The Miami Herald
Sat, Jul. 17, 2004

Castro lures sex tourism, president says

President Bush lashed out at Fidel Castro, saying the Cuban leader has fostered prostitution in his country to attract tourists.


TAMPA - President Bush on Friday accused Fidel Castro of taking advantage of U.S. goodwill in the past to foster child prostitution in Cuba, turning the island nation into what the president called a ''major destination'' for visitors seeking sex.

''The dictator welcomes sex tourism,'' said Bush, who used a speech devoted to the crime of human trafficking to lash into Castro, in an apparent defense of his controversial election-year crackdown on travel to Cuba.

Bush said Castro ''bragged about the industry,'' quoting him as saying: ``Cuba has the cleanest and most educated prostitutes in the world.''

Bush said Castro made the comment ``because sex tourism is a vital source of hard currency to keep his corrupt government afloat.''

Castro made the comment in a 1992 address to the Cuban National Assembly, when he spoke about the country's need for tourism and acknowledged the presence of prostitutes in Cuba, even though prostitution is illegal. His actual words, according to a transcript prepared by the U.S. Foreign Broadcast Information Service, were: ``We can say that they are highly educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country with the lowest number of AIDS cases.''

Bush's remarks, coming as he addressed the U.S. Department of Justice's first-ever national training conference on combatting slavery, seemed designed to deflect criticism that his Cuba policy -- unpopular in some quarters -- will hurt Cuban families by restricting how often they can see each other.

Instead, Bush argued that easing Cuba travel restrictions in the 1990s led to a spike in child prostitution. Bush sought to link the travel restrictions to what he said is a global strategy to bring an end to slavery, a scourge he called an ``affront to the defining promise of our country.''

He suggested the restrictions -- enacted after Cuban-American Republicans warned that he risked losing support if he didn't get tougher on Castro -- will not only help tamp down prostitution, but cut off a flow of cash to the island's leader.

''The regime in Havana, already one of the worst violators of human rights in the world, is adding to its crimes,'' he said.

Citing a report from the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University, Bush said that Cuba has ''replaced Southeast Asia as a destination for pedophiles and sex tourists'' and that the easing of restrictions before he took office led to an ''influx of American and Canadian tourists'' and a ``sharp increase in child prostitution.''

The report, however, says Cuba is ''one of many countries'' that has replaced Southeast Asia as a sex tourism magnet, ``according to general news accounts.''

According to news reports out of Havana, Castro in June denounced the State Department for including Cuba in a list of states practicing human trafficking, adding, ``it is still more infamous to claim that Cuba promotes child sex tourism.''

Bush's visit was billed as a nonpolitical White House event, but Bush tucked in a plug for his Cuba policy, which critics say seeks to appease hard-line Cuban American exiles, a key GOP voting bloc in the state that decided the 2000 election by just 537 votes.

Bush's policies, which limit family travel to once every three years and restrict educational travel, have come under fire from some moderate Cuban Americans, who support a trade embargo but want to be able to travel and support relatives in Cuba.

Democrats have sought to exploit the potential divide, with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry denouncing Bush's move as a ''cynical, election-year'' ploy. Kerry has said would encourage ''principled travel'' to the island and his campaign suggested Friday that Bush's travel ban has only ``increased the suffering of the Cuban people and Cuban Americans with family on the island.''

Bush appeared with his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, whom he lauded for signing a bill that makes human trafficking a felony in Florida. Neither mentioned that the legislation was sponsored last spring by two of the Legislature's most liberal Democrats, Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston and Rep. Anne Gannon of Delray Beach.

''I'm really glad to see the administration supports the Democratic agenda of helping women,'' said Wasserman Schultz. ``It's good to see they are coming over to our way of thinking. It's just unfortunate that his budget priorities don't match the rhetoric.''

Other Democrats accused Bush of lagging to enact an international protocol against human trafficking that a departing President Bill Clinton had signed.

Human traffickers smuggle between 14,500 and 17,500 people into the U.S. every year, forcing them to work, often without pay, in brothels, sweatshops and farm fields. Florida, along with California and New York, is among the three states with the highest incidence of reported human trafficking cases.