CubaBrief: U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report returns Cuba to human trafficking blacklist

Returning Cuba to the trafficking blacklist will have a positive impact in the global fight to end modern slavery because it recognizes the facts on the ground and holds the Cuban dictatorship to account.

Cuba belongs on the human trafficking blacklist designated as Tier 3 in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report June 2019. This report finds that the Cuban government does not “criminalize all forms of forced labor or sex trafficking of children ages 16 and 17.” It also recognizes that the Castro regime traffics between 34,000 to 50,000 healthcare professionals in a foreign medical mission program that engages in forced labor by withholding their passports, non-payment of wages, and restricting their movement. In return, the dictatorship obtained over $7 billion in 2017.

The Obama Administration on July 27, 2015 upgraded Cuba’s status after 12 years from tier 3 to tier 2 in its Trafficking in Persons Report 2015, but this was done without any improvement on human trafficking. Melysa Sperber, director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) at the time expressed her concern at the new status: “We are very surprised by [the 2015] report, which seems to be making blatantly political decisions that we consider will have a really detrimental impact on both the integrity of the report and progress in the global fight to end modern slavery.”

Kimberly A. McCabe in her 2008 book “The Trafficking of Persons: National and International Responses” wrote the following on Cuba and human trafficking: “Cuba is a source country for women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced child labor and has been identified as a destination for sex tourism. Cuban adults and children are also trafficked for forced labor in commercial agriculture, such as tobacco farming. There are also reported cases of Cubans being trafficked to the United States for debt bondage. Cuba’s thriving sex trade caters to thousands of tourists every year from Europe, Latin America, and North America and involves not only the young boys and girls who are victims of abuse but also the state-run hotel workers, cab drivers, and police officers who may identify the commercial sex areas for those interested in participating in sexual exploitation.”

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2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Cuba

June 20, 2019

CUBA: Tier 3

The Government of Cuba does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so; therefore Cuba was downgraded to Tier 3. Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government took some steps to address trafficking, including prosecuting sex traffickers and one labor trafficker and imprisoning sex tourists engaged in child sex trafficking. However, the government did not take action to address forced labor in the foreign medical mission program, despite persistent allegations Cuban officials threatened and coerced some participants to remain in the program. The government did not criminalize all forms of forced labor or sex trafficking of children ages 16 and 17. The government lacked procedures to proactively identify forced labor victims, lacked a comprehensive package of services to include housing and physical protection, and detained or charged potential sex trafficking victims for unlawful acts their traffickers coerced them to commit.


Implement policies to prohibit force, fraud, or coercion by foreign labor recruiters and state-owned or controlled enterprises, including foreign medical missions in recruiting and retaining employees. • Draft and enact a comprehensive anti-trafficking law that prohibits and prescribes significant prison terms for all forms of human trafficking, including forced labor, sex trafficking of children ages 16 and 17, and the full range of trafficking “acts” (recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring, or receiving persons). • Vigorously investigate and prosecute both sex trafficking and forced labor offenses. • Implement formal policies and procedures on the identification of all trafficking victims and their referral to appropriate services, and train officials, including first responders, in their use. • Proactively identify trafficking victims, including among vulnerable populations. • Adopt policies and programs that provide trafficking-specific, specialized assistance for male and female trafficking victims. • Ensure participants in the foreign medical missions program retain control of their passports. • Screen individuals charged or detained for prostitution-related offenses for sex trafficking and refer victims to care providers. • Educate all Cuban workers about trafficking indicators and where to report trafficking-related violations. • Establish a permanent inter-ministerial anti-trafficking committee and implement the 2017-2020 national anti-trafficking action plan in partnership with international organizations. • Provide specialized training on trafficking indicators for hotline staff and interpretation for non-Spanish speakers.


The government maintained law enforcement efforts. While the penal code criminalized some forms of trafficking, it did not criminalize all forms of forced labor or sex trafficking of children ages 16 and 17, defining a child as an individual younger than 16 years of age, younger than the age set in international trafficking law, which is 18. Article 302 criminalized procuring and trafficking in persons and prescribed penalties of four to 10 years’ imprisonment, which were sufficiently stringent, and with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the law established the use of force, fraud, or coercion as aggravating factors, rather than essential elements of the crime. The law defined trafficking broadly to include exploitative labor conditions and illegal adoption without the purpose of exploitation. Article 310 criminalized corruption of minors younger than 16 for sexual purposes and prescribed penalties of seven to 15 years’ imprisonment, which were sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Article 312.1 criminalized corruption of minors younger than 16 for begging and prescribed penalties of two to five years or a fine. Articles 310 and 312.1 considered violence or intimidation, among other factors, as aggravating factors for which the penalty increased to 20 to 30 years’ imprisonment or the death penalty. Provisions for adult and child sex trafficking did not explicitly criminalize the acts of recruitment, transport, and receipt of persons for these purposes. The penal code and labor code prohibited some conduct associated with forced labor including the deprivation of freedom (article 279.1), coercion (article 286.1), extortion (article 331), arbitrary exercise of rights (article 159.1), and directly establishing labor relations with adolescents younger than age 17 (labor code article 116). However, Cuban law did not prohibit forced labor as defined in international law. Since 2015, the government has noted its efforts to amend the criminal code to address trafficking as defined in international law, but as of March 31, 2019, the criminal code did not prohibit all forms of trafficking.

