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Lawsuit claims Cuba forced citizens to work at Curacao shipyard

Lawsuit claims Cuba forced citizens to work at Curacao shipyard
The Associated Press

Published: October 28, 2006
MIAMI Alberto Rodriguez says Cuban officials abruptly summoned him to a
meeting in December 2001 at the Ministry of Transport and told him he
was being sent to work at a shipyard on Curacao. Over the next three
years, Rodriguez claims he and dozens of other men were held as virtual
slaves, forced to work long hours for pennies a day in dangerous conditions.

Rodriguez, who escaped in October 2004, and two other Cubans who were
sent to the shipyard on the Caribbean island say they suffered serious
injuries, were not permitted to move freely in Curacao and were forced
to watch videotapes of hours-long speeches by Cuban President Fidel
Castro “extolling the virtues of the revolution.”

“They humiliated us. They exploited us,” Rodriguez said in an interview.

Now, Rodriguez and the two other Cubans have filed a federal lawsuit in
Miami seeking unspecified damages from the Curacao Drydock Company Inc.
for what they claim was a conspiracy in which Cuba provided low-cost,
forced labor in return for hard currency desperately sought by the
communist Havana government.

“Curacao Drydock Co. knew that the Cuban laborers that the Cuban
government provided to it were not free individuals but subjects of the
Cuban totalitarian regime, who were compelled to perform the will of the
Cuban state,” said their lawsuit, filed by Miami attorney John Andres
Thornton.

If the men refused to work in Curacao, they could be thrown in prison
back in Cuba or not permitted to get other work and their family members
could be adversely affected as well, Thornton said. Cuba also has agents
in Curacao who keep watch on the laborers, which number anywhere from 50
to 100 at a time, he said.

“Forced labor is a modern variant of slavery,” Thornton said.

Curacao is a self-governing Dutch island in the Lesser Antilles off
Venezuela’s coast. Curacao Drydock, a private company based in the port
of Willemstad, bills itself on its Internet site as “The First Choice in
the Caribbean” for shipyard repair, including work for U.S.-based cruise
lines, oil companies and shipping firms.

In a written statement provided by its Miami attorneys to The Associated
Press, Curacao Drydock said it strives to “maintain the highest
achievable standards of safety work habits” and that all personnel are
trained in safety policies. The statement said many of the lawsuit’s
allegations were focused on Cuba and not the company.

“Nevertheless, the company is undertaking a full investigation into the
allegations,” the statement said.

The company’s Internet site also includes details about a “family day”
held in September in which about 500 employees and their families took
part in “dancing, singing, eating and drinking” and “getting to know
each other in a different atmosphere.”

Three telephone calls to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington
seeking Cuban government comment were not returned.

In their lawsuit, Rodriguez and fellow plaintiffs Fernando Alonso and
Luis Casanova claim that fear and intimidation ruled at the Curacao
shipyard and the working conditions were terrible.

The three Cubans say they worked 112 hours a week at hard labor, often
in intense heat, sometimes on scaffolds and sometimes suspended by
ropes. Rodriguez broke his foot and ankle in 2002 while scraping rust
from the hull of a ship, was sent back to Cuba to recover and then
ordered back to Curacao, according to the lawsuit.

In December 2004, Casanova said he suffered a 220-volt electric shock
“so severe that electricity shot out his tongue.” But with “blood
streaming down from his mouth and soaking his shirt, (Casanova) was
ordered back to work to finish the last hours of his 16-hour shift.”
Casanova and Alonso fled from the shipyard in January 2005.

After the three Cubans disappeared from the shipyard, “wanted” flyers
were circulated in Curacao and several other shipyard workers who were
believed to have assisted in the escapes were returned to Cuba and
probably imprisoned, the lawsuit says.

The trio eventually made their way to a U.S. Embassy in an unnamed third
country where, in February, the U.S. government granted them parole and
visas to enter the United States. As Cubans, they will most likely be
given permanent U.S. residency status.

The federal court in Miami has jurisdiction in the case under
international law banning forced labor and because Curacao Drydock
provides services to U.S.-based companies and has an office in South
Florida, Thornton said.

“Our position is that the entire endeavor was explicitly directed at the
U.S. because it was done to reach the U.S. market,” he said.

The lawsuit also claims that a senior company manager is one of Castro’s
nephews and is thus able to “commandeer forced Cuban labor.”

Attorneys for Curacao Drydock have asked U.S. District Judge James
Lawrence King to dismiss the case, contending that such a lawsuit should
be filed in Curacao and that the only connection between the company and
the United States “is the fact that the plaintiffs now happen to reside
there.”

“Simply put, there is no aspect of (Curacao Drydock’s) business
operations that would cause it to be subject to this court’s general
jurisdiction,” attorneys Matthew Triggs and Stephanie Reed Traband said
in court papers.

