WASHINGTON (CN) - As President Barack Obama concluded a historic visit to Cuba Tuesday, House lawmakers accused the administration of manipulating a State Department report on human trafficking to further efforts at normalizing relations with the island nation.
At a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights Tuesday, Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, said the State Department "manipulated and falsified" the rankings of China, Cuba, Malaysia and other countries in last year's "Trafficking in Persons Report," apparently to further the administration's political goals.
The report every year divides nations across the world into four tiers based on their efforts to fight human trafficking within their borders. Those in tier one fully comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking as laid out in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), with each successive tier indicating a weaker commitment.
Smith, who sponsored TVPA, suggested Cuba, China and 12 other nations belonged in tier three, the lowest tier, for their records on human trafficking and slavery, but were saved in last year's report by the administration for purely political reasons.
Instead, they were put in the less severe tier-two watch list. The Trafficking in Persons Report placed Cuba in tier three in 2014, along with nations like Iran, North Korea and Libya, but moved the it to the tier-two watch list last year.
Smith called this is a political move that ignores Cuba's poor record on combating human trafficking.
"And yet President Obama is there today, hobnobbing with the very people who are kept in power by the profits of slave labor," Smith said. "The very people who do not have a law against labor trafficking, because of course it doesn't exist. The very people whose hotels are filled with sex tourists who came to Cuba specifically to sexually exploit minors."
A panel of anti-human trafficking advocates and experts suggested Cuba doesn't just have a poor record on combating trafficking, but actively endorses and aids it.
This promotion confuses Mark Lagon, president of human rights organization Freedom House, who said Cuba "hasn't made much progress whatsoever" in battling trafficking rampant within its borders.
Lagon, who ran the office that produces the report between 2007 and 2009, said Cuba still maintains a "raucous" sex trade and has done nothing to improve the rights and conditions of workers there.
Not only has the Cuban government not cracked down on child prostitution and sex tourism, it has actively promoted the practices in order to buoy its tourism industry, Lagon said.
"It's one thing when there are so-called johns let off the hook while those who are in prostitution or are trafficked are punished, but when a state is involved in a proactive policy to encourage people to travel and treat women as commodities, it is a hazard zone for trafficking," Lagon said.
In denouncing Cuba's new ranking, Free Society Project president Maria Werlau told stories of Cuban teachers complicit in the pandering of 16-year-old girls and of the government selling donated blood for profit.
"Contrary to fighting human trafficking, the Cuban government is itself likely one of the largest and most profitable traffickers in the world," Werlau told the committee.
The panel and Smith, who was alone on the dais for much of the hearing, also criticized the State Department's ranking of China alongside Cuba on the tier-two watch list.
Lagon cited China's lack of protections for workers and its habit of returning North Korean refugees to the country they fled as examples of its weak record on human rights.
Jinhye Jo, who fled North Korea 18 years ago, told stories Tuesday of women sold into sex slavery after crossing the border into China. Others who were caught in China were sent back to North Korea, where they were imprisoned or put into forced labor camps.
"It is not befitting of a country that claims to be a great power to murder people and aid and abet in the appalling crime of trafficking women," Jo said in a written statement. "The People's Republic of China must fully recognize its past wrongdoings. It must recognize North Korean refugees, who have been deprived of their freedom, as refugees."
Smith said after the hearing the State Department has not given him a good reason for keeping nations like China and Cuba out of the ignominious tier three, though he said there is a common link between all of them and their questionable rankings.
"Every one of these issues where there was an artificial upgrade has a political story to it," Smith said.
While he would not be opposed to changing the rankings for nations that earn them, Smith said the report can have a real impact on international behavior. As an example, he credited Serbia's decision to shut down its brothels with its desire to get out of the third tier and escape the sanctions that come with the ranking.
"The trafficking rankings should not be used as cheap chits and sweeteners that can be compromised in the hope of bringing about better governmental relations with Cuba or any other nation," Smith said during opening statements at the hearing.
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