It’s not that Cuba is more or less susceptible to it but the island, like anywhere in the world, is not immune either. And so it's everyone's job to be aware.
child trafficking

Human Trafficking is a human tragedy that impacts ciudades and pueblos and even islas around the world, with an estimated 45 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. And when the entire world shut down due to Covid, trafficking continued to thrive. 

The $150 billion dollar human trafficking industry is currently ranked as the #1 illicit industry, beating out both arms and drug trafficking (I had no idea either!). Unfortunately, even an island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, like Cuba, isn’t immune to the global pandemic of trafficking. –

The root causes of trafficking are the same across the map, whether we are looking at Canada, Colombia or Cuba. Where there is systemic racism, income inequality, ‘machismo’ culture, and other discriminatory practices, there’s bound to be men, women and children who find themselves in the clutches of exploitation and trafficking.  

And let us not forget Cuban citizens trafficked abroad from the U.S…

A future filled with real opportunity is enough to make even a street-smart island boy believe the dream traffickers are notoriously talented at peddling. It’s the idea that a ‘better life’ could exist that dazzles the mind, traffickers know this and take advantage of this desperation. 

Human Trafficking in Cuba’s history

Human Trafficking in Cuba according to the 2021 US Trafficking In Person Report, issued annually by the US State Department, has Cuba ranked amongst countries that are failing to actively implement new policies, practices and preventative measures to fight trafficking. 

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The UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, Maria Grazia Giammarinaro stressed, “The focus of Cuba’s anti-trafficking action so far has been sexual exploitation. However, recent developments which have created new opportunities for individual initiatives in the tourist sector require vigilance to stamp out any cases of labor exploitation; the use of foreign workers in the construction industry should also be monitored” 

human trafficking in cuba
Source: Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline

The COVID-19 pandemic has only further increased the number of Cuban paisanos, abroad and at home, who are at risk of being tricked and coerced. With traffickers, recruiters and pimps taking advantage of the global crisis to further hide sinister plots and plans, more paisanos are in desperate situations.

Victims have been forced into deeper isolation due to stay-at-home orders, lock-downs and limited travel options.

A pre-Covid landscape saw governments allocating funds and attention towards emergency services for identified trafficking victims, social service programs were being offered and even restitution to trafficking survivors was happening.

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That landscape and focus has sadly pivoted due to Covid. Cuba, similar to most countries, has been forced to divert funding away from the anti-trafficking space and the victims it serves. This only further perpetuates the cycle of exploitation while erasing the availability Cubans have to emergency support and care at home and abroad.

The Impact of COVID-19

Cuba is a source, destination and supply country for men, women and children subjected to sex-trafficking and forced labor. Unfortunately for marginalized and vulnerable communities, a pandemic makes an already bad situation worse. Where there was an obstacle, now there are two, three and four.

Here’s a list of common trafficking scenarios a Cuban at home and/or abroad could find themselves in. Keep your eyes open for any red flags like these 🚩🚩:

He/She/They/El/Ella/Elle…

  • 🚩 is denied access to their salary and/or forced to pay off a recruiter or travel “fee”/debt;
  • 🚩 is left without access to their passport, government ID, documents;
  • 🚩 is exposed to workplace harassment, including physical and sexual abuse; 
  • 🚩 faces intrusive surveillance that prevents them from freely coming and going;
  • 🚩 is not able to freely come and go from their place of employment;
  • 🚩 is forced and/or coerced against their will into commercial sex-work, pornography, live chats with customers, etc;
  • 🚩 is forced to work long hours without pay, rest, bathroom breaks, etc.;
  • 🚩 is not provided with a copy of their employment contract  or terms of employment.

Now, add a global pandemic to any one of these delicate red flags (🚩!), and the situation is made considerably worse for the victim. During the height of the Covid pandemic, Cuba reduced the island’s internal transportation services. Limiting bus services, flights, and ferries placed potential victims in even deeper danger.  Even the smallest of obstacles is enough to deter a person trying to flee a dangerous situation. 

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With airports and transportation in Cuba now back up and operating, there’s now a new obstacle course victims must run through. The gauntlet now includes new laws mandating proof of vaccination, health declaration certificates, travel restrictions depending on the country, 

My aim for this article was that you look out for your fellow paisano and know the necessary steps to take action.

“If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic,” stated acting Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Kari Johnstone. 

Data of Human Trafficking in Cuba With COVID-19

At the time of this writing, , Cuba had reported over 960,000 Covid cases and 8,295 deaths. Trafficked persons, often hidden and out of sight, rarely get included in these glossy public reports and figures. And let us not forget Cuban citizens trafficked abroad from the U.S all the way to Uruguay. 

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In 2020, at the height of the global pandemic, Operation Ocean was underway in Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo. (That’s over 7,000 kilometers – 4,361 miles-  from Havana!). The operation identified and delivered eight women to safety, including Cuban women who were being trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. 

Measures Against Human Trafficking in Cuba

As countries, including Cuba, start re-opening borders and government services, we are certain to see a surge in new trafficking cases both in Cuba and amongst Cubans living abroad. Victims have been forced into deeper isolation due to stay-at-home orders, lock-downs and limited travel options. 

human trafficking in cuba
Human trafficking is everywhere and often it is in plain sight. File photo: David Rotbard

School-age children in Cuba, and around the world, remain at high risk as schools continue operating online. It’s not just teachers who are online more, traffickers, groomers and recruiters have infiltrated this space hoping to hook and trick our jovenes. Platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and others are sanctuaries for potential danger!  l

The intersectionality between Covid and trafficking may seem like a stretch, unfortunately it only further perpetuates the imbalance of opportunity and deception. This global pandemic has impacted the most vulnerable and derailed desperate dreams of Cubanos around the world. 

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If you are located in the US and believe you might have information about a trafficking situation here, in Cuba or abroad, you can follow these steps for assistance:

  • Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free hotline at 1-888-373-7888: Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocates are available 24/7 to take reports of potential human trafficking. 
  • Text the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 233733. Message and data rates may apply.
  • Chat online with a hotline advocate via the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
  • Submit a tip online through the anonymous online reporting form. However, please note that if the situation is urgent or occurred within the last 24 hours we would encourage you to call, text or chat.

The information you provide will be reviewed by the Trafficking Hotline. All reports are confidential and you may remain anonymous. Interpreters are available via phone call only.

As travel and tourism start to pick up speed again in 2022, so too will sex-tourism to Cuba, so too will recruiters peddling fraudulent papers to work abroad, and so too will trusting smugglers turn into pimps. My aim for this article was that you look out for your fellow paisano and know the necessary steps to take action. Sadly, it’s no longer if you will meet someone who is a victim of trafficking but when. 

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Alezandra Russell is an award-winning activist, author and founder of Urban Light, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering the lives of #Boys affected by human trafficking. Since opening its doors in 2009, the organization has provided emergency services to over 9,000 vulnerable young men and Boys. Urban Light remains one of the only organizations in the world working specifically on behalf of Boys who are overlooked, forgotten, and ignored in the global discussion of trafficking and exploitation. Russell, who was forced to flee Thailand in June 2018 as a result of her work, continues to advocate across the globe for the safety of trafficking survivors, migrants, refugees and marginalized populations.

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