CNN and Time Magazine have provided more details on Cubans fighting for Russia in Ukraine.
Family members in Cuba have told 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 shadowy online recruiters.”
These Cubans in the war left the island because of the absolutely desperate economic conditions on the island and the promise of good-paying construction jobs in Russia. Once in Russia, however, they were sent to fight in Ukraine as shields for the Russian troops.
Time Magazine’s Report
A 19-year-old Cuban, Alex Vegas Diaz, said he had accepted an offer on WhatsApp to make good money doing “construction work” for the Russian military. But when he arrived in Russia, he and a Cuban friend were taken to a Russian military base, outfitted with weapons and sent against their will to the front lines of the Ukraine war. Soon, however, he became ill and was sent to a Russian hospital. On an August 31st video, he said, ““What is happening in Ukraine is ugly—to see people with their heads open before you, to see how people are killed, feel the bombs falling next to you. Please, please help get us out of here.”
This report went viral, prompting other Cubans on the island to seek information about their family members who had gone to Russia, and Time determined that Vegas Diaz and the others had been “caught up in a large, organized operation that has openly recruited hundreds of Cuban volunteers to fight in Moscow’s increasingly depleted army since July. They also suggest that the trafficking allegations may be an attempt by the Cuban government, a longtime ally of Russia, to maintain its stated neutrality on the war in Ukraine, four Cuba experts and former U.S. officials tell TIME.”
This past June posts began to appear on Cuban Facebook groups advertising a “contract with the Ministry of Defense for military service in the Russian army. Recruits were offered a monthly salary of 204,00 rubles, or $2,086 U.S. dollars—an almost unimaginable sum in Cuba, where the average salary is less than $50 per month. On Sept. 5, a Ukrainian hacker group posted what appeared to be a version of the six-page contract that recruits signed once they arrived in Russia, translated into flawless Spanish. It required a one-year commitment and came with benefits that included a one-time enlistment fee of 195,000 rubles (roughly $2,000) and 2 million rubles (roughly $21,000) for their families if they are killed. The contract also asks recruits to fill out a questionnaire about why they are enlisting and how they feel about military service. The terms of the contract match those publicly promoted by the Russian Defense Ministry, including the possibility of Russian citizenship for the recruit and their families per a decree signed by President Vladimir Putin last year.”
According to Time, “It is unclear how many conscripts the recruiting push yielded. The hacked emails reviewed by TIME only document the nearly 200 recruits who passed through the military office in the Russian city of Tula in July and August. Cuban human-rights groups’ estimates range from around 750 recruits to more than 1,000. The Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC) told TIME that of the 746 recruits they have tracked, at least 62 appear to be part of a highly-trained Cuban special forces outfit known as the Avispas Negras, or Black Wasps. TIME reviewed 199 passports of Cubans, aged 18 to 69, who appear to have enlisted with the Russian army since mid-July, and matched more than 20 to social-media profiles that corroborated their names, faces, and hometowns.”
“Perhaps the clearest indication that the vast majority of these recruits went to Russia willingly, and did not act as though they were engaging in an illegal scheme, comes through their own social-media posts. On Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, many of these recruits posted photos with Russian tanks, smiled with other Cubans in their new Russian military uniforms, and boasted about sending money back home. In Facebook comments, family members openly discussed brothers, husbands, and cousins who were ‘in Russia’ and ‘in the war.’”
“The discovery of the recruiting effort has complicated the delicate line Havana has tried to walk since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cuba has been crippled by a 60-year U.S. embargo, island-wide blackouts, and a hunger crisis. It relies on Russia for food, oil, and economic investment, and recently signed a series of bilateral deals in which Moscow pledged relief for food and oil shortages and investment in the island’s struggling sugar and steel industries in exchange for land leases. At the same time, Cuba can’t afford to further jeopardize its relations with Western nations who have sought to isolate Russia as punishment for its war in Ukraine. The European Union is Cuba’s second-biggest trading partner and largest foreign investor. Ukraine, which has made it clear it believes Havana is involved in the recruiting scheme, has publicly pushed for Western nations to retaliate by “severing diplomatic relations with Cuba.”
Although the Cuban government has tried to deny Russian recruitment of Cuban for the Ukraine war, “dozens of the passports reviewed by TIME had been issued very recently, making it unlikely, experts say, that the Communist government, which keeps close tabs on its citizens, would not have detected the sudden exodus. Cuba analysts reject the possibility that Havana was unaware of the recruiting push. Several recruits told family members who spoke to TIME, as well as human rights groups, that Cuban officials intentionally did not stamp their passports before they exited the country to board their flight to Moscow, in an apparent attempt to maintain deniability.”
According to Chris Simmons, a Cuban spycraft expert and former counterintelligence officer with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, “The idea that the [Cuban] government was not involved is ludicrous. Nothing happens without their involvement.” This view is “widely shared by Cuba experts who spoke to TIME. By pledging to prosecute any ‘illegal’ recruiting, the Cuban government gets the best of both worlds: ‘It supports its ally,’ Simmons says, ‘and because the passports aren’t stamped, there’s no liability of a body count, because there’s no proof they ever left.’”
 Bergengruen, How Russia Is Recruiting Cubans to Fight in Ukraine, Time (Sept. 18, 2023) (even more details are provided in the Time article).