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Federal judge green-lights Cuban doctors' human-trafficking lawsuit against health group

The Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization building in Washington on March 16, 2020.

CAROLINE BREHMAN/CQ-ROLL CALL, INC/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By NORA GAMEZ TORRES | El Nuevo Herald | Published: November 14, 2020

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — A federal judge has ruled that a human-trafficking lawsuit against the Pan American Health Organization filed by Cuban doctors who worked in Brazil can continue.

While the Cuban government carries out an intense propaganda campaign to defend its "medical missions" abroad, the judge gave the green light to a lawsuit filed by several Cuban doctors who accuse the Pan American Health Organization of benefiting from a forced labor scheme in Brazil.

U.S. District of Columbia Judge James Boasberg denied PAHO's motion to dismiss the lawsuit this week. He ruled that the organization could not claim immunity and that U.S. courts have jurisdiction on the case because of the commercial nature of the group's role as an intermediary between the governments of Cuba and Brazil to bring Cuban specialists to that country.

The lawsuit, filed by several Cuban doctors who left the program known as Mais Medicos and who now live in the United States, claims that PAHO "benefited from the forced labor and trafficking of more than 10,000 doctors and health professionals in Brazil from 2013 to the present." In particular, the doctors say, PAHO acted as a financial intermediary using its CitiBank account in Washington. The international organization supposedly transferred about $1.3 billion paid by Brazil to Cuba's government and pocketed $75 million.

The Cuban doctors said they only received $1,000 of the $10,000 paid monthly to Cuba by the Brazilian government for their services. Of that amount, PAHO deposited $600 in frozen bank accounts on the island, with the promise the doctors would get the money if they completed their official missions and returned to the island.

"Allowing this case to move forward is a win for all Cuban doctors who were forced to participate in the Cuban government's medical missions program around the world," said the doctors' lead attorney, Sam Dubbin, in a statement. The decision, he added, "exposes Cuban doctors' treatment as forced labor and will allow the doctors to hold PAHO accountable for its key financial role in Brazil."

PAHO spokeswoman Ashley Baldwin said the organization would not comment on issues under litigation. In the past, PAHO has denied receiving compensation for its role as an intermediary in the Mais Medicos program.

Cuban doctors also claim that once in Brazil, Cuban government agents, some hired as PAHO advisers, withheld their passports, controlled their movements and prevented them from reuniting with their family members in Brazil. Cuban government regulations punish doctors who leave official missions, banning them from returning to Cuba for eight years.

Mais Medicos was a popular program created by the government of then-President Dilma Rousseff to hire Cuban doctors to offer services in Brazil's remote areas. Cuba withdrew from the program after President Jair Bolsonaro demanded that the island's government pay the doctors' salaries in full.

The Trump administration has been a vocal critic of these medical missions. In its 2019 annual report on human trafficking, the State Department described them as an example of "forced labor" and kept Cuba on the blacklist of countries that do not do enough to fight human trafficking.

The U.S. government also imposed visa restrictions on certain Cuban officials associated with those missions.

Two representatives of the United Nations wrote to the Cuban government saying they considered that the working conditions reported by several doctors who took part in these government missions "could amount to forced labor."

But Cuba has vehemently rejected criticism of its medical services export program, claiming that the money it receives is reinvested in Cuban public health. The authorities, however, have not produced evidence showing how the money is used.

According to official data, the medical services export program was Cuba's leading source of foreign currency in 2018, amounting to more than $6 billion.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuba has offered its doctors' services to nearly 30 countries and used the issue to coordinate an international campaign supporting Cuban "medical cooperation."

With support from the Cuban government, a coalition of left-wing activists and Latin American and U.S. organizations, including the advocacy group Code Pink, launched a campaign in June this year to petition the Nobel Committee to award its Peace Prize to Cuban doctors treating COVID-19 patients abroad.

The award went to the World Food Programme.

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