In December 2018, the government published official data for calendar year 2017 on prosecutions and convictions of traffickers, the most recent data available. Authorities reported 20 prosecutions in 2017, compared to 21 in 2016 and 10 in 2015, and 20 convictions (19 sex traffickers and one trafficker for forced child labor), compared to 39 in 2016 and 17 in 2015. The average sentence was 9.2 years’ imprisonment, compared to 10.5 years in 2016 and 12 years in 2015. Authorities imprisoned eight foreign nationals for purchasing sex from child sex trafficking victims. The Cuban government organized and sponsored numerous trainings, postgraduate courses, scientific forums, and a national video conference for prosecutors, law enforcement and court officers, medical staff, and employees of the government-organized NGO Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Authorities educated participants about trafficking victim protection and assistance and procedures related to transnational organized crime and trafficking. The government maintained more than 20 bilateral cooperation agreements or memoranda of understanding with 15 other countries that included trafficking, which resulted in the identification of Cuban victims abroad and the conviction of a trafficker in Cuba. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in trafficking, despite persistent allegations officials threatened and coerced some participants in the foreign medical missions to remain in the program.


The government maintained some efforts to identify and protect trafficking victims, but provided services to only five child victims and penalized some victims for unlawful acts their traffickers coerced them to commit. Authorities identified at least 24 victims in 2017 (seven child sex trafficking victims, 16 adult sex trafficking victims, and one child forced labor victim), compared to 27 victims in 2016 (17 child sex trafficking victims, nine adult sex trafficking victims, and one child forced labor victim) and 11 victims in 2015 (seven child sex trafficking victims and four adult sex trafficking victims). Of the 24 victims, 23 were female and one was male. The government reported having procedures to proactively identify and refer sex trafficking victims; police, social workers, educators, and medical professionals identified and evaluated potential trafficking victims and referred them to other professionals for medical, psychological, psychiatric, educational, family, or social services. The government did not report having procedures to identify victims of forced labor. Government-organized NGOs, like the FMC, the Prevention and Social Assistance Commission, and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, could identify and refer trafficking victims to state authorities and provide victim services.

The government funded child protection centers and guidance centers for women and families, which served all crime victims, including some trafficking victims. These centers had the ability to screen cases, make referrals to law enforcement, assist with arranging cooperation with law enforcement in preparation for prosecution, and provide victim services. The Attorney General created a special Family Protection and Jurisdictional Issues Directorate in 2016 to provide specialized attention to child victims of crime and violence, including trafficking, but did not report whether it provided services to children in 2017. The FMC continued to receive funding from international organizations and operated centers for women and families nationwide to assist individuals harmed by violence, including victims of sex trafficking. These centers could provide services such as psychological treatment, health care, skills training, and assistance in finding employment, but they did not report whether the 16 adult female victims associated with reported prosecutions received services. Observers noted despite existing social services that victims may be able to access, the government did not offer a comprehensive package of services, particularly housing and physical protection. Neither the government nor the government-organized NGOs operated shelters or provided services specifically for adult male victims. Independent members of civil society expressed concern about the government’s protection efforts and limited information on the scope of sex trafficking and forced labor in Cuba given sparse independent monitoring by NGOs and international organizations.

Police encouraged child sex trafficking victims younger than the age of 16 to assist in prosecutions of traffickers by gathering testimony through psychologist-led videotaped interviewing, usually removing the need for children to appear in court. Observers reported law enforcement did not proactively screen for indicators of trafficking as police may have detained individuals in prostitution or charged them with crimes such as “social dangerousness,” thereby potentially penalizing some victims for unlawful acts their traffickers coerced them to commit. Cuban law permitted courts to order restitution be paid to victims, but the government did not report any such orders in 2017. The government did not identify any foreign trafficking victims in Cuba in 2017.


