By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
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 shadowy online recruiters, family members told CNN.
Across much of Cuba, the economy has ground to a standstill as the communist-run island reels from a sharp drop in tourism, spiking inflation and renewed US sanctions. In places like Santa Clara, a city of around 250,000 people with frequent hours-long daily blackouts and more horses and carts on the road than cars, there was seemingly an unlimited number of disaffected men to recruit.
Men like Miguel, who in July traveled to Russia and soon after was on the front lines of the war with Ukraine, his mother Cecilia told CNN. “My son made about 2,000 pesos a month,” working 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 reprisals against her son and asked CNN not to identify either one of them, and use pseudonyms instead of their real names.
After her son responded to a post on Facebook looking for Cubans to work as cooks and construction workers in Russia, Cecilia said two women reached out to him via WhatsApp.
Cecilia said she overheard some of the calls and one of the women spoke Spanish in a Russian accent and the second woman was clearly Cuban.
Within a week, Cecilia said, 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 the beach destination of Varadero to Moscow, his first trip outside the island.
Aboard the plane Miguel told her he saw dozens of other young military age men who had been recruited, including two distant cousins, also heading to take part in the Russian war effort.
At first Miguel’s adventure seemed to be paying off. He sent money back to his mother and elderly grandmother that allowed them to buy luxuries like meat and coffee.
He texted his mother photos of the food he was having: pizza and ice cream sundaes.
“They were fattening him up for the slaughter,” Cecilia said.
The next time they spoke by video call Miguel had his head shaved and was wearing a Russian military uniform, she said. He was going to the front but told his Mom not to worry and even put her on the phone with his commanding officer, also a Cuban, who promised that he would take care of her son.
But soon Miguel told his mother that he wanted to return home.
“He has seen what you see in a war,” Cecilia said. “He said he has seen wounded. That at the hospital people arrived missing arms and legs. He isn’t used to seeing that.”
Miguel complained of illnesses to avoid having to fight but his Russian superior officers did not accept his excuses. The last time Miguel spoke to his mom in September he said the Russian officers had taken away his phone as punishment and that he had had to bribe one of them to be able to call her.
“He said ‘Mama I am on the front line in Ukraine.’ He’s there, where it’s dangerous,” Cecilia said. “They are there to shield the Russian troops. They are cannon fodder.”
The predicament of Cuban recruits like Miguel is further complicated by an announcement from Cuban officials in September that they would treat their citizens fighting for Russia as illegal mercenaries and the online recruiters as human traffickers.
“Cuba is not part of the war conflict in Ukraine,” said a statement from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry. “It is acting and will act vigorously against whomever, from the national territory, participates in any form of human trafficking for the purposes of recruitment or mercenarism so that Cuban citizens use weapons against any country.”
A special program dedicated to the affair on Cuban State-TV featured interviews with officials saying that a network of 17 people including alleged would-be mercenaries and traffickers had been arrested and if convicted could face punishments ranging from 30 years in prison to the death sentence.
In Santa Clara, Pedro Roberto Camuza Jovas told CNN one of his sons had traveled to Russia over the summer and a second had been 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 that into account and evaluate that because like him there are many more. Whatever the prosecutor decides at least he is in Cuba. The other one, I hope he calls me.”
Russia’s Ministry of Defense did not reply to CNN requests for comment about the recruiting of Cubans to fight in Ukraine. The effort was hardly kept secret. Russian media outlets featured stories of Cubans joining the war effort for promises of Russian citizenship and monthly salaries of 200,000 rubles, a little more than $2,000.
The open recruiting threatened to set back Russia’s relations with their 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 shipments of crude oil to the island and promised greater foreign investment.
Still, Cuban officials appeared to have demonstrated forcefully that they were refusing to become directly involved in the war by allowing their citizens to serve in the Russian military with explicit Cuban state approval.
But muddled messaging quickly left even experienced Cuba watchers baffled.
On Thursday, Cuba’s ambassador to Moscow was quoted by Russian media outlets 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 the Cubans who want to sign a contract and legally take part in this operation with the Russian army. But we oppose illegality, and these operations are not within a legal framework,” said Cuba’s ambassador to Russia Julio Garmendía Peña, referring to the ad hoc online recruiting efforts, according to the state news agency RIA Novosti.
Without responding to Garmendía’s comments directly, hours later, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla again issued a statement saying that Cuban citizens under no circumstances were permitted to fight abroad.
Behind the scenes, Cuban officials fumed that the ambassador’s comments were a bothersome distraction just as Cuban diplomats were holding a meeting with US officials in Washington, DC 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 the Obama-era détente with the communist-run island. “It would be funny except for the unfortunate circumstance that young Cubans are being exposed to death.”
For those Cubans fighting for money on the other side of the world, their choices now seem to be exile in a war zone, or prosecution and a lengthy jail sentence back home.
When apprised by CNN of the conflicting statements by Cuban officials, Cecilia responded with a question.
“What will happen to my son?”
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