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What César really wanted was to get out of Cuba. A bartender struggling to make ends meet in Havana, he tried last year to reach Miami in a rickety boat but was forced to abandon the attempt when he was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard.
He’s now preparing a second escape attempt: with a direct flight to Moscow. His ticket has been paid for by a Russian recruiter but it comes with a hefty price tag nonetheless: As part of the deal, he will have to join the Russian army and fight in Ukraine.
“If this is the sacrifice I have to make for my family to get ahead, I’ll do it,” said César, who turned 19 this year and whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
“You can be a nuclear physicist and still die of hunger here,” he said. “With my current salary I can barely buy basic things like toilet paper or milk.” He said he hoped he would be allowed to work as a paramedic.
The news of Cuban fighters in Ukraine splashed across global headlines earlier this month when Havana announced it had arrested 17 people for involvement in a human trafficking ring recruiting young men to fight for Russia.
The news raised questions about the extent of cooperation between the two Cold War allies, and whether cracks were beginning to show in Havana’s support for Russia’s invasion.
Conversations with Cubans in Cuba and Russia reveal a different side of the story: of desperate young men who see enlistment in the Russian army as their best shot at a better life — even if not all of them seem to know what they were getting themselves into.
One recruit in his late 40s in the Russian city of Tula, whom we will call Pedro, said he was promised a job as a driver “for workers and construction material” but on arrival in Russia was being prepared for combat, weapon in hand.
“We signed a contract with the devil,” he said, recalling the moment he enlisted. “And the devil does not hand out sweets.”
Until recently, Havana — though formally neutral on Ukraine — made no secret of siding with Moscow in what it called its clash with the “Yankee empire.” The Castro regime is dependent on Russia for cheap fuel and other aid. But unlike, say, North Korea, it has little to offer in return other than diplomatic loyalty.
Since the Kremlin launched its full-scale assault last year, the countries have exchanged visits by top brass.
Critics have warned that, keeping with Soviet tradition, Cuba could send troops to help fight Moscow’s cause. They point to a May visit to Belarus by Cuba’s military attaché, where the “training of Cuban military personnel” was top of the agenda, and a trip to Moscow by Cuba’s defense minister several weeks later to discuss “a number of technical military projects.” But there has been no evidence of direct involvement.
Havana’s crackdown on the recruitment network followed the publication of an interview on YouTube in late August, in which two 19-year-old Cubans claimed they had been lured to Russia for lucrative construction jobs, only to be sent to the trenches in Ukraine. They said they had suffered beatings, been scammed out of their money and were being kept captive.
Cuba’s foreign ministry vowed to act “energetically” against efforts to entice Cubans to join Russia’s war effort, adding: “Cuba is not part of the conflict in Ukraine.”
The change in tone in Havana suggests that the recruitment of Cubans through informal backchannels has “hit a nerve,” said Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House.
“Cuba and the Soviet Union fought side by side in Angola and other places, but for ideological reasons,” he said. “Now it’s boiled down to the ugliest, most mercenary terms, giving it a transactional quality that goes against decades of friendship.”
In November 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree offering fast-tracked naturalization to foreigners who signed up as contract soldiers. “We are all getting Russian citizenship,” one recruit texted this reporter. That week, he and others told POLITICO, some 15 recruits, some of whom had been in Russia for only a couple of months, had been personally handed their passports by the local governor.
With heavy losses in Ukraine, Russia “needs the cannon fodder,” said Pavel Luzin, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He added most foreign recruits come from Central Asian and African countries, Syria and Afghanistan.
It is unclear exactly how many foreign citizens have joined Russia’s ranks. But Luzin says their limited numbers mainly serve to boost Russia’s narrative that it has international support for its war.
“Without speaking the language, knowing the local terrain, or the right training for modern warfare, they’ll be swiftly killed and that’s it,” he said.
Joining the 106th
For most of the Cubans with whom POLITICO spoke, their involvement with the Russian army began in late 2022, when somebody using the name Elena Shuvalova began posting on social media pages targeting Cubans looking to go abroad or already in Russia.
One post showed a woman in a long skirt in front of a car decorated with a Cuban flag and a “Z,” Russia’s pro-war symbol. In the accompanying text, Shuvalova offered a one-year contract with the Russian army, “help” with the required language exams and medical tests, and “express legalization within two days.”
Pay consisted of a one-off handout of 195,000 rubles (about $2,000) followed by a monthly salary of 204,000 rubles ($2,100). By comparison, Cuba’s average GDP per capita in 2020 was $9,500 per year.