The government did not make efforts to prevent forced labor, but did make efforts to prevent sex trafficking. The government reported it continued to implement its national anti-trafficking action plan for 2017-2020, which included some efforts to prevent trafficking, protect victims, investigate and prosecute traffickers, and promote international cooperation. The plan required the government to establish indicators to assess progress and an overall assessment in 2020, but such indicators were not made public. The government published its sixth annual report of anti-trafficking efforts in December 2018, covering 2017 and the first quarter of 2018. International observers noted challenges in coordination across the government and with civil society, but the government did not report whether it had established a permanent interagency committee. The Ministry of Justice led an informal working group to combat trafficking comprising various ministries and law enforcement. As in prior years, the government held training sessions for government employees, teachers and school administrators, police officers, tourist industry employees, prosecutors, judges, and parents on prevention and detection of trafficking. The government and the FMC continued to operate a 24-hour telephone line for individuals needing legal assistance, including sex trafficking victims, but did not report whether any calls in 2017 led to trafficking investigations or identifying victims, or whether it implemented the UN special rapporteur’s recommendation for specialized trafficking training and multilingual staff.

State media continued to produce newspaper articles and television and radio programs, including a new public service announcement, to raise public awareness about sex trafficking. The FMC raised public awareness through workshops and training with social workers, educators, and students, and the distribution of materials explaining trafficking and risks associated with it. Authorities maintained an office within the Ministry of Tourism charged with monitoring Cuba’s image as a tourism destination, combating sex tourism, and addressing the demand for commercial sex acts. The Ministry of Tourism also reported training law enforcement officials assigned to the tourism sector to identify cases during inspections of state-owned hotels and tourist facilities, but authorities did not identify any cases in 2017. The ministry monitored foreign tour companies and travel agencies, whose employees may be held accountable for marketing the country as a sex tourism destination or for trafficking offenses, but the ministry identified no such employees in 2017. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security offered training to labor inspectors to detect trafficking, but the ministry did not identify forced labor among the 1,573 labor violations in 2017. The government reported taking steps to identify and prevent young people who might be vulnerable to traffickers from traveling abroad. The government did not implement policies to prohibit force, fraud, or coercion by foreign labor recruiters and state-owned or controlled enterprises in recruiting and retaining employees, despite persistent allegations Cuban officials threatened and coerced some participants to remain in the foreign medical mission program.


As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Cuba, and traffickers exploit victims from Cuba abroad. Sex trafficking and sex tourism, including child victims, occur within Cuba. Traffickers exploit Cuban citizens in sex trafficking and forced labor in South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. Traffickers exploit foreign nationals from Africa and Asia in sex trafficking and forced labor in Cuba to pay off travel debts. According to statements from government officials, the government employed between 34,000-50,000 healthcare professionals in more than 60 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and Portugal in foreign medical missions through contracts with foreign governments and, in some countries, with international organizations serving as intermediaries. In November 2018, Cuba ended the five-year-old “Mais Medicos” medical mission program in Brazil, which was facilitated by a UN-affiliated organization, following demands from Brazil’s then president-elect to improve the treatment and employment conditions of Cuban healthcare professionals after allegations of coercion, non-payment of wages, withholding of passports, and restrictions on their movement.

In November 2018, Cuban healthcare workers filed a class action in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida under the Trafficking Victims Protection and the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Acts alleging the Cuban government profited from the export of healthcare professionals; the case remains pending. In Brazil, the Cuban government collected revenue for each professional’s services and paid the worker a fraction of the revenue depositing a large percentage of the worker’s wages in an account in Cuba only accessible upon completion of the mission and return to Cuba. The Cuban government collected approximately 7.2 billion pesos ($7.2 billion) in annual revenue from the export of services, including foreign medical missions in 2017. Some participants in foreign medical missions as well as other sources allege Cuban officials force or coerce participation in the program; the government has stated the postings are voluntary, and some participants also have stated the postings are voluntary and well-paid compared to jobs within Cuba. Observers report the government does not inform participants of the terms of their contracts, making them more vulnerable to forced labor. The Cuban government acknowledges that it withholds passports of overseas medical personnel in Venezuela; the government provided identification cards to such personnel. Some Cuban medical personnel claim they work long hours without rest and face substandard working and living conditions in some countries, including a lack of hygienic conditions and privacy. Observers note Cuban authorities coerced some participants to remain in the program, including by withholding their passports, restricting their movement, using “minders” to conduct surveillance of participants outside of work, threatening to revoke their medical licenses, retaliate against their family members in Cuba if participants leave the program, or impose criminal penalties, exile, and family separation if participants do not return to Cuba as directed by government supervisors. The government uses some high school students in rural areas to harvest crops and does not pay them for their work but claims this work is voluntary.