Obama criticized for report on Cuba human trafficking

Police ask for identification from two girls in an area of Havana, Cuba frequented by tourists.
Police ask for identification from two girls in an area of Havana, Cuba frequented by tourists. el Nuevo Herald

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio have attacked the Obama administration for reportedly watering down an annual State Department report on the rolls of countries, such as Cuba and Malaysia, in people smuggling operations.

President Barack Obama “and the State Department should be ashamed of their purely political manipulation of Cuba’s human trafficking issues,” Bush wrote on his Twitter account.

Rubio, a Florida Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, transnational crime and human rights, said it was “shameful that President Obama allowed a bunch of political hacks to alter the administration’s human trafficking report to the benefit of perennial violators like Cuba and Malaysia.”

“The president and his administration have set a dangerous precedent that could lead countries to believe that they can negotiate their way out of being named and shamed for their human trafficking abuses, instead of actually adopting reforms and tackling the problem,” Rubio said.

“The decision to favor politics over policy has jeopardized the integrity of the TIP report which has played a vital role in combating human trafficking the past 15 years. This is a great disservice to the millions of people who have been victimized or are vulnerable to human traffickers,” he added.

The Reuters news agency reported that senior diplomats in the State Department prevailed over the analysts in the department’s own Office to Monitor and Combat the Trafficking of Persons, known as J/TIP, who favored more negative findings for 14 countries. The analysts prevailed in another three of the disputed assessments.

As a result, countries such as Cuba, Malaysia, China, India, Uzbekistan and Mexico wound up with better qualifications than the human rights experts wanted to give them, according to sources quoted in the Reuters report.

Cuba was removed from the report’s list of Tier 3 nations, which include countries with the worst record on the issues of people trafficking and forced labor. It was downgraded to the Tier 2 “observation list,” according to the final report, because although the island “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.”

According to Reuters, the analysts’ victory in only three of the 17 disputes was the worst in the J/TIP’s 15 years of work. A State Department spokesperson told El Nuevo Herald that the normal methodology for drafting the report had been followed “scrupulously” and that “final decisions are taken only after a rigorous discussion and analysis between the TIP office, the relevant regional offices and leaders in the Department of State.”

“The Secretary of State approves the final narratives and the qualifications of each country,” the spokesperson added.

Since the report was published last week, prominent members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee have been questioning the decision to remove Cuba and Malaysia from the black list of countries that do not combat people smuggling, and they have asked Secretary of State John Kerry for an explanation.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey, also criticized the “politicization” of the report.

In Cuba, “adults and children are subjected to sex trafficking, and the government continues perpetrating abusive practices of forced labor, coercing tens of thousands of its own doctors and medical professionals to serve abroad under conditions that violate international norms,” Menendez said. “As the State Department’s own report recognizes that there has been no progress on forced labor in Cuba, any upgrade of the country’s ranking challenges common sense.

The State Department report says that the sexual trafficking of minors does take place in Cuba, specially in connection with tourism, and that the government has “informed” about its efforts to fight these activities although the information on the issue is scarce. It also indicates that the Cuban government does not recognize the “forced labor” of students or doctors in other countries as a problem.

Cuba’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, vehemently rejected the country’s inclusion on the Tier 2 “observation list.”

“Cuba should not figure in any unilateral list or be subjected to any monitoring at all,” the ministry said in a statement that also complained that the State Department report contained “tendentious and manipulated elements on the selfless work … that our medical collaborators carry out in third countries.”

The statement also alleged that the report “distorts the educational and formative character of the Cuban educational system, which applies the … [theory] of linking study with work, when it qualified the work carried out by Cuban students as forced labor.”

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