Jason I. Poblete

To Combat Human Trafficking by Cuba, Start by Restricting “Humanitarian-based” Trade with the Socialist Gulag

After a presentation this past Thursday hosted by the Victims of Communism Foundation about holding human rights abusers to account in Communist Cuba, I received several questions from participants who knew me. One person wants me to clarify a comment I made during the webinar about restricting humanitarian-based trade. I could not answer the question because we ran out of time, so I’m sharing in this post what I would’ve said. As soon as the video is available, I will embed it at the end of this post.

The term “humanitarian-based trade” is kind of a misnomer used, mostly, by opponents of economic sanctions. Proponents of food and medical exports to sanctioned countries argue it helps ease the effect of sanctions on civilian populations. I disagree. In my experience advising companies on economic sanctions and related compliance matters, the target country causes suffering in civilian populations, not the sanctions. Case by case review is best.

Views of the author.

In the 1990s, right around the end of the Cold War, the United States eased the bite of the long-standing embargo on Cuba with the enactment of two laws: the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996. The embargo-easing happened again in the early 2000s with the Trade Sanctions Reform Act. Then, dramatically, during the Obama administration, opponents of the Cuban embargo gave the regime many victories, albeit Pyrrhic and, thankfully, short-lived.

While most of the embargo remains intact, in practice, it is mostly an embargo in name only. While it still has teeth, enforcement by Republicans and Democrat policymakers over the years has eviscerated its effectiveness as a foreign policy tool. A mishmash of laws, regulations, diplomatic activities, and unclear policies have made frustrated policy goals, weakened U.S. security, and led to problems in other parts of the Americas, such as the disaster that is Venezuela or Nicaragua today.

President Donald Trump deserves a lot of credit for trying to change close to two decades of U.S. policy negligence toward Cuba and the Americas. The President’s national security policy directive instructed the administration to pursue U.S. national and security interests first and, most important, enforce the laws on the books to reach those goals. Yet his vision has been frustrated by a powerful pro-Cuba lobby that hs embedded itself in this town in and out of government.

I might dive deeper into what this means in another post. It will take several posts to make sense of this policy and political bramble, one that includes Venezuela and Nicaragua – policy conundrums best resolved by focusing U.S. efforts on Havana, not Caracas or Managua. For this post, I’m just honing in how the United States can better combat human trafficking in the Western Hemisphere, starting with Cuba.

As part of its reorientation of U.S. policy toward the Americas, in particular Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the administration has singled out many malign activities Cuba uses to undermine American national interests. We have not done this in decades, and Cuba, a client-state of Russia is feeling the pressure. Cuba’s long-standing and close relations with China or Iran are concerning. Illegal drug smuggling, illicit financing, and even terrorism too. Then there is the subject we focused on during the Victims of Communism webinar, human trafficking.

Cuba’s healthcare miracle is really a healthcare hoax used to deflect from the abysmal state of Cuban healthcare. If anything, the Cuban healthcare system should be propped up as the poster child for what happens to all government-controlled health care systems. It is an unmitigated disaster that rations healthcare for all and provides better services to cash-paying tourists. It is also a system that trafficks in its people, modern-day slavery, with its foreign medical mission programs.

As part of its foreign policy, Cuba has exported medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, or dentists to practice medicine in socialist or socialist-leaning nations. The program started in the 1960s and was supported economically by the Soviet Union; today it is mostly self-sustaining, funded by slave labor contracts inked between Cuban state-owned enterprises and foreign government agencies, usually the ministry of health.

Approximately 80% to 90% of the contract value is pocketed by the Cuban regime and the middlemen who put the deals together. The Cuban medical professional receives what the system calls a “stipend,” and the balances owed are supposedly held in trust and given to them when they return from the foreign mission. Cuban medical professionals who have defected tell a different story. If you would like to read additional information about Cuban medical brigades, visit the Cuba Salud website.

Besides practicing medicine, Cuban medical professionals must do as their told by their Communist Party minder. Similar to the neighborhood snitch every Cuban must deal with growing up in Cuba, every medical brigade has a boss, usually not a doctor, likely intelligence officer that ensures the success of the mission. You see, once a person tastes freedom outside of Cuba, no matter how slight, the risk of defection increases. Total control is the norm, just like back in the Caribbean gulag.

