This is how Russia allegedly recruited Cubans to fight in Ukraine 3:57
Santa Clara, Cuba (CNN) -- For months, hundreds of Cubans have quietly left the island to fight for Russia in its war in Ukraine, chasing promises of money and Russian citizenship from shadow online recruiters, members of Cuban families told CNN.
In much of Cuba, the economy has stagnated due to a sharp drop in tourism, rising inflation and renewed U.S. sanctions. In places like Santa Clara, a city of about 250,000 people with frequent daily blackouts lasting several hours and more horses and carts on the road than cars, there seemed to be an unlimited number of disaffected men to recruit.
Men like Miguel, who traveled to Russia in July and was soon 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. "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 and asked CNN not to identify either and to use pseudonyms instead of their real names.
After her son responded to a Facebook post seeking Cubans to work as cooks and construction workers in Russia, Cecilia said two women contacted him via WhatsApp.
Cecilia said she heard some of the calls and that one of the women spoke Spanish with a Russian accent and the second was clearly Cuban.
Within a week, according to Cecilia, Miguel had signed a contract to work repairing infrastructure damaged in the war and the women had sent him a plane ticket to fly from Varadero, a popular beach destination in Cuba, to Moscow, his first trip outside the island.
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On board the plane, Miguel told her that he had seen dozens of other young men of military age who had been drafted, including two distant cousins, who were also on their way to participate in the Russian war effort.
At first, Miguel's adventure seemed to pay off. He sent money to his mother and elderly grandmother that allowed them to buy luxuries such as meat and coffee.
He sent his mother pictures of the food he ate: pizza and ice cream.
"They were fattening him up for the slaughterhouse," says Cecilia.
The next time they spoke via video call, Miguel was wearing a shaved head and a Russian military uniform. He was going to go to the front, but he told his mother not to worry and even put her on the phone with his commanding officer, also Cuban, who promised to take care of her son.
But soon Miguel told his mother he wanted to go home.
"He's seen what you see in a war," says Cecilia. "He said he had seen injuries. That people arrived at the hospital who were missing arms and legs. He's not used to seeing that."
Michael complained of illnesses so he wouldn't have to fight, but his Russian superiors wouldn't accept his excuses. The last time Miguel spoke to his mother, in September, he said Russian officers had taken 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.' It's there, where it's dangerous," Cecilia said. "They are there to protect Russian troops. They are cannon fodder."
The situation for Cuban recruits like Miguel is further complicated by the Cuban authorities' 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 military conflict in Ukraine," the Cuban Foreign Ministry said. "It acts and will act energetically against anyone who, from the national territory, participates in any form of trafficking in persons for the purpose of recruitment or mercenary so that Cuban citizens use weapons against any country."
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A special program dedicated to the issue on Cuban state television featured interviews with officials who claimed that a network of 17 people, including suspected mercenaries and traffickers, had been arrested and could 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 detained by Cuban state security agents in September before he could board a plane and follow his brother to war.
"They deceived him," Camuza said. "I hope they take him into account and evaluate him because like him there are many more. Whatever the prosecutor decides, at least he is in Cuba. The other one I hope you call me."
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to CNN's requests for comment on the recruitment of Cubans to fight in Ukraine. The effort was barely kept secret. Russian media published stories of Cubans joining the war effort in exchange for promises of Russian citizenship and monthly salaries of 200,000 rubles, just over $2,000.
The open draft threatened to roll back Russia's relations with its former Cold War ally, Cuba. Since the war began, Cuban officials had increasingly echoed Russian propaganda that NATO aggression was to blame for its invasion of Ukraine. Russia, in turn, sent more crude cargoes to the island and promised more foreign investment.
Still, Cuban officials appeared to have vigorously demonstrated that they refused to get directly involved in the war by allowing their citizens to serve in the Russian military with the explicit approval of the Cuban state.
A destroyed Russian tank stands on the side of the road near the frontline town of Kreminna amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Luhansk region, Ukraine March 24, 2023. Credit: Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters)
But the confusing messages soon perplexed even seasoned observers of Cuba.
Last Thursday, Cuba's ambassador to 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 were not recruited by third parties.
"We have nothing against Cubans who want to sign a contract and legally participate in this operation with the Russian Army. But we oppose illegality, and these operations are not within a legal framework," Cuba's ambassador to Russia, Julio Garmendía Peña, said referring to ad hoc online recruitment efforts, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.
Without responding directly to Garmendía's comments, hours later, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla again issued a statement stating that Cuban citizens could not fight abroad under any circumstances.
Behind the scenes, Cuban officials complained that the ambassador's comments were an annoying distraction just as Cuban diplomats were holding a meeting with U.S. officials in Washington, and the day before Havana hosted the G77+China summit of developing nations.
"It's a comedy of errors," said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-American lawyer who met with officials in Havana frequently during Obama-era détente with the communist-ruled island. "It would be funny except for the unfortunate circumstance that young Cubans are being exposed to death."
For Cubans fighting for money on the other side of the world, their options now seem to be exile in a war zone, or prosecution and a lengthy jail sentence at home.
When CNN informed her of the Cuban officials' contradictory statements, Cecilia responded with a question:
"What will happen to my son?"
CubansRussian War in UkraineRussian War