For months, hundreds of Cubans have quietly left their country to fight alongside Russia in the invasion of Ukraine, motivated by promises of money and Russian citizenship from shady online recruiters, family members told CNN.
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The economy is stagnant in several sectors of Cuba. The communist-ruled island is recovering from a sharp decline in tourism, high inflation and renewed US sanctions.
In some places like Santa Clara, a city of about 250,000 people with frequent daily power outages, there were apparently an unlimited number of disaffected men to recruit.
Men like Miguel, who traveled to Russia in July and soon after found himself on the front lines of the war with Ukraine, his mother told CNN.
“My son earned about 2,000 pesos a month doing small jobs in Santa Clara,” says Cecilia. Now you can’t buy a carton of eggs with that. He just wanted to make our lives better.”
Cecilia said she feared Russian retaliation against her son. She asked CNN not to identify any of them and to use pseudonyms instead of her real names.
After her son responded to a Facebook post recruiting Cubans to work as cooks and day laborers in Russia, Cecilia said two women contacted him via WhatsApp.
Cecilia said she heard some calls and that one of the women spoke Spanish with a Russian accent and the second woman was clearly Cuban.
Within a week, Miguel had signed a contract to work repairing infrastructure damaged during the war and the women had sent him a plane ticket to fly from the beach destination of Varadero to Moscow, his first international trip.
Aboard the plane, Miguel told his mother, he saw dozens of other young recruits, including two distant cousins, also heading toward the Russian war effort.
At first, Miguel’s adventure seemed to be paying off. He transferred money to his mother and then to his grandmother, so they could buy luxuries like meat and coffee.
He sent his mother photos of the food he ate: pizza and ice cream.
“They were fattening him up for the massacre,” said Cecilia.
The next time, via video call, Miguel had his head shaved and was wearing a Russian military uniform. He was going to the front, but he asked her mother not to worry about her and even put her on the phone with her commander, also Cuban, who promised him that he would take care of her son.
Shortly after, Miguel told his mother that he wanted to return home.
“He saw what you see in a war,” laments Cecilia. She said that she saw injured people and that people arrived at the hospital without arms or legs. He’s not used to seeing those things.
Miguel complained of illnesses so as not to have to fight, but his Russian superiors did not accept his excuses. The last time Miguel spoke to his mother this month, he said that Russian agents confiscated his phone as punishment and that he had to bribe one of them to be able to call.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m on the front line in Ukraine.’ He’s there, where it’s dangerous,” Cecilia worries. They’re there to protect the Russian troops. He’s cannon fodder.”
La situation difficile des recrues cubaines comme Miguel est encore compliquée par l’annonce des autorités cubaines, au début du mois, selon laquelle ils traiteraient les citayens qui combattent pour la Russie comme des mercenaires illégaux, puis les recruteurs en ligne comme des traffickers d’ Humans.
“Cuba is not part of the conflict in Ukraine,” stated a statement from the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It acts and will act vigorously against anyone, from the national territory, who participates in any form of human trafficking for the purposes of recruitment or mercenarism, so that Cuban citizens use weapons against any country.”
A special on the case on Cuban state television included interviews with officials who said a network of 17 people, including alleged mercenaries and traffickers, had been arrested. If convicted, they face sentences ranging from 30 years in prison to the death penalty.
In Santa Clara, Pedro Roberto Camuza Jovas told CNN that one of his sons had traveled to Russia over the summer and that a second had been arrested by Cuban state security agents earlier so he could board a plane and follow his brother to war.
“He was deceived,” Camuza said. I hope they take it into account and evaluate everything, because there are many others like him.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment on the recruitment of Cubans to fight in Ukraine. This effort was not kept secret.
Russian media have published stories of Cubans joining the war effort in exchange for the promise of Russian citizenship and a monthly salary of 200,000 rubles, or just over $2,000.
This open recruitment threatened to set back Russia’s relations with Cuba, its former Cold War ally. From the beginning of the war, Cuban officials increasingly echoed Russian propaganda that NATO aggression was responsible for the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia, in turn, sent more crude oil to the island and promised more foreign investment.
However, Cuban officials appear to have forcefully demonstrated their refusal to become directly involved in the war by allowing their citizens to serve in the Russian military with the explicit approval of the Cuban state.
But the mixed messages quickly left seasoned Cuba watchers perplexed.
On Thursday, the Cuban ambassador in Moscow was quoted by Russian media as saying that Cuba does not oppose the “legal participation” of its citizens in the Russian special operation in Ukraine, as long as they are not recruited by third parties.
“We have nothing against the Cubans who want to sign a contract and legally participate in this operation with the Russian army. But we oppose illegality and these operations do not fall within a legal framework,” said Cuba’s ambassador to Russia, Julio Garmendía Peña, in reference to occasional online recruitment efforts, according to the official RIA Novosti press agency.
Without directly responding to Garmendía’s comments, hours later, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla again issued a statement stating that Cuban citizens were not allowed to fight abroad under any circumstances.
Behind the scenes, Cuban officials said the ambassador’s comments were an embarrassing distraction just as Cuban diplomats were holding a meeting with U.S. officials in Washington and the day before the G77 + China developing countries summit in Havana.
“It’s a comedy of errors,” said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-American lawyer who met frequently with officials in Havana during the Obama-era détente with the communist-ruled island. “It would be funny if it weren’t for the unfortunate circumstance that young Cubans are exposed to death.”
For Cubans fighting for money on the other side of the world, the options now appear to be exile in a war zone or prosecution and a long prison sentence at home.
Informed by CNN of the contradictory statements from Cuban officials, Cecilia responded with a question.
“What will happen to my son?”