HAVANA (AP)-- Cuba reacted angrily Tuesday to its inclusion on a U.S. list of countries that could be sanctioned for failing to fight human and child trafficking, calling it a "shameful slander" and part of Washington's efforts to justify its trade embargo.
Cuba is one of 13 countries put on notice Monday that they are not complying with the minimum international standards to eliminate the trade in human beings and sexual slavery, and could face U.S. penalties.
Compiled by President Barack Obama's administration, the list also includes Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar. Another 58 countries were placed on a "watch list" that could lead to sanctions unless their records improve.
Cuba was singled out for allegedly not doing enough to prevent the trafficking of children who work as prostitutes on the island, mostly serving foreign tourists. It also said some Cuban doctors have complained that the government leases out their services to foreign countries as a way of canceling Cuba's debt.
"Cuba categorically rejects these allegations as false and disrespectful," Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry's North American affairs office, said in a statement sent to the foreign news media Tuesday.
She said the allegations are all the more offensive because the communist government has concentrated its limited resources on protecting women and the young, providing far more for the most vulnerable members of society than most nations in the region.
While Cubans receive low wages, the island offers free education through college, free health care and heavily subsidized housing and transportation. Crime rates and drug usage are extremely low in a country where the state maintains near total control.
"These shameful slanders profoundly hurt the Cuban people. In Cuba, there is no sexual abuse against minors, but rather an exemplary effort to protect children, young people and women," Vidal Ferreiro said. She said Cuban laws "put us among the countries in the region with the most advanced norms and mechanisms for the prevention of abuse."
Cuba has been included as one of the worst offenders on the State Department human trafficking list since 2003. It is also on a separate list of countries that the U.S. deems to support terrorism.
The latest report notes that Cuban laws against trafficking appear stringent, but that the country has not provided enough evidence to show they are being enforced.
Interestingly, the report does not concentrate on Cubans seeking to emigrate to the United States, a diaspora which has meant vast profits for traffickers, who can charge thousands of dollars for illicit transportation to the U.S., often through Mexico.
It was not clear what sanctions, if any, Cuba could face. It is already the target of a 48-year trade embargo, which bans the sale of most American goods on the island. American tourists are not allowed to vacation in Cuba, depriving the Caribbean hotspot of what would likely be its top source of visitors.
Cuba refers to the embargo as a blockade, and rightly or wrongly blames it for most of its economic woes. While many countries criticize the country's treatment of political prisoners and lack of democracy, the embargo is rejected each year in a lopsided U.N. vote.
Many had hoped relations between the United States and Cuba would improve under Obama, but the two sides have made little progress. The relationship has soured most recently over the December arrest of a U.S. contractor whom Cuba accuses of spying. He has been held without charge for more than six months.
Vidal Ferreiro said Cuba's inclusion on the trafficking list is political.
"It can only be explained by the desperate need that the U.S. government has to justify, under whatever pretext, the persistence of its cruel blockade, which has been overwhelmingly rejected by the international community."
Cuba was not the only country in the region to react strongly to the report.
Guyana, which received slightly better marks than Cuba, said the report hurts its friendship with the United States. The Dominican Republic is also included on the list. The country's official in charge of monitoring human trafficking, Frank Soto, called the list "a lie with no merit."