Cuba’s state-run human trafficking business

Part I: Forced labor: the export services of temporary workers

“Contrary to fighting human trafficking, the [Cuban] government is likely one of the largest and most profitable traffickers in the world.” This statement was part of the recent testimony in Congress by Cuba Archive’s Executive Director, Maria Werlau, on Cuba’s gigantic human trafficking business.

A creative scheme of forced labor —temporary workers for export— accounts for Cuba’s largest, and growing, source of revenues. According to official reports, around 65,000 are serving the Cuban government in 91 countries; 75% (around 50,000) are in the health sector. The services of doctors, sports trainers, teachers, construction workers, entertainers, sailors, scientists, architects, engineers, and many other professionals and technicians are sold through large state entities, including two large health conglomerates (ServiMed-Servicios Médicos Cubanos, S.A. and the BioFarma Cuba group), and at least 84 smaller state entities. Their wages, for the most part, go directly to the Cuban government, whose annual export services net of tourism grew from US$1.5 billion in 2003 to US$7.8 billon in 2011 (the latest official data from Cuba). Recent reports put the annual figure at around US$8.2 billion (three times tourism revenues reported at around $2.7 billion a year).

The violations to universally-recognized labor rights that this practice entails are numerous. Amply documented by Cuba Archive, they include chronic under-payment of wages, subsistence stipends, mandatory long hours, poor —often dangerous— living conditions, arbitrary restrictions of movement and others, retention of travel documents, and threats of retaliatory actions to the workers and their families if they defect overseas. This type of “modern slavery” violates many international agreements to which Cuba and most countries where these workers serve are parties, including conventions and protocols against human trafficking and of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Cuba’s export business of indentured workers and its unique brand of “health diplomacy” are possible only in a totalitarian state in which a pool of guaranteed captive low-paid workers can be exploited as “exportable commodities.” The average monthly salary is $20 and $60 for doctors.

Because many Cuban workers serve “willingly,” —even eagerly— to improve their lot, it is important to note that the victims’ consent to forced labor practices does not exempt them from “human trafficking.” The legal definition is clear: “The consent of the victim to the intended exploitation is irrelevant once it is demonstrated that deception, coercion, force or other prohibited means have been used.” The Trafficking in Persons Protocol of 2000, a complement to the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, states that abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability for the purpose of exploitation constitutes human trafficking.

Click here to read the entire Congressional testimony.