Of the four recruits currently in Russia who shared their stories with POLITICO, three said they had been flown in from Cuba this summer. At home, they worked in hospitality, teaching and construction. One said he had a professional military background. Two others had completed two years of standard compulsory military service.
While they knew they would be employed by Russia’s military, they were reassured that they would be working far from the front line as drivers or construction workers. “To dig fortifications or help rebuild cities,” one recruit’s exasperated wife told POLITICO.
Because they could face charges of joining a mercenary group in Cuba or of treason or espionage in Russia for talking to a reporter, POLITICO changed the names of the recruits quoted in this story.
Each of them said they were flown in from Varadero along with several dozen other men. They said their passports were not stamped on departure, and that upon entering Russia their migration cards were marked “tourism” as their purpose of stay.
On landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, the recruits were met by a woman who introduced herself as Diana, who said she was a Cuban with Russian ties. They were then loaded onto a bus and brought to what one recruit described as “an empty school building” near Ryazan, a city in western Russia 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow.
There, they underwent a cursory medical check and were subject to a mountain of red tape, including the signing of a contract with the Russian defense ministry. One recruit said a Spanish version of the text was made available to those who specifically requested it, but others said that a translator simply summarized its content verbally.
The recruits said that some of the new arrivals remained behind at a military unit in Ryazan. But most were transferred to the 106th Guards Airborne, a division based in the city of Tula near Moscow that has been deployed into some of the fiercest fighting in Ukraine.
Kyiv claims the 106th was largely “reduced to fertilizer” in the early days of the invasion when it tried to capture Kyiv. In recent months, it has been stationed around Soledar and Bakhmut, hotspots in eastern Ukraine.
“When they handed us the uniform and told us to go train I realized this was not about construction at all,” one recruit said. By then, however, he was locked in.
A legal adviser who is well-known within Russia’s Cuban community told POLITICO he has delivered the same tough message to scores of Cuban recruits who have appealed to him for help: “Once you’ve signed the contract, defecting is tantamount to treason.”
When POLITICO spoke to Pedro in Tula, he said he felt trapped by his decision.
“I came here to give my children a better life, not to kill,” he said, breaking down into tears. “I won’t fire a single bullet.”
He added he had considered trying to escape. “But where do I go?”
POLITICO could not determine whether Shuvalova or Diana were working for Russian or Cuban authorities. Neither woman responded to requests for comment — though Shuvalova told journalists at the Russian-language Moscow Times that she worked pro-bono.
While the Cuban Embassy in Moscow did not respond to multiple requests for comment, the government itself has sent mixed messages. Shortly after Cuba’s announcement that it had broken up the human trafficking ring, Havana’s ambassador to Moscow told the state-run RIA agency that “we have nothing against Cubans who just want to sign a contract and legally take part in this operation.”
Russia’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not easy to tell just how many Cuban citizens have joined the Russian military.
In conversations with POLITICO, the recruits said roughly 140 Cubans were currently in Tula. And a caller to a Miami-based Spanish-language television channel in early September said that he had some 90 Cubans under his command in Ryazan.
A trove of 198 hacked documents, allegedly belonging to recent Cuban recruits and published online by the Ukrainian website Informnapalm, showed the ages of those who joined the Russian army ranged between 19 to 69 years old. More than 50 of the passports were issued in June and July this year.
Not all Cubans POLITICO spoke to said they had been tricked into joining the war. In photos shared online and in messenger apps, many pose proudly in military gear, some carrying weapons.
“No one put a gun to their heads,” Yoenni Vega Gonzalez, 36, a Cuban migrant in Russia, said of his acquaintances in Ukraine. “The contract makes it clear that you’re going to war, not to play ball or camping.”
He said he had been refused the opportunity to join because he does not speak Russian. “Otherwise, I would have gone [to the front] with pride and my head held high.”
During the reporting of this article, several Cubans still on the island reached out saying they wanted to enlist. All cited economic, and not political, reasons as their core motivation.
Accounts of daily life behind the fences of the training sites differed greatly.
Some recruits described their interaction with the Russians as friendly and the atmosphere as relaxed. In their free time they smoked cigarettes and sipped on Coca-Cola (officially not available in either Cuba or Russia). On the weekends they went sightseeing and reveled in the city’s bars.
But those who say they were tricked into service, seemingly a minority, complain about payment delays and said they are threatened with incarceration for resisting orders.
When asked about the moral implications of his decision, one recruit in Tula said it wasn’t his primary concern.
“This is the way we found to get out of Cuba,” he said. “No one here wants to kill anyone. But neither do we want to die ourselves.”