Panama accuses Cuba of refusing to cooperate

Panama will send a low-ranking official to a summit of hemispheric leaders in Cuba to signal its displeasure with Havana’s refusal to cooperate over a shipment of Cuban weapons seized aboard a North Korean freighter, sources said Tuesday.

Floreal Garrido, the fifth-ranking official in Panama’s Foreign Ministry, will represent his government at the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a knowledgeable ministry source told El Nuevo Herald on Tuesday.

Garrido, whose official title is Director of Foreign Policy, will be attending a Jan. 28-29 gathering where many of the 33 other countries’ delegations will be led by presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers. The U.S. and Canada are not part of CELAC.

“We will send them our fifth-ranking official to Havana to show our displeasure with their total lack of cooperation on the matter of the North Korean ship,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

Relations between the governments of Panama and Cuba cooled significantly after Panama authorities seized the North Korean ship loaded with Cuban weapons in July as it prepared to cross the Panama Canal westbound from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Investigators for the U.N. Security Council have been trying to determine whether the weapons — 420 tons of anti-aircraft radars and missile parts, MiG jets, motors for the warplanes and other munitions — violated the arms embargoes slapped on North Korea for its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.

The weapons shipment was hidden under 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar that had to be unloaded by hand after the crew of the bulk carrier Chong Chon Gang sabotaged the ship’s loading cranes. The 508-foot ship, crew, sugar and weapons remain in Panama.

The Foreign Ministry official in Panama said the Cuban government has not replied to any of Panama’s requests for information on the sugar or the weapons and why they were being shipped to a country under a U.N. arms embargo.

Cuba’s only public comment on the weapons so far has been to say that they were going to be refurbished in North Korea and then returned to the island.

Cuban officials met in Havana last year with some of the U.N. Security Council Investigators to give their side of the weapons shipments, but the investigators have not made public their findings.

Cuban ruler Raúl Castro and 13 other heads of state and government did not attend the IberoAmerican Summit in Panama in October.

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