The Cuban Connection: Unveiling the Surprising Links between Cuba and Russia in Ukraine

The Cuban Connection: Unveiling the Surprising Links between Cuba and Russia in Ukraine

Cubans are reportedly leaving their country to join Russia's war in Ukraine, enticed by online recruiters offering monetary rewards and Russian citizenship

Hundreds of Cubans have been leaving the island secretly for months, drawn by the prospect of financial incentives and Russian citizenship offered by online recruiters. Family members shared with CNN that these individuals are joining Russia in its conflict in Ukraine.

The economic situation in Cuba has stagnated considerably, with the country facing a significant decline in tourism, rising inflation, and renewed sanctions from the United States. In cities like Santa Clara, which experiences frequent daily blackouts and has more horse-drawn carts than cars on the roads, there is an abundance of disillusioned men available for recruitment.

According to Miguel's mother, Cecilia, her son Miguel, who had traveled to Russia in July and then found himself in the midst of the Ukraine conflict, used to earn around 2,000 pesos per month from odd jobs in Santa Clara. However, she mentioned that this amount is now insufficient to even buy a carton of eggs. Miguel's main motivation for his actions was to improve their lives. Due to fears of Russian retaliation, Cecilia requested CNN to maintain their anonymity and use pseudonyms for their real names.

Two women contacted Cecilia's son on WhatsApp in response to his Facebook post seeking Cuban workers for cooking and construction jobs in Russia. Cecilia eavesdropped on their conversations and noticed that one woman spoke Spanish with a Russian accent, while the other had a distinct Cuban accent.

Within a week, Cecilia mentioned that Miguel swiftly secured a contract to engage in the restoration of war-torn infrastructure. Simultaneously, the women arranged for him to be issued a plane ticket for his inaugural journey outside of the island - from the idyllic beach locale of Varadero to Moscow.

While onboard the aircraft, Miguel revealed that he observed a multitude of other young men who were of military age, all of whom had also been recruited for the Russian war endeavor. Among them were his two distant cousins.

The Cuban Connection: Unveiling the Surprising Links between Cuba and Russia in Ukraine

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In the beginning, Miguel's adventure appeared to be rewarding. He provided financial support to his mother and elderly grandmother, enabling them to indulge in luxuries such as meat and coffee.

Miguel regularly shared snapshots of the meals he enjoyed with his mother through text messages, including images of pizza and ice cream sundaes.

"They were preparing him for the inevitable fate," Cecilia remarked.

During their next video call, Miguel appeared with a freshly shaved head, donning a Russian military attire, as mentioned by Cecilia. He disclosed his impending deployment to the front lines but assured his mother not to fret. To alleviate her concerns, he even arranged for her to speak with his commanding officer, a fellow Cuban, who pledged to ensure her son's well-being.

However, Miguel quickly informed his mother of his desire to go back home.

"He has witnessed the same horrors of war that you have," Cecilia stated. "He mentioned seeing wounded individuals, with people at the hospital arriving without limbs. He is not accustomed to such sights."

The Cuban Connection: Unveiling the Surprising Links between Cuba and Russia in Ukraine

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Cuba arrests 17 people linked to Russian trafficking network for war in Ukraine

Miguel used his illnesses as an excuse to avoid participating in battles, but his Russian superiors dismissed his explanations. During his last conversation with his mother in September, Miguel revealed that the Russian officers had confiscated his phone as a form of punishment. He had to resort to bribing one of them to regain access and make the call.

"He told me, Mama, I am stationed at the front line in Ukraine. He's right there, in a perilous situation," Cecilia recounted. "They are there to protect the Russian troops, but in reality, they are being used as expendable soldiers."

The situation for Cuban recruits like Miguel becomes even more difficult due to a statement made by Cuban officials in September. In the statement, the officials declared that Cuban citizens fighting for Russia would be considered illegal mercenaries, and the online recruiters would be viewed as human traffickers.

According to the Cuban Foreign Ministry, "Cuba is not involved in the conflict in Ukraine. However, we will take strong action against anyone within our borders who participates in any form of human trafficking for the purpose of recruiting or acting as mercenaries, with the intention of using weapons against any country."

The Cuban Connection: Unveiling the Surprising Links between Cuba and Russia in Ukraine

The Cuban government said citizens living in Russia and "even some in Cuba" had been trafficked.

Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket/Getty Images

Cuba says 'human trafficking network' is sending its nationals to fight for Russia in Ukraine

A program on Cuban State-TV exclusively focused on the affair, showcasing interviews with officials who disclosed that a group of 17 individuals, suspected to be mercenaries and traffickers, had been apprehended. If proven guilty, they could be sentenced to imprisonment for up to 30 years or potentially even face the death penalty. Pedro Roberto Camuza Jovas, residing in Santa Clara, informed CNN that one of his sons had recently journeyed to Russia, while the other had been apprehended by Cuban state security agents in September, just before he was about to board a plane and join his brother in battle.

Camuza expressed his belief that the deception of the individual should be taken into consideration and evaluated, as there are many others like him. Despite the prosecutor's decision, he finds solace in the fact that the person in question is safe in Cuba. As for the other individual, Camuza hopes for a phone call from him.

CNN's requests for comment on the recruitment of Cubans to fight in Ukraine were unanswered by Russia's Ministry of Defense. The recruitment efforts were not kept secret, as Russian media outlets featured reports of Cubans joining the war effort with the promise of Russian citizenship and a monthly salary of 200,000 rubles, slightly over $2,000.

Conflicting messages

The recruitment being made public posed a potential setback to the diplomatic ties between Russia and its former Cold War partner, Cuba. Throughout the conflict, Cuban authorities had increasingly mirrored Russian propaganda, attributing their invasion of Ukraine to NATO aggression. Responding to this narrative, Russia subsequently increased its supply of crude oil to the island and pledged to enhance foreign investment.

However, confusion arose among experts on Cuban affairs as the authorities seemed to have sent conflicting messages regarding their stance on the war, leading to a lack of clarity.

According to Russian media outlets, the Cuban ambassador to Moscow stated on Thursday that Cuba does not have any objection to its citizens participating legally in the Russian special operation in Ukraine, as long as they are not recruited by third parties. The ambassador, Julio Garmendia Peña, emphasized the opposition of Cuba to illegal activities and highlighted that these operations are not conducted within a legal framework.

Hours later, instead of directly addressing Garmendía's comments, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla issued another statement emphasizing that Cuban citizens were strictly prohibited from engaging in overseas combat.

The Cuban Connection: Unveiling the Surprising Links between Cuba and Russia in Ukraine

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Cuba denounces human trafficking network that sends Cuban citizens to join Russian forces in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Cuban officials express frustration that the ambassador's remarks became a disruptive distraction, coinciding with a meeting between Cuban diplomats and US officials in Washington, DC and the G77+China summit hosted by Havana for developing nations.

"It's like a farcical series of mistakes," remarked Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-American attorney who had frequent meetings with Havana officials during the era of détente with the communist-led island under the Obama administration. "The situation would be amusing if it weren't for the regrettable fact that young Cubans are being confronted with the risk of death."

The options available for Cubans who engage in combat overseas for financial reasons now appear to be either seeking refuge in a hostile war-torn region or facing prosecution and enduring a lengthy imprisonment upon their return to their homeland.

When apprised by CNN of the conflicting statements by Cuban officials, Cecilia responded with a question.

"What will happen to my son?"