Santa Clara, Cuba
For months, hundreds of Cubans have quietly left the island to fight alongside Russia in its war in Ukraine, chasing promises of money and Russian citizenship from shadowy online recruiters, officials said. family members to CNN.
In much of Cuba, the economy is at a standstill as the communist-ruled island recovers from a sharp decline in tourism, high inflation and renewed U.S. sanctions. In places like Santa Clara, a city of about 250,000 with frequent daily power outages lasting several hours and more horses and carts on the roads than cars, there were seemingly unlimited numbers of men unhappy 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 Cecilia told CNN. “My son earned about 2,000 pesos a month” doing odd jobs in Santa Clara, she said. “You can’t buy a carton of eggs with that now. He just wanted to make our lives better.
Cecilia said she was afraid of Russian retaliation against her son and asked CNN not to identify any of them and to use pseudonyms instead of their real names.
After her son responded to a Facebook post looking for Cubans to work as cooks and construction workers 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, Cecilia said, Miguel had signed a contract to repair 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 trip outside the ‘island.
On the plane, Miguel told him he saw dozens of other military-age young men who had been drafted, including two distant cousins, also heading toward the Russian war effort. .
At first, Miguel’s adventure seemed to be bearing fruit. He sent money to his mother and elderly grandmother to enable them to buy luxuries like meat and coffee.
He sent his mother photos of the food he ate: pizza and ice cream sundaes.
“They were fattening him up for the massacre,” Cecilia said.
The next time, via video call, Miguel had his head shaved and was wearing a Russian military uniform, she said. He was going to the front but he told his mother not to worry and he even put her on the phone with her commander, also Cuban, who promised her that he would take care of her son.
But soon, Miguel told his mother that he wanted to return home.
“He saw what you see in war,” Cecilia said. “He said he saw injured people. That at the hospital, people arrived without arms or legs. He’s not used to seeing that.
Miguel complained of illnesses to avoid having to fight, but his Russian superiors did not accept his excuses. The last time Miguel spoke to his mother in September, he said that Russian officers had confiscated his phone as punishment and that he had to bribe one of them to be able to call her.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m on the front lines in Ukraine.’ He’s there, where it’s dangerous,” Cecilia said. “They are there to protect Russian troops. It’s cannon fodder.
The plight of Cuban recruits like Miguel is further complicated by Cuban officials’ announcement in September that they would treat their citizens fighting for Russia as illegal mercenaries and online recruiters as human traffickers.
“Cuba is not part of the conflict in Ukraine,” said a statement from the Cuban Foreign Ministry. “It acts and will act vigorously against anyone, from the national territory, who participates in any form of human trafficking for recruitment or mercenary purposes, so that Cuban citizens use arms against any country.”
A special on the case on Cuban state television featured interviews with officials saying a network of 17 people, including suspected mercenaries and traffickers, had been arrested and if found guilty faced 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 traveled to Russia over the summer and a second was arrested by Cuban state security agents in September before he could board a plane and follow his brother to war.
“He was deceived,” Camuza said. “I hope they take this into account and evaluate this because like him, there are many others. Whatever the prosecutor decides, at least he’s in Cuba. The other one, I hope he will call me.
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 hardly kept secret. Russian media have featured 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. Since the start 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.
Yet 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 confusing messages quickly left even experienced Cuba observers perplexed.
On Thursday, Cuba’s ambassador to Moscow was quoted by Russian media as saying that Cuba does not object to the “legal participation” of its citizens in the Russian special operation in Ukraine, as long as they do not were 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 Cuban Ambassador to Russia Julio Garmendía Peña, referring to occasional online recruitment efforts, according to the agency. official press RIA Novosti.
Without directly responding to Garmendía’s comments, hours later, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla again issued a statement asserting 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, D.C. and the day before the G77+China developing country summit in Havana.
“It’s a comedy of errors,” said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-American lawyer who frequently met 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 where young Cubans are exposed to death. »
For Cubans fighting for money on the other side of the world, the choices now seem 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?