In addition to Third-World countries, developed nations and private businesses have for six decades hired Cuban sailors, athletes, and medical workers. These Cuban citizens receive 10–25 percent of what the countries and companies pay for them. The communist regime receives the rest by selling the labor through state-owned companies.
During the Cuban workers’ time abroad, mission chiefs and locals take advantage of and abuse them beyond confiscatory taxes. Since the workers are not entitled to quit or choose from competing employers they are frequently subject to sexual harassment, restricted movement and speech, and a lack of privacy. Workers have also had to live in dangerous conditions with gang violence and subsistence levels of medicine and food.
With annual income of $8.5 billion, these international missions are the regime’s largest revenue source. This surpasses income from remittances and tourism, which generate $4 and $2.9 billion, respectively.
On January 2, 2024, Cuba, Spain, Italy, and Qatar missed a 60-day deadline to respond to a November 2023 UN letter. It accused them of participating in the violation of Cuban workers’ rights while abroad. The regime has been exporting medical workers, sailors, and athletes under its so-called international missions for six decades.
According to the letter, Cuban “international missions—especially in the health-care field—are the regime’s largest revenue source.” A 2022 Prisoners Defenders report establishes that international missions generate $8.5 billion annually. For comparison, remittances and tourism generate $4 and $2.9 billion annually, respectively.
The Cuban Communist Party’s policy plan for the 2021–2026 period states that the regime will “continue the development of Cuban health-care services,” which include international missions. The regime portrays the missions as altruism or charity, but it receives revenue and violates the workers’ rights in plain sight. The guidelines have the audacity to claim that the “missions show Cuba’s solidarity and humanism despite having limited resources.”
This investigation explains how developed countries—in addition to Third-World countries—uphold the communist regime’s modern slavery. With multiple first-hand testimonies, we share the conditions and abuses Cubans have experienced on the missions.
For this, the Impunity Observer interviewed:
Javier Larrondo, founder and president of Prisoners Defenders, a Spanish NGO that monitors civil rights across the world;
Arisleydi López, a Cuban medical worker now in Colombia;
Three other Cuban medical workers who have participated in five different missions.
The final three requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal against them and their family members based in Cuba. Reliving painful memories also made being a witness a challenging service done to help those still suffering.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines modern slavery as “the condition of being forced by threats or violence to work for little or no pay, and of having no power to control what work you do or where you do it.” Modern slavery includes forced marriage, forced labor, and forced participation in crimes.
Larrondo explains that slavery occurs when a person, state, or institution can use an individual for personal or commercial benefit without the person’s consent. He adds that slavery has evolved in its appearance and need not entail a person confined to shackles as he might have been centuries ago.
In 2021 the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that 50 million people were experiencing modern slavery. According to the ILO, “The number of people in modern slavery has risen significantly in the last five years.” The organization registered a 10 million increase in modern slaves between 2016 and 2021.
The Castrista regime, led for decades by the late Fidel Castro, sends a variety of indentured workers overseas. This includes medical and sailor missions and even prominent signings in the case of celebrity athletes. Larrondo told the Impunity Observer that the Cuban regime has around 100 companies that manage workers for international missions.
In 60 years Cuba has exported more than 400,000 medical workers to over 160 countries. Although most of the recipients are Third-World countries in Africa and Central and South America, developed countries such as Italy and Portugal have also paid for Cuban medical missions.
The state-owned company Selecmar, which has around 7,000 workers, exports Cuban sailors. Selecmar offers its sailors to prominent foreign cruise lines from First-World countries such as Canada and Spain. The regime pressures cruise lines to hire Selecmar sailors in exchange for allowing their cruises to stop in Cuba: “If cruise lines want to stop in Cuba, the company must hire at least 25 percent Selecmar sailors,” adds Larrondo.
Private businesses, such as cruise lines, can also save money by hiring Cuban workers since they cost markedly less than First-World workers.
Cuba’s National Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) manages the contracts of athletes competing abroad. INDER exports local athletes to compete across multiple disciplines. In 2020 even regime outlet Jit confirmed that Cuba exported 59 athletes to Germany, Canada, Mexico, and Italy.
The regime does not export athletes to the United States. Although there is not a public explanation regarding why, presumably the risk of an athlete fleeing is high. Also, there could be the ideological problem of trading openly with the supposed Yankee capitalist enemy.
All the interviewees agree that the Cuban dictatorship handpicks its mission workers, and they cannot decline the work offers. Otherwise they and their families fear suffering from regime-sponsored harassment. Further, the Penal Code’s Article 176 establishes an eight-year prison sentence for workers who reject or abandon their job positions overseas or fail to return to Cuba after their work term expires.
In addition, former mission workers told the Impunity Observer that dictatorship officials would de facto ban them from the island if they were to abandon their jobs overseas. The ban also impedes their family members from leaving the island. This prevents them from seeing their families for up to eight years, consistent with a Prisoner Defenders 2022 report. It asserted that the Cuban regime had banned 5,000 Cuban workers from seeing their children.
According to the medical workers, Cuban officials coerced and intimidated them into signing mission contracts. The workers feared repression if they failed to sign the purportedly legal documents. In some cases the contracts had portions intentionally left blank, such as the salary clauses, so workers did not even know the compensation they would receive. In other cases, the regime did not give them a copy of the contract at all. Consequently, workers did not know how much money they would receive from working abroad or any of the conditions they would then suffer through.
