By Maura Reynolds | LA Times Staff Writer | LA Times
Student whose paper on Castro was used in a speech is ‘annoyed.’ He says the president misconstrued the Cuban leader’s stance.
WASHINGTON — Like many scholars, Charles Trumbull hoped that one day his work would attract attention in high places. So you might think he’d be thrilled that someone in the White House used one of his research papers to draft a speech for President Bush last week.
But he’s not.
In a hotel conference room in Tampa, Fla., on Friday, Bush told law enforcement officials that Fidel Castro was brazenly promoting sex tourism to Cuba.
“The dictator welcomes sex tourism. Here’s how he bragged about the industry,” Bush said. “This is his quote: ‘Cuba has the cleanest and most educated prostitutes in the world.’ ”
Asked about the source for the quote, White House officials provided a link to a 2001 paper, written by Trumbull, on the website of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy.
At the time he wrote the paper, Trumbull was a Dartmouth College undergraduate, and the paper won a prize from the association as the best student paper of the year. Now a law student at Vanderbilt University, Trumbull does not remember the source for the wording of the Castro quote, which he did not footnote.
“I don’t know why I don’t have a footnote for that,” said Trumbull, 24, who is clerking this summer for a federal judge in Puerto Rico. “That was before I was in law school and understood that you have to footnote everything.”
Trumbull says the quote was probably a paraphrase of comments the Cuban leader made in 1992, which have been oft-repeated and seem to have taken on a life of their own.
But regardless of the exact wording, Trumbull says the president’s speech misconstrued the meaning, which he says should have been clear from his paper.
“It shows that they didn’t read much of the article,” Trumbull said in a telephone interview.
According to Trumbull, who conducted field research in Cuba, prostitution boomed in the Caribbean nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, providing an important source of currency for the Cuban economy. Castro, who outlawed prostitution when he took power in 1959, initially had few resources to combat it. But beginning around 1996, Cuban authorities began to crack down on the practice.
Although prostitution still exists, Trumbull said, it is far less visible, and it would be inaccurate to say the government promotes it.
Even when Castro made the remarks, Trumbull said, he was not boasting about Cuba’s prostitutes as sex workers.
“Castro was merely trying to emphasize some of the successes of the revolution by saying ‘even our prostitutes our educated,’ ” Trumbull said. “Castro was trying to defend his revolution against negative publicity. He was in no way bragging about the opportunities for sex tourism on the island.”
On Monday, administration officials acknowledged that they did not have a source for the wording of the president’s citation other than Trumbull’s paper. A White House spokeswoman defended the inclusion, arguing it expressed an essential truth about Cuba.
“The president’s point in citing Castro’s quote was to highlight Castro’s morally corrupt attitude to human trafficking,” White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said. She pointed to two other instances in which Castro boasted of the education level of Cuba’s prostitutes; in neither case was the context a direct promotion of sex tourism.
The speech “was vetted the same way all the president’s speeches are vetted,” Buchan said, declining to provide details.
A State Department official familiar with the matter said the Cuba material was added to the speech at the last minute. He said the White House contacted the department no more than a day before the speech and asked for material on human trafficking in Cuba. A quick search of the Internet turned up Trumbull’s paper; the official said there was inadequate time to find the original source for Castro’s quote.
The State Department official later found the original quote, which he acknowledged was much less succinct than the president’s version.
“There are hookers, but prostitution is not allowed in our country,” Castro told Cuba’s National Assembly in July 1992, according to a translation by the British Broadcasting Corp. “There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist. Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarilyů. We can say that they are highly educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country with the lowest number of AIDS cases.”
Trumbull described himself as “annoyed” by the use the White House made of his project. “It is really disheartening to see bits of my research contorted, taken out of context, and used to support conclusions that are contrary to the truth,” he said.
Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was one thing for an undergraduate to include an unsubstantiated quotation in a college paper, but it was another for the White House to include one in a presidential speech.
“That’s incredibly sloppy, and it shows that when it comes to Cuba policy, they are willing to cut huge corners,” Sweig said.
Bush’s standing with Cuban Americans ó a crucial segment of supporters in the battleground state of Florida ó has taken a hit in recent months. Critics have accused Bush of reneging on promises to crack down harder on the Castro regime. Some Republican state lawmakers even wrote the White House, suggesting the president risked losing support among Cuban Americans if he did not act.
In response, the Bush administration this spring unveiled rules limiting Cuban Americans’ packages and visits to Cuba, which officials said would hurt Castro. But some Cuban Americans say the new rules punish them by restricting their contact with relatives.
“They took a hit on their Cuba policy, so [the president’s remark on sex tourism] was an effort to make up lost ground,” Sweig said.
Times staff writers Peter Wallsten and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.