Throughout the last few months, there has been increasing evidence of Cuba’s involvement in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba’s core contribution? Its people.
Whether narcotrafficking, supporting foreign military operations, or responding to humanitarian needs with medical doctors, the Cuban regime is profiting billions of dollars via forced human labor. The most egregious example is also the most profitable.
For decades, the Cuban Doctor program has been in place to allegedly help “the poor, downtrodden and those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to medical care” in more than 60 countries around the world. However, they never agreed to sacrifice 90 percent of their wages, proselytize their patients with political propaganda, and adhere to a strict evening curfew.
In Brazil, the program is known as “Mais Médicos.” Instituted in 2013, it was then-President Dilma Rousseff’s response to nationwide unrest over inadequate medical services. The legal rationale was to bring thousands of doctors from other countries to remote, underserved communities in Brazil.
At first blush, it might appear all the doctors were serving the same role. But, when Dr. Ramona Matos Rodriguez arrived in Brazil, she quickly realized that Cuban doctors were paid far less and their terms were different from all the other doctors in the program.
Dr. Rodriguez recounts how she and her medical colleagues were forced to sign contracts giving the Cuban Ministry of Health power of attorney over their actions in Brazil. She was required to use a special Physical Person Card instead of her passport, and she was prohibited from going anywhere without permission of “advisors.”
She also explained that she was ordered to act as a support echelon for paramilitary operations, if and when necessary.
After many months considering the terrifying risks of escape, Dr. Rodriguez decided to take action. She drove 12 hours from a small town in the Amazon to Brasilia in 2014 with Cuban intelligence officials at her heels. After arriving safely at the U.S. Embassy, she applied forasylum under a special parole program that was terminated in 2016 under President Obama.
To put it plainly, Rodriguez was the victim of a human trafficking enterprise. Under the guise of a humanitarian medical mission, sheand many others were used as pawns. In order to evade restrictions in Brazilian law, Rousseff and the Castroregime turned to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which sits under the United Nations umbrella, to organize the arrangement.
Headquartered in Washington,DC, PAHO receives the protection of U.S. law and millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars annually. Working together with Cuba and officials in the Brazilian government, PAHO created the “Mais Médicos” program - a scheme in which Brazil would pay the organization for the Cuban doctors’ service, in exchange for the administration of the program in Brazil.
Using its Washington, D.C. bank account, PAHO would forward more than 85 percent of the amount from the program to Havana, paying the doctors about 10 percent. The remaining five percent was kept in PAHO’s US bank account.
This translates to PAHO pocketing more than $75 million for itself, and Cuba profiting from approximately $1.3 billion going through US bank accounts in the past five years alone.
As history has proven, trafficking its own people is nothing new for the Cuban government. For decades, the Cuban Communist regime has forced thousands of its medical professionals into foreign missions around the world and pocketed between $8 and $11 billion - over half its annual budget.
Medical care is a human issue, not a channel of commerce, as was pointed out by a recent New York Times investigation. It detailed how Cuban doctors working in Venezuela were forced to withhold medical care from poor and gravely ill Venezuelan citizens, in order to coerce support for Dictator Nicolás Maduro’s election.
It is appalling that an organization operating from our nation’s capital could be facilitating slavery and pawning it off as a humanitarian act; we are disheartened with the fact that this same entity is using Lady Justice to cloak itself in the courts with immunity.
As attorneys who trust in the rule of law, we recognize that under the International Organizations Immunities Act(IOIA), organizations like PAHO should have immunity for carrying out their legitimate functions.
Yet, the law does not shield their commercial activities. And, it does not and should not safeguard them from criminal conduct or violations of long-settled rules of international law.
Maria D. Garcia, an attorney, is the president of the Cuban American Bar Association. Hugo Acha is a is a human rights attorney and the lead research advisor for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba.