By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta
HAVANA (Reuters) - A United Nations expert said on Friday she hoped her visit to Cuba would open the door to a more intense dialogue on human rights and praised the country's social welfare system for reducing Cubans' vulnerability to human trafficking.
Communist-run Cuba is generally suspect of inspections by international institutions, and this was the first visit by a U.N. human rights investigator in a decade.
"I hope that this will be a stepping point for a more intense and fruitful dialogue with the whole human rights system," said Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, U.N. special rapporteur on trafficking in persons.
Cuban dissidents, whom the government considers mercenaries funded by U.S. interests, said it was a positive sign that she had been invited, but only a first step.
"It is notable they are not inviting special rapporteurs who look into torture, penitentiary systems, freedom of expression, the functioning of electoral systems, etc," said Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors arrests of opponents.
Cuba's free healthcare, education and social security systems help reduce vulnerabilities that can lead to trafficking, Giammarinaro told a news conference.
"Vulnerability factors are probably less significant than other countries' - for example, social inequalities and situations of complete destitution," she said.
She did note, however, concerns over Cubans emigrating, for example, in hopes of taking greater advantage of their skills abroad and then "finding themselves in a situation of destitution."
A migration crisis erupted in recent years due to fears the United States might end its lenient asylum policy for Cubans in the wake of its historic detente with Cuba.
Thousands sold their belongings to raise cash for perilous journeys in pursuit of their American Dream.
Cuba long argued that this U.S. policy fostered human trafficking, and the Obama administration repealed it in January. Giammarinaro said she had been informed there had since been a decrease in emigration.
After a week of meetings with Cuban civilians and government officials, Giammarinaro said she had identified a few other areas of concern, such as sexual abuse, particularly of children.
She said the Cuban legal framework could be improved. For example, children should be protected by criminal law until the age of 18, and not 16 as is the case today.
Giammarinaro applauded that prostitution is not seen as a crime in Cuba but raised her concern with authorities that it was still stigmatized socially and sometimes punished with detention.
"People shouldn't be punished for being induced, manipulated or forced into prostitution," she said.
(Editing by Dan Grebler)