A U.S. Federal Court rejected a motion on Wednesday by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Cuban former slave doctors who accuse the U.N. body of helping the communist regime traffic them.
Experts believe Cuba makes about $11 billion a year selling doctors and other health workers to allied nations, according to the Wall Street Journal. Cuba cuts deals with these nations, most of them developing countries with socialist governments, in which it sends its medical experts and receives millions of dollars. The doctors do not receive salaries directly; the Cuban communist regime is supposed to pay them from the money they receive from the host nations. Defecting doctors have consistently reported that they receive a barely-livable stipend and that much of their work is not medical, but ideological: pressuring locals to support the governments hosting them.
Cuba signed an agreement with Brazil under the tenure of socialist ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for a program dubbed “Mais Médicos” (“more doctors”) to send Cuban slave doctors to work in Brazil’s most destitute areas between 2013 and 2018. PAHO, a subsidiary of the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), was a formal participant in signing the agreement, which granted Lula sweeping powers to handle the provisions of the deal without running afoul of human rights sanctions on Cuba or needing permission from the Brazilian Congress, as a deal with Cuba directly would constitute a treaty.
Lawyers representing the doctors say that PAHO made as much as $75 million for co-signing the Mais Médicos deal, money that should have gone to the doctors doing the work on the ground.
A group of Cuban doctors that defected from the program and similar ones throughout Latin America are suing PAHO in U.S. federal court for participating in human trafficking. Specifically, they are suing PAHO under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law typically used against organized crime syndicates, drug trafficking rings, and terrorist groups.
PAHO moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it is an international organization and thus enjoys prosecutorial immunity in the United States, but the federal court cited a recent Supreme Court ruling that acknowledged limitations of such immunity that are applicable in this case.
“U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg ruled that the complaint sufficiently shows PAHO’s actions as the financial intermediary between Cuba and Brazil were commercial in nature, denying PAHO of immunity and making it subject to the federal court’s jurisdiction,” the Cuban Doctors Human Rights Litigation team, which represents the plaintiff doctors, said in a press release published Wednesday. “The decision was in response to PAHO’s motion to dismiss, arguing that it is immune from the suit.”
One of the doctors filing the suit, Dr. Ramona Matos, celebrated the court’s permission for the lawsuit to proceed on Wednesday.
“What we experienced in Brazil was forced labor — plain and simple. On behalf of Cuban doctors who have defected around the world, we’re pleased with the court’s decision to allow this case to be heard,” Matos said. “We will not give up.”
Prior to the lawsuit, Matos — alongside fellow doctors Tatiana Carballo, Russela Rivery, and Fidel Cruz — testified regarding her experiences as a Cuban slave doctor at an event hosted by the U.S. State Department last year. Matos, who also served as a doctor in Bolivia under leftist Castro ally Evo Morales, said the socialist governments forced her to destroy medicine and falsify documentation; the destroyed medicine was officially claimed to have been given to patients who did not exist.
“On a daily basis, you had to write on a piece of paper fake names, fake dates of birth, fake medical conditions, for patients we never saw,” she explained. “These were statistics the agents following and controlling us forced us to write. If we didn’t write that down, we had to go back to Cuba without our salary and we’d lose the money frozen in our accounts.”
“Since we weren’t seeing any real patients, medication wise, we had to correlate the medication prescriptions to these patients who didn’t exist, so we had to destroy medicine to keep up,” she added.
At the same event, Carballo asserted that Cuban Communist Party agents told the doctors that they did not have any legal personhood.
“They tell us often in Cuba that education is free, therefore we are their property,” Carballo said. “From the moment we graduate, we receive very, very low salaries, then begin medical missions abroad.”
Carballo served in Venezuela, Belize, and Brazil, and said that officials deprived her of her passport and anything else she could use to prove her identity.
“We were working in Bolivia undocumented; we had no document with our name on it, no passport, no piece of paper with our name on it,” she said. “If something happened to us, if someone abducted us, if we died, nobody would know who the person was who died or disappeared.”
The Organization of American States (OAS) affirmed last year that the evidence suggested that Cuba was participating in “human trafficking” in selling its doctors. The legal difference between human trafficking and slavery is that slaves do not have legal rights as persons; they do not exist as people in government registers. People who endure human trafficking may still have birth certificates, identification numbers, and proof of legal existence as people. Carballo’s testimony suggests that Cuba’s practices go beyond human trafficking.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has described the slave doctor trade as “slavery.” Bolsonaro, a conservative, demanded that Cuba pay its doctors the salaries they are entitled to under Mais Médicos as one of his first acts in office last year. In response, rather than pay the doctors, Cuba canceled the program entirely. Bolsonaro offered political asylum to any doctor who wished to stay.
Doctors who defect are banned from entering Cuba for at least eight years. As Havana typically denies doctors the right to travel with their families, this often means that the doctors cannot see their parents, children, or other close family members, missing family milestone events.
Bolsonaro accused the United Nations of participating in “slave labor” at the U.N. General Assembly in 2019, citing PAHO’s role in Mais Médicos.
Two Cuban-American senators, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), introduced legislation in September urging the government to investigate PAHO for its role in enabling slave labor.
The Combating Trafficking of Cuban Doctors Act of 2020, if passed, would require a full investigation into PAHO and annual reports from the State Department certifying if Cuba is engaging in “state-sponsored human trafficking.”