Continued international trafficking of people and the sexual abuse of minors are two of the world’s most serious human rights issues. Last Friday, the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the U.S. House of Representations held a Miami hearing on abuses of human rights in Venezuela and Cuba.
The inquiry was prompted by reports that in compiling its latest report on human trafficking, high officials within the State Department exerted undue pressure on staff to improve the rankings of several countries, including Cuba, Malaysia and Russia.
At a congressional hearing in August, Undersecretary of State Sarah Sewall defended the rankings saying, “We don’t comment on internal deliberations” and asserted “the reporting that was done by the TIP office and the team at the State Department was thorough and fact-based.” Yet, according to the British news service Reuters, staffers had come forth to reveal 2015 ratings were watered down in the report issued by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Reuters cited an administration spokesman as dismissing the allegations, saying “[s]ome diplomats who say that the staffers should avoid acting like ‘purists.’ ”
The report is a tool used to shame governments into enacting and enforcing laws to prevent sex trafficking and forced labor and prosecuting traffickers. One of its unintended consequences, however, was that when it focused world public opinion on Southeast Asia’s poor records on slave labor and “sex tourism” involving the use of children, many traffickers found a new haven in Cuba. Moreover, given the recent influx of thousands of new tourists, sex trafficking in Cuba is increasing.
Sources on Capitol Hill tell me that the integrity of the report on human trafficking is one of the issues that Congress will be exploring with Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson, as she now seeks confirmation to become U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Jacobson led the negotiations to “normalize” U.S. relations with Cuba.
In 2011, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that Cuba was the most popular destination in America for child sex tourism. In 2013, a 78-year-old Canadian returning home from Cuba was charged under Canadian law with nine counts of child-sex tourism. He had pled guilty in 1995 and 1998 to possession of child pornography filmed in Cuba. According to Canada’s CTV News, all of his alleged victims were young Cuban girls, “some as young as 4-years-old.” It’s not likely that the substantial increase of foreign tourists now visiting the island has diminished human trafficking. Secretary of State John Kerry also should be answering the several Congressional letters sent him.
“The perceived hit to the integrity of the 2015 report can do lasting damage,” Reuters reported. As Mark Taylor, former senior coordinator for reports and political affairs in the monitoring office, says “It only takes one year of this kind of really deleterious political effect to kill its credibility.”
Unfortunately, President Obama’s legacy is likely to be marred by more than one instance of political considerations taking precedence over the facts. Another manipulation of State Department reports happened in late May, when Cuba was removed from the U.S. list of foreign governments supporting international terrorism. That happened while convicted killers of American police officers are still enjoying the safe haven of “political asylum” in Cuba.
Diluting of the trafficking report was, without doubt, a concession to the Castros. Democracy Digest, a blog of the National Endowment for Democracy, observed that these actions “hardly assuage the concerns of Cuban dissidents that the administration is downplaying human rights and democracy as it seeks to cement its new rapprochement with the island’s Communist authorities.”
Revulsion over human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children is not limited to “purists” within the State Department. It’s widely shared by the American people.
Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba based in Washington, D.C.