounce Cuba's two-tiered medical system, derided as medical apartheid. One is a world-class system, with first-class medicines and facilities reserved for ranking government officials and tourists. The other system, for ordinary Cubans, lacks virtually every basic necessity, the doctors said.

"In Cuba I had to send my patients to Catholic charities for medicine. The pharmacies for the people had nothing," Dr. Cordova said.

After being turned away by both the Canadian and American embassies, the two were picked up at gunpoint by Zimbabwean police, just before they were to meet with U.N. officials to apply for refugee status.

Eventually, Cuban and Zimbabwean officials tried to force them aboard an Air France airliner to return them to Cuba, but the doctors caused a commotion and the Air France staff refused to allow them on board.

At that time, Dr. Cordova slipped a three-page declaration to an Air France employee. The declaration found its way into the Miami Herald, stirring widespread publicity. After a month in a Harare jail, the two were flown to Sweden, and in July given asylum in the United States.

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