Mission chiefs are the regime officials abroad who monitor worker actions. In the case of sailors, the cruise’s staff monitor the workers. If a Cuban sailor escapes, Larrondo revealed to the Impunity Observer, the cruise line will have to pay Selecmar a $10,000 fine. To avoid this, they retain the sailors’ passports.
During the missions, workers suffer different types of abuse, mostly from mission chiefs but also from non-Cubans:
No privacy: According to the testimonies, mission chiefs encouraged roommates to spy on each other while on the missions. Further, all the interviewees felt that at some point Cuban officials were spying on them or violating their privacy by entering their rooms without authorization. One of the medical workers bought a different cellphone every two months, so she could avoid regime officials listening to her calls.
Sexual harassment: Mission chiefs often sexually harass women in different ways. These include requests for sexual favors, inappropriate touching, making living and employment conditions dependent on sexual favors, and rape. A Cuban doctor revealed that she “married” one of her Cuban friends to stop mission chiefs from harassing her.
The interviewees explain that chiefs have too much power over women. If women refused any of the chiefs’ sexual requests, the chiefs would retaliate against them by sending the women back to Cuba—for de facto or explicit punishment—or “making their lives a living hell while on the missions.”
Restricted freedoms: Three out of four Cuban workers had their passports taken from them at some point while working abroad. As on the cruise lines, the chiefs did this to prevent them from abandoning the mission and seeking asylum.
All the Cuban workers contend that mission chiefs forbade them from talking to any journalists or other people unrelated to the missions. According to their experience, workers were not able to move freely around the cities where they worked. On occasion, chiefs even forbade workers from meeting with other workers.
Cuban mission workers face unpalatable conditions, including:
Crime-ridden neighborhoods: Although this is not the case for everyone, it is common for the regime to put workers through dangerous conditions while on missions. López, for instance, told the Impunity Observer that when she participated in the Venezuela medical mission she lived in Petare, Caracas, which has become known as the world’s most dangerous slum. She added: “I had to sleep on the floor. Otherwise, I would risk getting shot during gang feuds.”
Subsistence money: A Cuban doctor revealed that she “barely had enough money to buy food” while working abroad. On many occasions, workers had to “choose between eating expired food or not eating at all” before working “long shifts.” Although some workers wanted to send remittances to Cuba to support their families, usually they did not have enough money to do so.
Haphazard preparation: Cuban medical workers revealed to the Impunity Observer that the preparation they received before going on missions was neither enough nor appropriate to face the challenges abroad. For instance, they had little instruction in the local languages.
In addition, the workers who have now fled agree that training and mission briefings were political rather than technical. A medical worker revealed that she was abroad during the July 11, 2021, prodemocracy protests in Cuba. Mission chiefs used the briefings to tell medical workers to fight against the opposition through social media.
Lack of medicine: López contends that when she had to work in Venezuela’s Amazon there was no medicine available for Cuban workers in case they got sick or suffered animal bites. She claims the regime failed to provide any kind of contingency plan in case any health-related emergency arose.
Developed countries and private businesses have participated in the dictatorship’s scheme for dozens of years. In Europe, Portugal and Italy have hired multiple medical missions, receiving hundreds of Cuban workers in the past five years. In both cases, national and provincial governments have signed contracts with the regime-owned medical enterprise: Cuban Medical Services Trading Company (CSMC).
In October 2022, Roberto Occhiuto—president of the Calabria province, located in southern Italy—signed a contract with the Cuban regime’s CSMC. The contract explicitly states that Calabria’s local government will pay CSMC €3,500 ($3,795) monthly for every medical worker. There are 500 Cuban medical workers in Calabria’s provincial hospitals. Larrondo asserts that workers, on average, keep between 10 and 25 percent of the money that recipients pay for them. The rest goes to the state-owned CSMC.
Calabria, however, is not the only case in Italy. L’Unione Sarda, a local news outlet from Italy’s Sardinia province, revealed in early 2024 that the provincial government would soon sign a contract with CSMC to bring 128 Cuban medical workers to the province. The details of the agreement remain undisclosed.
In July 2023, Portuguese news outlet Jornal de Notícias revealed that the government had planned to hire 300 medical workers through CSMC. After this became public, civil-society organizations and opposition politicians criticized the incumbent administration for participating in the scheme. In the end, the agreement did not materialize.
Portugal, however, did hire at least 43 Cuban medical workers from CSMC in 2009. According to the news outlet Público, the workers received a salary of €300 ($325) per month. Portugal, however, paid CSMC €5,900 ($6,399) monthly per worker. The mission ended after two years.
Norway and Luxembourg paid for Cuban medical missions in Haiti and Cape Verde, respectively, in 2010 and 2020. News outlet DNA Cuba has confirmed that Luxembourg paid over $500,000 to CSMC for a 99-worker mission. On the other hand, what the Norwegian government paid CSMC for its 348-worker mission in Haiti remains undisclosed.
Although Larrondo believes that Norway and Luxembourg do not understand the conditions behind the mission, he asserts that the Occhiuto administration in Calabria, Italy, is well aware. Occhiuto even laughed when confronted and asked about the workers’ conditions in his province. There also appears to be awareness in Portugal, given that the Cuban presence has become a political issue.
Much of the world has unfortunately bought into the communist regime’s narrative of altruistic international missions. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of workers have suffered from inhumane slavery. Beyond robbing people of the fruits of their labor, regime officials abuse their power to take advantage of and even rape women while working abroad. Some European countries, such as Italy and Portugal, have been accomplices to the enslavement of Cubans.
The opinion of this article is unrelated to Noticiero El Vigilante.