Post #7 – Sex trafficking in Cuba

The crime of trafficking in human beings as defined by the Palermo protocols is as follows:
“’Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs… The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth [above] shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth [above] have been used.”


This is a far reaching topic, with many moving parts.   In my research to find out if sex trafficking and sex slavery are an issue in Central America and the Caribbean, and specifically Cuba, I found that the more I researched, the more depressed and enraged I became.  Sex trafficking is an extremely pervasive issue in Central America and the Caribbean and one of the worst places for this issue is Cuba.  There are many layers to the issue, and even if we were to get to the root cause and fix it, new issues arise from that.  I intend to discuss Cuba’s participation in the human trafficking industry, specifically their issues with sex trafficking.

As the article Born Free – How to Prevent Human Trafficking, by Sarah E. Mendelson discusses, human trafficking is a major issue in many parts of the world, affecting millions of people, but an issue that is consistently given too little attention due to all of the other issues constantly barraging individuals.  The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that allocate donor funds have excluded human trafficking for many years, until their end in 2015.  The Sustainable Development Goals and the Open Document that comes from the negotiations around those goals that the international community are now focusing on coming to a consensus on include language to address human trafficking.  This should in turn mean more attention from donors and organizations that will in turn combat this very large issue.

The Outcome Document expresses the interest to end trafficking in Goal 5 – “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, they address ending trafficking of women and girls.  In Goal 8 – “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”, they address ending trafficking of children and child soldiers.  In Goal 16 – “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”, they also address ending trafficking of children.  In order to combat human trafficking, specifically sex slavery, Mendelson’s article suggests that ending slavery should be a stand-alone goal, but that as long as it is being mentioned it should bring some attention, and therefore donors, to the issue.  The article also mentions that targets, metrics and a way to measure progress will be necessary.


The reason sex trafficking and prostitution (including child prostitution) in particular is so prevalent in Cuba is in part due to the US embargo’s effect on Cuba and the dual currency system, both discussed in previous posts.  Cuba’s immense economic issues tie to the low quality of life in Cuba.  In 1998, Cuba’s GDP was a mere $1,560. Because of Cuba’s low GDP, Cuban prostitution “is characterized by women in professional and vocational careers who are unable to meet basic living costs from their local current salary,” according to the United Nations.  The down economy means very low wages for the government workers – most of the country.  Some make as low as the equivalent of $8 a month to work at a school as a secretary, so it is no surprise that they have had to turn to other ways to make money.  On the other hand, if the embargo is lifted, how will these people make that money?  If they reduce tourism or limit access during visits, the country loses money.  It is a difficult situation.

In addition to the need to make more money somehow, sex trafficking and prostitution are unfortunately quite lucrative.  Prostitutes can make $40-$70 a night on average from European tourists visiting the island.  Also, to combat Cuba’s economy issues, they have tried to stimulate their economy with tourism, which in turn means more opportunity for income from prostitution and sex trafficking.  According to George Walden in an article in the Miami Herald, “The truth in Cuba is that sex is the only economy left.”  Despite Cuba having laws against sex trafficking and prostitution of girls 16 and under, it does not have laws for those 16-17 as recommended by the US Department of State and often does not work to enforce these laws.


Each year, the US Department of State releases their Trafficking in Persons Report.  Cuba was considered the worst offender in 2014, and was considered in Tier 3 – the lowest tier – reserved for “Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”  The report also states: “Cuba is a source and destination country for adults and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Child sex trafficking and child sex tourism occur within Cuba. Cuban authorities report people from ages 13 to 20 are most vulnerable to human trafficking in the country. Traffickers also subject Cuban citizens to sex trafficking and forced labor in South America and the Caribbean.”


Yet, now that relations are being negotiated and improved between the US and Cuba, the 2016 report has gone against experts advice and upgraded Cuba to Tier 2 Watch List status – which is for “Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards AND: 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”.

This has been very controversial, as many, including Mark Lagon, president of human rights organization Freedom House, believe the US is “fudging” the numbers and information in order to appease Castro during this normalization of relations between the countries, and he maintains that Cuba has done nothing to fix the issues, and in fact many are going to far as to say that Cuba actively promotes sex trafficking and prostitution in order to gain more tourism money.  As you can see, this is a problem that has not yet been solved in Cuba and it does not appear it will be disappearing in the very near future without a much more fervent push for enforcement of the laws against trafficking and prostitution.


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