U.S. State Department’s 2015 Human Trafficking Report’s Objectivity About Cuba Is Still Unresolved

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).[1] 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.[2]

Alex Lee
Alex Lee

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.

Mark Lagon
Mark Lagon

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.”

Rep. Chris Smith
Rep. Chris Smith

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.

Susan Coppedge
Susan Coppedge

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.”

Senator Bob Corker
Senator Bob Corker

At the hearing all the members in attendance expressed support for the nomination, and afterwards Chairman Corker released a statement reiterating his strong support.[3]

Conclusion

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.

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[1] 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.”

[2] 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).

[3] 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).

 

 

 

 

This Week’s U.S.-Cuba Meetings in Havana

The U.S. and Cuba are holding two sets of meetings in Havana this week. One involves U.S. Senators and Representatives. The other is a conference of diplomats of the two counties.

Meetings of U.S. Legislators

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) [1] has organized a trip to Havana, January 17-19, with Democratic colleagues from the Senate–Richard Durbin (IL) [2], Debbie Stabenow (MI) [3] and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) [4]—and the House of Representatives, Chris Van Hollen (MD) [5] and Peter Welch (VT). [6]

This trip is designed to seek clarity from Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, to develop a sense of what Cuba and the U.S. are prepared to do to make a constructive relationship possible, to impress upon Cuban leaders the importance of concrete results and positive momentum and to convey a sense of Americans’ expectations and congressional perceptions.

They intend to meet with Cuban government officials, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, representatives of Cuba’s civil society, personnel at the U.S. Interests Section and ambassadors to Cuba from Mexico, Spain, Norway and Colombia.

Diplomatic Meeting

 Diplomats of the two countries will hold talks in Havana’s Convention Palace on January 21 and 22, 2015.

  1. Migration Issues

Under the countries’ Migration Accords of 1995, they have migration talks every six months, and this will be the focus of the first day’s session. They will assess progress under this Accord and other agreements and actions taken by both parties to tackle illegal migration and trafficking in migrants. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba. The Cuban delegation will be led by the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro.

Alex Smith
Alex Smith
Josefina Vidal
Josefina Vidal
Roberta Jacobson
Roberta Jacobson

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Restoration of Diplomatic Relations

The January 22 session will be devoted to the process of restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, including opening of embassies. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, while Josefina Vidal Ferreiro again will be in charge of the Cuban delegation.

Jacobson has said that this “process of restoring diplomatic relations is relatively straightforward from a legal perspective, but the parties have to agree on the process for such restoration. This can be done via an exchange of letters or of notes; it does not require a formal treaty or agreement. The U.S. also will need to terminate its 53-year agreement with the Swiss Government as our protecting power [in Cuba], and the same for the Cubans [in the U.S.]; that will be done as soon as possible, whereupon the U.S. would post a new sign “Embassy of the United States of America” on the building currently housing its mission.[7] A list of all of the U.S. diplomatic officers would be declared directly to the Cuban Government.

U.S. Interests Section
U.S. Interests Section

What the current U.S. Interests Section does, and what the Embassy will do, Jacobson said, “is critically important for Americans and Cubans alike. It includes providing uncensored internet access for many people who visit those internet terminals and processing requests for visas for thousands of Cubans every year (nonimmigrant visas for many thousands and immigrant visas for 20,000 Cubans a year). U.S. diplomats also check on whether people who are returned to Cuba under our migration accords are harassed by the Cuban government.

Having led the migration talks in 2011, when Jacobson was the principal deputy assistant secretary, she said human rights are always part of the migration-talks agenda and will be again. One issue is whether Cuba is harassing people who apply for refugee status at our Interests Section. Another issue is how people are treated when they return to Cuba after they’ve attempted to leave. We often will talk about freedom to leave Cuba; that is different since Cuba now permits most of its citizens to leave without exit visas.

Conclusion

I expect and pray that these meetings will advance the further reconciliation of the two countries. We await the reported results of the meetings.

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[1] On December 17, 2014 Senator Leahy was on the U.S. plane that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. Afterwards, the Senator said, “By taking further steps to change a policy that is a relic of the Cold War, that has achieved none of its goals, and that has isolated the United States, President [Obama] has wisely charted a new course that serves our national interests in this hemisphere and the world.  Our policies, frozen in time, have disserved the nation and have failed utterly and abysmally in achieving their original goals.” On January 8, 2015, Senator Leahy and seven other senators offered a Senate resolution commending Pope Francis for his leadership in helping to secure the release of Alan Gross and for working with the governments of the [U.S.] and Cuba to achieve a more positive relationship.

[2] On December 17, 2014, Senator Durbin also was on the U.S. plant that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. His subsequent statement expressed support for President Obama’s moves towards reconciliation with Cuba. Senator Durbin was a co-sponsor of the previously mentioned Senate resolution commending Pope Francis.

[3] On December 17th Senator Stabenow announced her support of President Obama’s changes of policies regarding Cuba.

[4] On December 17th Senator Whitehouse issued a statement applauding the changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba.

[5] On December 17th Congressman Van Hollen also was on the U.S. plane bringing Alan Gross home and gave thanks for his release and for the “vision of a new day in the relationship between the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

[6] Representative Welch on December 17th applauded President Obama’s “bold leadership” and the “new era of openness and cooperation” with Cuba.

[7] The U.S. building, which was completed in 1953, was designed in the Modernist-Brutalist style by the architectural firm of Harrison & Abramovitz, which also designed the United Nations headquarters building in New York City. The former is a long, six-story concrete and glass building located directly on the Malecon overlooking the Bay of Havana. The building was not used by U.S. personnel between 1961 and 1977. U.S. diplomats returned to Havana in 1977, and the building was transformed into the United States Interests Section in Havana. Renovations were subsequently completed on the complex in 1997.