U.S. COURT HOLDS THAT PAN AMERICAN HEALTH ORGANIZATION IS NOT IMMUNE FOR LITIGATION OVER ITS ROLE IN HUMAN TRAFFICKING CUBAN DOCTORS
MIAMI (March 29, 2022) – The Cuban Doctors Human Rights Litigation team today announced that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is not immune from a lawsuit charging that it knowingly financed and profited from the illegal trafficking of Cuban doctors to benefit Cuba’s communist government.
The lawsuit alleges that PAHO pocketed over $75 million for serving as the financial intermediary to enable Cuba to traffic thousands of Cuban doctors and medical personnel to Brazil between 2013 and 2018 (Ramona Matos, el al. v. PAHO). This marks the first time a federal court held that an international organization will be subjected to civil litigation for intentionally violating U.S. law.
“What we experienced in Brazil was forced labor – plain and simple. On behalf of Cuban doctors who have defected around the world, we’re thrilled with the Court’s decision,” said lead plaintiff Dr. Ramona Matos. “This is a huge step toward some small form of justice.”
The Court affirmed U.S. District Judge James Boasberg’s decision from November 2020 that upheld the Doctors’ lawsuit against PAHO under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
“Subjecting PAHO to U.S. court jurisdiction is the right thing to do. The lawsuit exposes Cuban doctors’ treatment as forced labor and PAHO’s complicity when it occurred in Brazil,” lead plaintiff attorney Sam Dubbin said. “This Washington, DC-based organization knowingly enabled human trafficking under federal law and will finally be held accountable for profiting more than $75 million off the backs of thousands of Cuban professionals.”
As the Court of Appeals recounted, the Doctors allege that:
“PAHO acted as a financial intermediary between Brazil and Cuba. . . . PAHO entered into a bilateral agreement with the Cuban government to guarantee it would transfer resources from third parties as a way to compensate Cuba for the utilization of its medical professionals, i.e. to ‘triangulate’ health care cooperation which is ‘compensated,’ through the ‘movement of resources.’” PAHO’s role included moving money, for a fee, between Brazil and Cuba. Brazil made payments to PAHO’s Citibank account in Washington, D.C and PAHO then forwarded 85% to Cuba, 10% to the physicians and retained 5% for its services.”
The Court noted the doctors’ suit alleged PAHO violated 18 U.S.C. § 1589(b), which prohibits a person or entity to “knowingly benefit, financially or by receiving anything of value, from participation in a venture which has engaged in the providing or obtaining of labor or services by ‘force or threat.’” The statute also provides a civil remedy for victims in U.S. courts against anyone who “knowingly benefits” from a trafficking venture, just like what was detailed in these complaints.
PAHO argued it is immune from suit under the International Organization Immunities Act (IOIA) and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Under those statutes, an international organization — like a foreign sovereign — has immunity unless the “action is based upon a commercial activity carried on in the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(2).
The Court affirmed Boasberg’s conclusion that the Doctors’ allegations are indeed based on PAHO’s actions as a financial intermediary, which occurred in the U.S. and were commercial in nature because “it is . . . a normal commercial function to act as a financial intermediary transferring funds, for a fee, from one entity to another.”
PAHO also argued that it is immune under the World Health Organization (WHO) Constitution. The Court rejected that argument as well, agreeing with the Doctors and the U.S. government that the relevant provision of the WHO Constitution is not self-executing.
For more information about the case and facts about the Cuban Doctors Medical Missions Program around the world, visit www.cubandoctorshumanrights.com.
ABOUT CUBAN DOCTORS HUMAN RIGHTS LITIGATION TEAM
The Plaintiffs’ law firms, Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca, LLP, Dubbin & Kravetz, LLP and Cooper & Kirk, PLLC, filed the Cuban Doctors’ lawsuit (Ramona Matos, el al. v. PAHO) in 2018. Prior to that, Cuneo Gilbert and LaDuca and Dubbin & Kravetz successfully represented Hungarian Holocaust Survivors seeking restitution and an accounting against the United States government in the Hungarian Gold Train case, Rosner v. United States of America. After five years of litigation, the government agreed to a settlement providing $25 million for medical care, food, and other emergency needs of indigent Hungarian Holocaust survivors throughout the world.