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Mon., June 23, 2008

Get tough on human trafficking

Cuban officials have issued a predictable condemnation of the latest U.S. Department of State report on human trafficking. The annual assessment ( 105501.pdf) provides Washington’s view on how nations measure up in dealing with 21st-century slavery – a continuing global tragedy.

According to the report, Cuba earned a miserable rating, ranking among the countries that fall woefully short of adequate practices. Is that any reason for Havana to dismiss the study as valueless? Or to make the sarcastic recommendation that the United States pay more attention to what is happening within American borders, where, it said, “sexual exploitation, forced labor and the trafficking of people” are rampant?

No, and no.

If Havana had a sterling human-rights record, it would stand a better chance of deflecting the charges of poor diligence against human trafficking. Unfortunately, it does not. International human-rights organizations routinely and justifiably point fingers at the Cuban government for severely restricting freedom of expression, association and movement, along with other violations.

Thus, when one reads in the report that women and children are being trafficked within Cuba for commercial sexual exploitation and that there are indications of forced labor, questions arise. And when one learns that evaluating the extent of that behavior is complicated by sparse non-governmental or independent reporting, the questions multiply.

Quite frankly, the burden falls on the Cuban government to provide answers, as well as the greater transparency that would enable people to make their own judgments. It is not enough for Havana to reject the report’s conclusions; that stance simply increases suspicion.

Furthermore, no country is immune to modern slavery, including the United States, and all could do more to combat it. Although the report does not include a U.S. ranking, it openly acknowledges that slavery happens here. In fact, one of the early anecdotes on page 6 focuses on a young man who was trafficked from Mexico to California.

Overall, the report offers a useful, up-to-date summary of the global scope of human trafficking in its various forms. It deserves consideration, along with other assessments – both public and private – that are widely available.

In addition to reviewing the document, I recently had a chance to discuss its findings with Ambassador Mark Lagon, who directs the State Department office monitoring human trafficking. Lagon appeared encouraged by the fact that knowledge is deepening about modern slavery and that more people understand the issue.

I then asked the question that readers typically pose in response to my human-trafficking columns: What can we do to help?

Lagon suggested that they remain alert in routine situations to people who may be in forced servitude, and make use of a toll-free hotline for trafficking information and referrals: (888) 373-7888.

He also recommended seeking out organizations that fight trafficking. Examples included the International Justice Mission ( and Hagar International ( To those, I would add the American Anti-Slavery Group (; Anti-Slavery International (; the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (; and Free the Slaves (

As for Cuba, an open conversation about its human-trafficking challenge, followed by an expanded effort to suppress the problem, would say much more than a string of unconvincing protests and denials.

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