By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 10, 2000; Page A16
Officials said Leonel Cordova Rodriguez, 31, and Noris Pena Martinez, 25, were interviewed in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, yesterday by an Immigration and Naturalization Service officer from the agency's regional office in Nairobi. "We have given them temporary refugee status," said an official in Washington.
Once they arrive in the United States, the doctors will be covered under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows any Cuban national here to apply for permanent residence.
The U.S. decision to admit the Cubans was an unexpected development at the end of a harrowing week in which the Zimbabwe government, allegedly acting with Cuban diplomats, attempted to secretly deport the two doctors back to Havana after they asked for political asylum. When airline officials in neighboring South Africa refused to allow them aboard a plane to Paris en route to Havana, they were brought back to Harare and imprisoned for five days before Zimbabwe responded to U.N. inquiries about their whereabouts.
Once their story became public this week, some members of Congress accused the State Department and INS of ignoring requests for U.S. asylum the doctors made before their disappearance. "I was very disappointed to hear that the United States Embassy in Harare . . . denied them an interview with U.S. officials," Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.)wrote U.S. Ambassador Tom McDonald. "Their return to communist Cuba would subject their lives to grave danger."
U.S. officials denied that the two had been turned away. The INS, said spokeswoman Maria Cardona, had "gone by the book" in its dealings with them.
According to information provided by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Canadian and U.S. officials, and the doctors themselves, their path to refugee status was a convoluted one.
When they arrived in Harare in April as part of a Cuban aid team, the two had already decided to defect, they later told a Harare newspaper. Their destination of choice, they said, was Canada, and, on May 24, they visited the Canadian High Commission, or embassy, in Harare. Canadian officials told them that under international refugee conventions, they would first have to be interviewed by Zimbabwean refugee officials and the UNHCR in Harare. Like the United States, Canada has no Harare-based asylum officials, but they were told one could be brought from Nairobi to interview them once they had been cleared by the U.N. process.
At the local UNHCR office, they were given an appointment for a June 2 interview. Zimbabwean refugee officials also scheduled an interview with them for June 2.
The doctors then visited the U.S. Embassy, apparently hedging their bets on Canada. According to U.S. officials, they were told to complete the U.N. processing, after which they would be interviewed by a Nairobi-based U.S. official.
Although Zimbabwean officials had sent the doctors to a secure refugee holding facility to await their interviews, the two decided they would rather stay in a private residence. Just before dawn on June 2, according to the doctors' subsequent account, armed Zimbabwean police took them from that residence to an immigration office. In the presence of Cuban diplomats, they said, they were asked to sign unspecified documents. They refused.
They were then placed under guard on a flight to Johannesburg. There, as Zimbabwean security officers attempted to force them aboard the flight to Paris, they slipped a note to an Air France official saying they were being kidnapped. Air France refused to allow them to board, and the Zimbabweans took them back to a prison in Harare.
On Wednesday, Zimbabwe acknowledged their whereabouts and they were visited by a U.N. official; on Thursday, they met with Zimbabwean refugee officials. Yesterday, they were approved as legitimate international refugees and interviewed by a U.S. official.
Cuba and Zimbabwe, which have a close relationship, have denied any untoward actions in the case.
Cordova has said he has a wife and three children in Cuba; Pena is a
single woman who has relatives in Miami.
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