US case highlights Cuban 'slaves' in Curaçao

A federal judge in Miami last month ordered a shipping firm to pay $80 million for conspiring with Cuba to abuse workers.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Olivia Ocampo well remembers the night the two Cuban workers came to her house in January 2005.

Exhausted and afraid, they had escaped from the premises of the nearby Curaçao Drydock Company, where they said they and some 100 other Cubans had been forced to work 112 hours a week fixing ships for three cents an hour.

Ms. Ocampo approached the police and government authorities in Willemstad, the capital of the Netherlands Antilles, a Dutch dependency in the southern Caribbean, but "they just wanted to push all the trash under the carpet and say that everything is fine," she said.

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But last month, a federal judge in Miami ordered the shipyard to pay the workers and one of their colleagues a total of $80 million in damages, after finding it had conspired with the government of Cuba to force them into what was, in effect, slave labor.

The case has focused a spotlight on the shadowy corners of the global economy, where capital moves freely across borders and laborers are sometimes forced to follow in bondage. While most cases involve abuses committed in developing nations with poor human rights records, this took place within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, home to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

"These types of violations are not out of the ordinary for the Cuban government," says Tomas Bilbao of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, which helped the workers bring their suit. "What's surprising is that it happened in a dependency of the Netherlands, a country known for its interest in human rights."

The three men testified that they had been sent to Curaçao to work off Cuba's multimillion-dollar debt to the Curaçao Drydock Company, a private company whose largest shareholder is the government of the Netherlands Antilles. Their passports were seized at the airport and they were rarely allowed to leave the shipyard complex, and only in groups with a minder. They typically worked 15 days in a row and when off-duty had to watch Fidel Castro's videotaped speeches.

Working conditions were perilous, they testified. One of the men, Fernando Alonso, burned his hand while welding steel without proper safety gear. Another, Alberto Rodriguez-Licea, broke his foot and ankle when a rope he was dangling from snapped. The third, Luis Casanova, was ordered to work in water and says he was shocked so severely that electricity shot from his tongue.

"They faced the worst choice you can imagine: to continue being slaves not knowing if they would live or die because they were being treated so badly or to try to escape, knowing that even if they were successful it would be horrific for their families in Cuba," says Miami-based attorney Seth Miles, who represented the men. "Their kids have been kicked out of school, their relatives have lost their jobs, and neighborhood gangs harass their families."

Mr. Castro's nephew, Manuel Bequer, was a senior manager of the shipyard at the time. He is still listed as the production manager on the company's website.

The company has denied many of the allegations, though they admitted that the Cuban workers' passports were seized and that their unpaid wages were deducted from the debt Havana owed the company. After failing to get the case thrown out on technical grounds, the firm fired their attorneys and abandoned the case.

Reached by telephone on Oct. 20 and informed of the judge's ruling, company spokesman Lennox Rhodes said to "call in an hour" for comment. He did not subsequently answer his telephone or respond to frequent phone and e-mail messages.

The company has also refused to respond to local media requests, according to Mike Willemse, editor of the Antilliaans Dagblad newspaper. "We understand that they will in no way pay the [damages] because they don't have it," he said. "It's simply not there."

A spokesperson for the Netherlands Ministry of Kingdom Affairs, Mireille Beentjes, said her government "has been concerned about the labor circumstances" at the shipyard and had "on several occasions expressed these concerns" to the Netherlands Antilles government.

Mr. Alonso and Mr. Casanova eventually received visas to seek justice in US courts. All three escapees now live in Tampa, Fla.

Theirs is one of dozens of human rights cases tried in recent years under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreign citizens to sue foreign officials and companies in US courts for serious violations of international law.

If the Curaçao Drydock Company ignores the judgment, they will find it hard to do business with US firms or the Miami-based cruise ship lines, Mr. Miles says. "Good corporate citizens generally don't do business with bad actors," he says. "They would not want to be associated with a company that not only employs slave labor, but ignores US court judgments."

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