For example, the minder usually confiscates passports. Your social life, including where you eat and who you date, must be reported and, in some cases, pre-approved. If medical professionals refuse to preach the virtues of socialism to patients, you’re failing in your duties to the state. Your pay is docked if you misbehave or resist orders, they are threatened with expulsion from not only the program but from returning to Cuba for at least 8 years. Family members back in Cuba are reportedly used as emotional leverage and keep the medical professional compliant.

The United States is a global leader combatting human trafficking, and we have many tools, laws, and regulations to help advance the policy to put an end to the many forms of slavery. Cuba’s trafficking in Cuban medical professionals is slavery, and we can do more to help make it harder for the regime to traffic in persons. Also, we will make it harder for Cuba to engage in trafficking in persons or collect intelligence on these missions Cuba will sell to its masters in Moscow or Beijing. In conjunction with other measures, ending slave-based medical brigades in the Americas will help advance U.S. national and security interests too.

Besides exposing this malign activity, the United States should pressure all nations who sign contracts for Cuban medical workers to cancel the agreements and not sign new contracts. The overtures should be diplomatic, at first; however, if our trade partners refuse to cancel or not sign Cuban medical worker agreements, we should deploy countermeasures, including economic sanctions, restriction of exports under the Arms Export Control Act, or not granting waivers for debt forgiveness. The private sector should also play its role to combat trafficking of Cuban medical workers.

For decades the United States has allowed export of food, medicine, and medical equipment to Cuba under a very generous exception to the embargo. Moving forward, all exports to Cuba made under the Trade Sanctions Reform Act (TSRA) program should require exports to certify that they have verified that food, medicine, and medical equipment sold to Cuba will not be used to support, directly or indirectly, Cuban medical missions. The TSRA program, if properly used with respect to Cuba, is supposed to put food and medicine in Cuban homes, not in medical brigades.

Finally, the Trump administration should also impose a ban on all transactions with any Cuban state-owned enterprise that supports, directly or indirectly, Cuban medical missions. If I were writing the regulations or guidance “support” should include a wide range of activities or transactions. On-site verification of the end-user should also be a requirement to TSRA and related exports to Cuba. If the Cubans balk, too bad. Access to the U.S. market and our products is a privilege, not a right. Here is a partial list of Cuban state-owned enterprises that should be sanctioned by the United States:

  1. Empresa de Suministros Médicos (EMSUME)
  2. MEDICuba S.A.
  3. Comercializadora de Servicios Médicos Cubanos, S.A. (SMC)
  4. Grupo Empresarial de Atención a la Salud Pública (GEASP)

Any person subject to U.S. law must comply with new trade restrictions, including Canadian and European companies that do business with Cuba. Our allies should be urged to implement similar laws and regulations and, if they refuse to do so, recalibrate our relationship with our allies and adversaries as the circumstances and other equities require in order to make that policy work.

Cuba is 90 miles from the United States, yet 4,600 from England and more than 7,000 from Paris. Our NATO allies can and must do more to help the United States with Cuba policy, and considering how much trouble they make for us on Iran policy these days, now more than ever! Canada and Mexico, too, by the way. The Americas should lead by example, and combatting human trafficking by Cuba provides common ground to make it so.

Making it harder for Cuba to spread socialism with its medical brigade program by restricting good, medicine, and medical equipment exports to Cuba is a minor adjustment to U.S. policy. It is consistent with current laws and regulations on the books on Cuba, trafficking in persons, and President Trump’s policy directives on Cuba and Latin America.

Cuba is a small market, so the restrictions on trade will have minimal if any, adverse impacts on U.S. companies doing business in the region. Besides, Cuba rarely buys from American companies, and when they do it is a high-risk proposition that rarely, if ever, results in reliable long-term business.

Socialist Cuba prefers to buy cheap Chinese goods, ironically, products manufactured in the slave-based manufacturing economy of Communist China. Cuba also opts to work with the Europeans as Cuba requests and routinely receives support from Canadian and European-based businesses in exchange for anti-U.S. policy rhetoric that policymakers from those nations are eager to use when negotiating trade and other deals with the United States.

In his UN General Assembly speech last year, President Trump said, “[t]he future does not belong to globalists.  The future belongs to patriots.  The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.” Making these small adjustments to U.S. policies, laws, and regulations would help advance the Trump administration’s efforts to realign the global order right here in our hemisphere too.

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