Bush knows why 'relatives' are so important

By Wayne S. Smith
Posted July 31 2004
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

On July 15, addressing the Justice Department's conference in Tampa on trafficking in forced labor, President Bush said the U.S. has a major problem just 90 miles off its shores. He accused Fidel Castro of encouraging sex tourism and said prostitution, including child prostitution, is on the rise in Cuba, fed in part by Americans and Canadians traveling to the island. He cited a report from the Protection Project of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies as indicating that Cuba "has replaced Southeast Asia as a destination for pedophiles and sex tourists."

But not to worry! Bush said his administration has a global strategy for ending such forms of exploitation and that travel controls are a part of that strategy.

In his own speech on July 26, Fidel Castro indignantly denied that there was any truth to Bush's allegations. That was to be expected. But in fact, Bush's remarks were indeed largely inaccurate. Why he made them nonetheless is not difficult to fathom. He has faced growing criticism from the Cuban-American community because of his recent severe restrictions on visits to their families on the island. His remarks on July 15 would seem to have been designed to ease that criticism. See! Controls are part of a global strategy!

Cuban-Americans, quite understandably, however, will be puzzled as to what restricting their family visits has to do with ending prostitution. Is Bush suggesting that their real purpose was not to visit families on the island but to engage in sex tourism? And if not, what does the one have to do with the other?

And do Bush's July 15 remarks in fact reflect the situation in Cuba? Is prostitution, including child prostitution, on the rise in Cuba?

As anyone who travels frequently to Cuba can tell you, the answer to that is definitely not. True, largely as the result of Cuba's serious economic problems following the collapse of the Soviet Union, prostitution was indeed rampant from about 1990 going into the mid-1990s. But then a government crackdown got into high gear in late 1997 and changed all that. Tracey Eaton, the Dallas Morning News' resident reporter in Havana, wrote in an article on Nov. 26, 2003, that "Cuba is no longer one of the world's top destinations for sex tourism Prostitutes, increasingly fearful of going to jail, spend more time dodging police than cavorting with customers."

And does the Cuban government encourage sex tourism, as Bush alleges? Indeed, he says Fidel Castro has bragged about the sex industry in Cuba, saying that Cuban prostitutes are the best educated and cleanest in the world, as though encouraging horny males around the world to give them a try!

But, no, the Cuban government definitely does not encourage sex tourism. On the contrary, its 1997 crackdown and energetic measures to diminish the trade continue today.

And Castro's remarks -- somewhat taken out of context, obviously -- were made in 1992, during the worst of the economic crisis. Far from bragging, he was lamenting the fact that given Cuba's economic difficulties, prostitution had reappeared in Cuba. But at least, he said, Cuban prostitutes were well-educated and clean, as demonstrated by the fact that Cuba did not have problems with AIDS or venereal disease.

Where did the White House get the Castro quote? According to the Los Angeles Times on July 20, only a day before the president's speech, the White House asked the State Department for material on prostitution in Cuba. State did a quick Internet search and came up with a paper written by a Dartmouth undergraduate which contained Castro's remarks, though without any footnotes. Without further ado, the White House put them into the president's speech. The former student has complained, noting that the president took the remarks out of context. "It shows they didn't read much of the article," the Times quotes him as saying.

And what of the so-called Hopkins report?

The report to which the president referred is not meant to be a definitive statement. Rather, in a page and a half, it cites a number of newspaper articles, most of which are dated and report information from the 1990s. It thus tends to reflect a view of the problem in Cuba prior to the crackdown. It makes no effort at independent confirmation, and none of the people working at the Protection Project make any pretense of having any direct knowledge of Cuba.

Some of what it says of the situation prior to 1997 is doubtless true. But it is not true of the situation today. This is not to say that prostitution does not exist in Cuba. Of course, it does, as it exists almost everywhere, most definitely including the United States. But it is no longer any more of a problem in Cuba than it is in those other countries -- again including the United States. Indeed, without question, child prostitution, child pornography and abuse of children are greater problems here than in Cuba.

Both countries should be doing more to address these problems. We can all agree on that.

Wayne S. Smith, now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., was chief of the U.S. Interests Section from 1979 until 1982.