No court dates have been set in the case.

MIAMI Alberto Rodriguez says Cuban officials abruptly summoned him to a
meeting in December 2001 at the Ministry of Transport and told him he
was being sent to work at a shipyard on Curacao. Over the next three
years, Rodriguez claims he and dozens of other men were held as virtual
slaves, forced to work long hours for pennies a day in dangerous conditions.

Rodriguez, who escaped in October 2004, and two other Cubans who were
sent to the shipyard on the Caribbean island say they suffered serious
injuries, were not permitted to move freely in Curacao and were forced
to watch videotapes of hours-long speeches by Cuban President Fidel
Castro “extolling the virtues of the revolution.”

“They humiliated us. They exploited us,” Rodriguez said in an interview.

Now, Rodriguez and the two other Cubans have filed a federal lawsuit in
Miami seeking unspecified damages from the Curacao Drydock Company Inc.
for what they claim was a conspiracy in which Cuba provided low-cost,
forced labor in return for hard currency desperately sought by the
communist Havana government.

“Curacao Drydock Co. knew that the Cuban laborers that the Cuban
government provided to it were not free individuals but subjects of the
Cuban totalitarian regime, who were compelled to perform the will of the
Cuban state,” said their lawsuit, filed by Miami attorney John Andres
Thornton.

If the men refused to work in Curacao, they could be thrown in prison
back in Cuba or not permitted to get other work and their family members
could be adversely affected as well, Thornton said. Cuba also has agents
in Curacao who keep watch on the laborers, which number anywhere from 50
to 100 at a time, he said.

“Forced labor is a modern variant of slavery,” Thornton said.

Curacao is a self-governing Dutch island in the Lesser Antilles off
Venezuela’s coast. Curacao Drydock, a private company based in the port
of Willemstad, bills itself
on its Internet site as “The First Choice in
the Caribbean” for shipyard repair, including work for U.S.-based cruise
lines, oil companies and shipping firms.

In a written statement provided by its Miami attorneys to The Associated
Press, Curacao Drydock said it strives to “maintain the highest
achievable standards of safety work habits” and that all personnel are
trained in safety policies. The statement said many of the lawsuit’s
allegations were focused on Cuba and not the company.

“Nevertheless, the company is undertaking a full investigation into the
allegations,” the statement said.

The company’s Internet site also includes details about a “family day”
held in September in which about 500 employees and their families took
part in “dancing, singing, eating and drinking” and “getting to know
each other in a different atmosphere.”

Three telephone calls to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington
seeking Cuban government comment were not returned.

In their lawsuit, Rodriguez and fellow plaintiffs Fernando Alonso and
Luis Casanova claim that fear and intimidation ruled at the Curacao
shipyard and the working conditions were terrible.

The three Cubans say they worked 112 hours a week at hard labor, often
in intense heat, sometimes on scaffolds and sometimes suspended by
ropes. Rodriguez broke his foot and ankle in 2002 while scraping rust
from the hull of a ship, was sent back to Cuba to recover and then
ordered back to Curacao, according to the lawsuit.

In December 2004, Casanova said he suffered a 220-volt electric shock
“so severe that electricity shot out his tongue.” But with “blood
streaming down from his mouth and soaking his shirt, (Casanova) was
ordered back to work to finish the last hours of his 16-hour shift.”
Casanova and Alonso fled from the shipyard in January 2005.

After the three Cubans disappeared from the shipyard, “wanted” flyers
were circulated in Curacao and several other shipyard workers who were
believed to have assisted in the escapes were returned to Cuba and
probably imprisoned, the lawsuit says.

The trio eventually made their way to a U.S. Embassy in an unnamed third
country where, in February, the U.S. government granted them parole and
visas to enter the United States. As Cubans, they will most likely be
given permanent U.S. residency status.

The federal court in Miami has jurisdiction in the case under
international law banning forced labor and because Curacao Drydock
provides services to U.S.-based companies and has an office in South
Florida, Thornton said.

“Our position is that the entire endeavor was explicitly directed at the
U.S. because it was done to reach the U.S. market,” he said.

The lawsuit also claims that a senior company manager is one of Castro’s
nephews and is thus able to “commandeer forced Cuban labor.”

Attorneys for Curacao Drydock have asked U.S. District Judge James
Lawrence King to dismiss the case, contending that such a lawsuit should
be filed in Curacao and that the only connection between the company and
the United States “is the fact that the plaintiffs now happen to reside
there.”

“Simply put, there is no aspect of (Curacao Drydock’s) business
operations that would cause it to be subject to this court’s general
jurisdiction,” attorneys Matthew Triggs and Stephanie Reed Traband said
in court papers.

No court dates have been set in the case.

http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/10/28/america/NA_GEN_US_Cuba_Curacao_Forced_Labor.php

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