President Bush vowed Friday to crack down at home and abroad on human trafficking, calling it “one of the worst offenses against human dignity,” and accused Cuban President Fidel Castro of encouraging the growth of sex tourism in the island nation.
Speaking at a conference of law enforcement officials sponsored by the Department of Justice, Bush quoted the Cuban leader as bragging that “Cuba has the cleanest and most-educated prostitutes in the world.”
White House staff acknowledged later that the quote attributed to Castro came from a research paper posted on a University of Texas website that indicated the Cuban leader made the comment in the early 1990s. Aides could not provide independent verification that Castro had said it.
A database search did not turn up a quote identical to Bush’s citation. However, Castro apparently has said that although prostitution is outlawed in Cuba, its prostitutes are healthy, educated and do it without coercion.
“There are hookers, but prostitution is not allowed in our country,” Castro said in July 1992, according to a translation of the speech by the British Broadcasting Corp.
“There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist. Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily and without any need for it. We can say that they are highly educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country with the lowest number of AIDS cases. ... Therefore, there is truly no tourism healthier than Cuba’s.”
Bush, in his remarks, said, “The trade in human beings brings suffering to the innocent and shame to our country and we will lead the fight against it.
“My administration is working toward a comprehensive solution of this problem: The rapid, peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. We have put a strategy in place to hasten the day when no Cuban child is exploited to finance a failed revolution and every Cuban citizen will live in freedom.”
Experts say the U.S. legal system has often penalized the victims of trafficking by prosecuting them as illegal immigrants or prostitutes. A new body of law and practice aims to shift the focus to prosecuting the traffickers and rescuing their victims, who are now eligible for refugee status if they cooperate with prosecutors.
The Tampa conference was the first of a series designed to train local law enforcement officials to recognize the difference between illegal immigration and human trafficking, and the difference between prostitution and sexual enslavement.
The State Department estimates that as many as 17,500 adults and children are trafficked across U.S. borders each year.
Staff writers Kathleen Hennessey in Washington and Maria La Ganga in San Francisco contributed to this report.