There is a common stereotype that those who fall victim to modern-day slavery are uneducated, unskilled, or maybe just not that bright. Well, that’s about as true as saying all women who are raped are slutty or all men get cancer are smokers. Sure, some people end up in trafficking situations because of a lack of education or desperation to gain financial resources. But trafficking victims can also be intelligent and well-educated. Take the recent case of seven medical doctors and one registered nurse who were trafficked from Cuba to Venezuela where they held in debt bondage in exchange for oil given to Cuba. Medical professionals trafficked? Yes, it happens.
The scheme was apparently part of the “Oil for Manpower” deal which Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez entered into in 2000. The deal was that Cuba would send trained professionals to work in Venezuela in exchange for heavily subsidized oil. The important point that the manpower be voluntary, however, seems not to have made it into the deal.
The eight Cuban medical professionals claim they were pushed into the program by dire economic circumstances and political pressure to join in Cuba. Once in Venezuela, they were held in crowded lodgings or with people associated with the Venezuelan government, unable to leave the country. They were forced to work seven days a week. The program officials kept them under 24 hour surveillance, and they were not allowed to leave their compound or speak to anyone not affiliated with the regime.
The doctors and nurse thought about escaping, but they knew if they returned to Cuba they would be punished for insubordination. The “Oil for Manpower” program benefits Cuba immensely, and the men and women feared what would happen to them if they returned. In the end, they knew their best hope was to make it to the United States. They finally managed to escape their captors, and went into hiding for five months while trying to figure out how to make their way to safety. Eventually, they found their way into Miami, and are now safe. The eight professionals have filed a lawsuit against Cuba, Venezuela, and a Venezuelan oil company.
Too often we hear about how the adult men and women who are trafficked are illiterate or undocumented migrant workers or people with no marketable skills in a depressed economy. These trafficking victims were highly trained and skilled professionals in their field, and still they were forced into a trafficking situation. Trafficking is not a reflection on the abilities of the victim, but rather those of the trafficker and the scheme which targets the victim. These men and women were torn between two dictatorial countries, knowing there was no safe place for them in either. They were under constant surveillance. That they escaped at all is a triumph. But many educated and trained victims like these doctors don’t have a nearby U.S. where they can seek safety. Or they have families they refuse to abandon. Or they face any other myriad of obstacles to their freedom.
Human trafficking can happen to anyone — rich or poor, educated or uneducated. It’s important to educate and empower those at risk for trafficking, but this case is just one more example of why potential victim education only goes so far. We have to address the traffickers, and we have to fight the demand for human trafficking.
Photo credit: Matthew Flores