On July 27 the U.S. Department of State released its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, which upgraded Cuba from Tier 3 (a country that did “not fully comply with the [Trafficking in Persons Protection Act] minimum standards and [was] not making significant efforts to do so”) to Tier 2.Watch List (a country that did not fully comply with [that statute’s] minimum standards, but [was] making significant efforts to bring [itself] into compliance with those standards). A prior post reviewed that report’s discussion of Cuba and expressed disagreement with its assertion that Cuban medical personnel’s participation in foreign medical missions was illegal forced labor.
Since then there has been congressional criticism and concern about that report’s upgrading of several countries, including Cuba, as seen in recent congressional hearings.
The most recent hearing was on November 4, before a House of Representatives subcommittee. Most of the hearing was devoted to the report’s upgrading of Malaysia, Uzbekistan and China.
Cuba’s upgrade was the focus of the testimony at this hearing by Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He testified that the shift in U.S.-Cuban relations did not influence the decision on Cuba. “It was completely separate,” he told the subcommittee.
This assessment of Cuba was challenged by the testimony at this hearing of Mark Lagon, the President of Freedom House. He stated that “Freedom House ranks Cuba as ‘Not Free’” and that the Department’s “grounds for an upgrade are deeply questionable.” Indeed, Lagon said, the Department’s report itself undercuts any rationale for an upgrade when it states: (a) “The penal code does not criminalize all forms of human trafficking on paper, not to speak of enforcement.” (b) “The Cuba regime did not even dissemble and claim any ‘efforts to prevent forced labor’ nor ‘any trafficking-specific shelters.” Moreover, according to Lagon, “It is far-fetched to suppose that there is no forced labor in state enterprises or for political prisoners in one of the world’s few remaining Marxist-Leninist states. Also, a burgeoning sex industry – welcoming sex tourism – fuels exploitation, despite steps the Report notes taken by Cuba to address sex trafficking.”
The attitude towards Cuba of this subcommittee’s chair, Christopher Smith (Rep., NJ), was revealed in his press release on July 27 (the date of the release of the 2015 TIP report), when he said, “For political reasons alone, President Obama has done a grave disservice to victims of human trafficking in Cuba . . . by upgrading the human trafficking tier rankings in those countries in the annual Trafficking in Persons report.” He added, “It seems quite clear that . . . Cuba’s unchecked march to normalized relations have captured the Obama Administration’s ability to properly access the worst of the worst when it comes to fighting to protect trafficking victims and punish the thugs who mastermind this modern day slavery. It is no coincidence that earlier this year the Obama Administration also removed Cuba from the national list of state sponsors of terrorism. One-by-one this Administration is overriding human rights and national security policies for another agenda.”
The same issue of the objectivity of the TIP Report was considered on September 17 by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations at a closed briefing by Anthony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, entitled “State Department Processes in Establishing Tier Rankings for the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.” As the briefing was closed, we do not know what happened although at another hearing on September 22 Chairman Bob Corker (Rep., TN) mentioned that after this briefing he had made a request to the State Department for three unspecified items of information about the 2015 report.
Related to the issue of the objectivity of the 2015 TIP Report was the September 22 hearing by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the nomination of Susan Coppedge to be the Ambassador-at-Large and Director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
Although her written and oral testimony did not touch on Cuba, she made certain commitments if she were confirmed by the Senate, that bear on the overall issue of the objectivity of such future reports. Those commitments included the following: (a) “to use this position passionately to advocate for the rights of individuals to be free from forced labor or sex trafficking, for victims of human trafficking to have access to comprehensive services, for survivors to be empowered to have a voice in policy, and for an end to the trafficking of human beings;” (b) “to uphold the integrity of the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and its tier rankings, including by ensuring the facts from the field are accurately presented in the report;” and (c) “to maintain a close working relationship with Congress and with those federal agencies engaged in the fight against human trafficking.”
At the hearing all the members in attendance expressed support for the nomination, and afterwards Chairman Corker released a statement reiterating his strong support.
The issue of the objectivity of the 2015 TIP Report regarding Cuba and certain other countries still has not been resolved, and I am confident that we will hear more about this issue from Congress.
 The Tier 2 Watch List also requires that “a) The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; b) There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or c) The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.”
 U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee Hearing: Demanding Accountability: Evaluating the 2015 “Trafficking in Persons Report” (Nov. 4, 2015); Lagon, Statement for Subcommittee Hearing (Nov. 4, 2015); Sagnip,, Author of U.S. Human Trafficking Laws Demands End to Politicized Tier Rankings in Trafficking Report (Nov. 4, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Says Human Trafficking Report Not Softened for Political Reasons, N.Y. Times (Nov. 4, 2015); Sagnip. Cuba and Malaysia Taken Off ‘Bad Actors’ Trafficking List for Political Reasons (July 27, 2015).
 Senate Comm. on Foreign Relations, Hearing on Nominations [Susan Coppedge] (Sept. 22, 2105); Senate Comm. Foreign Relations, Coppedge: Testimony (Sept. 22, 2015) Senate Comm. Foreign Relations, Corker Seeks TIP Report Integrity from Nominee to Combat Human Trafficking (Sept. 22, 2015).