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Cuba Cuts Diplomatic Relations With Panama  - 2004-08-26

Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso has pardoned four Cubans accused of plotting to kill President Fidel Castro in 2000 during an inter-American summit. The pardon has angered the Cuban government, and it has broken diplomatic relations with Panama.

Speaking to reporters, President Moscoso said that she had pardoned the four men for humanitarian reasons. Mrs. Moscoso said Luis Posada Carriles, Gaspar Jimenez, Guillermo Novo, and Pedro Remon are old and infirm. She said she wanted to prevent their extradition to Cuba, where they likely would have been killed.

The four were serving seven and eight year terms for their roles in a plot to bomb an auditorium where Fidel Castro was due to speak to Iberian and Latin American leaders. Panamanian officials believed there was not enough evidence to charge them with attempted murder, and instead they were convicted of endangering public safety and falsifying documents.

The 76 year-old Mr. Posada Cariles, considered to be the ringleader, is a Cuban national, the other three are Cuban-born U.S. citizens.

After the Castro government threatened to break relations over the issue, the Panamanian government withdrew its ambassador from Havana August 24 and asked Cuba to recall its ambassador to Panama. The diplomatic crisis comes days before Mrs. Moscoso completes her presidential term, August 31. Her successor, Martin Torrijos, the son of the late General Omar Torrijos who was a friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is expected to try to normalize relations with the Castro government as soon as possible.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States did not pressure Panama to pardon the four men. Mrs. Moscoso also said she had not been pressured by any foreign government.

The Panamanian president accused the Castro government of attempting to destabilize her government and claimed that Cuban agents were active in Panama. She also said that these agents had been identified and that her administration would take the necessary measures to protect Panamanian sovereignty and national security. As news of the pardon spread, university students and leftist organizations in Panama City took to the streets to protest the presidential action. Riot police were called out to deal with the disturbances.

Panama´s foreign minister said that he had not been notified of a formal break in relations with Cuba and that he would await formal notification via diplomatic channels before issuing any kind of statement.

Political analysts believe the new administration will try to restore diplomatic relations if the break does occur and that the rift will not be long lived.

Panama is a key supplier to Cuba´s tourist industry, with exports in the hundreds of millions of dollars every year from the Colon free trade zone, a process that allows the Castro government to bypass the United States' economic embargo.