As the U.S. aims to re-establish full relations with Cuba, it is also pushing the country to redeem its poor track record fighting human trafficking, said a U.S. State Department official.

"We met on multiple occasions over the past year to share information on efforts to combat human trafficking," the State Department's Sarah Sewall told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 11.

Sewall is the Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

"We would like to take advantage of any opening that we have to prompt the Cuban authorities to make progress on trafficking, but the problems, as you pointed out, are severe," she told Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban-American who has been one of the loudest opponents of the Obama administration's new relationship with the Castro regime.

Menendez had broached the topic of Cuba at the hearing. Since 2007, Cuba has been designated a Tier 3 country – the worst ranking – in the State Department's annual Trafficking In Persons report.

Tier 3 countries are those "whose governments do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act's minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so," according to the 2014 report.

Menendez explained that not only is Cuba a source for sex trafficking, but the Castro regime has "conscripted medical personnel to work overseas under conditions that resemble forced labor" – and this is the regime's biggest source of income.

According to the trafficking port, children ages 13-20 are particularly at risk for prostitution in Cuba, and citizens have even been forced into prostitution outside the country.

Pope Francis, who made personal appeals to both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to pursue closer relations between the countries, has been particularly vocal about human trafficking in his papacy.

Francis helped spur the first international "Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking" on Feb. 8. After Sunday's Angelus, he told the audience in St. Peter's Square that "each one of us feels committed to being the voice of these, our brothers and sisters, humiliated in their dignity."

He also exhorted civil authorities to commit to "removing the cause of this shameful wound."

The State Department's ambassador on the issue expressed his excitement to CNA last April that Francis has made human trafficking a "normal part of the conversation" on freedom.

"I do see Pope Francis working to insert the issue of human trafficking in informal comments. The idea is to institutionalize the issue as part of the normal public discourse," said Luis CdeBaca, the Ambassador-at-Large for the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

The conversation between U.S. and Cuba on human trafficking may not be easy, Sewall admitted to Sen. Menendez, "but it will be as all dialogues are, frank and open."

Sewall emphasized that the U.S. is trying to lead the global fight against human trafficking, through efforts that include diplomacy, trade agreements, foreign policy, and raising awareness.

"Undersecretary Sewall has said that almost every issue she touches has implications for human trafficking," remarked chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) at Wednesday's hearing.  

Past efforts have produced results, Sewall insisted, noting that in the last 15 years, the matter has risen in importance to an "international priority."

There is still a long way to go, she admitted, beginning with popular awareness of how consumer products have been made. "Many of the products I use on a daily basis," Sewall said, "may have been produced by slaves."

"The State Department's Office of Trafficking in Persons has been nothing less than extraordinary, but it remains understaffed, under-resourced, and without leadership," Sen. Menendez said, agreeing that more progress needs to be made.