President Bush yesterday castigated Fidel Castro’s regime for contributing to the worldwide problem of human trafficking by becoming a destination for “sex tourism” and vowed to work toward “the rapid, peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba.”
“Human life is the gift of our creator, and it should never be for sale,” Mr. Bush told participants at the first national training conference on “Human Trafficking in the United States” in Tampa, Fla.
Mr. Bush’s words carried heavy political weight in this electoral battleground, where Cuban expatriates expect Republicans to be tough on Mr. Castro’s communist regime.
The president, citing a Johns Hopkins University study, said the easing of travel restrictions to the island in the 1990s created “an influx of American and Canadian tourists,” who “contributed to a sharp increase in child prostitution in Cuba.”
“We have put a strategy in place to hasten the day when no Cuban child is exploited to finance a failed revolution and every Cuban citizen will live in freedom,” said Mr. Bush, who won Florida, and the presidency in 2000, by just 547 votes.
The president’s pledge yesterday to attack burgeoning human-trafficking rings in America coincides with ongoing efforts by federal prosecutors in several states, including Virginia, to confront the problem head-on with the creation of task forces aimed at detecting, disrupting and detaining those involved.
The State Department reported last month that as many as 800,000 men, women and children are bought, sold and smuggled across international borders against their will into forced labor, prostitution, sweatshops, domestic servitude, farming and child armies. As many as 17,500 human-trafficking victims are thought to be in the United States.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s campaign yesterday agreed with the president on the problem of human trafficking, while their candidate offered some support to one of the most controversial aspects of Mr. Bush’s national-security policy — the doctrine of pre-emption.
Mr. Kerry said he would be willing to launch a pre-emptive strike against terrorists if he had adequate intelligence of a threat.
“Am I prepared as president to go get them before they get us if we locate them and have the sufficient intelligence? You bet I am,” he said at a press conference at his Washington headquarters.
The Bush administration laid out the doctrine of pre-emption months before the Iraq war began in March 2003. It argued that the United States cannot rely on its vast arsenal to deter attacks and must be willing to strike first against potential threats. Critics of the policy say the Iraq war shows how the country could be driven to war by flawed intelligence.
Mr. Kerry said the intelligence needs to be improved so that the word of a U.S. president “is good enough for people across the world again.”
Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt complained that Mr. Kerry proposed cuts in intelligence spending while in the Senate.
“John Kerry’s attack is another example of his flailing efforts to defend a record that is out of the mainstream,” Mr. Schmidt said.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty in Alexandria announced the creation of a federal task force to investigate the trafficking of humans in Northern Virginia. The task force is part of a broader push by the Justice Department and other federal agencies to target human traffickers.
“This terrible crime is often hard to uncover. Its victims are frightened, they often don’t even speak English, and they don’t know where to turn. But we will not tolerate this kind of exploitation in Northern Virginia,” Mr. McNulty said. “The task force will aggressively pursue all leads of potential human-trafficking activity, in an effort to root out this crime and expose it.”
The Justice Department, which convened the Tampa conference, expects to announce the formation of more than a dozen more task forces by the end of the year. Attorney General John Ashcroft has denounced human trafficking and made it a department priority.
“They are crimes that demand swift and implacable prosecution of the predators. They are crimes that deserve warmth and compassion for the victims.” Mr. Ashcroft said at a recent press briefing.
The Department of Homeland Security also has taken an aggressive approach to the worldwide problem of human trafficking, with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeting people, money and materials that support criminal trafficking networks.
ICE leads the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, an interagency joint intelligence fusion center focused on human smuggling, human trafficking and clandestine terrorist mobility. Homeland Security, State, Justice and other members of the intelligence community participate in the center.
“You’re in a fight against evil, and the American people are grateful for your dedication and service,” Mr. Bush told those at the Tampa conference, which included his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The Bush administration has made fighting human trafficking a priority. Since 2001, the administration has provided more than $295 million to support anti-trafficking programs in more than 120 countries.
In the past three years, the Justice Department and federal prosecutors have charged 150 suspected human traffickers — a three-fold increase over the previous three years — and convicted 107 defendants, nearly twice the number convicted during the previous three years.
This story is based in part on wire service reports.