Cubans in the War in Ukraine: Human Trafficking and Mercenarism?

Alex Vega Díaz and Andorf Velázquez García, two young men barely in their 20s, left Cuba for Russia to work as bricklayers, or so they were promised by Elena Shuvalova, an alleged Russian who is very active in social networks, especially in Facebook groups of Cubans who live or wish to live in the Slavic nation. This is a more common arrangement than it seems. In many of these virtual communities there are many intermediaries (Cubans and Russians) who promise trips to Moscow and work contracts; there are many who accept them and also those who, after a few weeks, already in Russia and without a roof, shelter or money to eat, denounce that it was really a scam.

Alex and Andorf claim that they were also lied to, even though they admitted they had left the island knowing they would be working building trenches, perhaps the best known of the basic structures of military engineering. They also said they were not the only ones.

The testimony offered by these young men to a U.S.-based Cuban influencer, known as Alain Paparazzi, caused a stir both inside and outside Cuba, and has raised suspicions about the possibility that the Kremlin and the Cuban government are involved in an alleged human trafficking network destined to feed the invading Russian troops on Ukrainian territory. According to Alex and Andorf, once they arrived in Russia, they were taken to a military recruiting area, where they were made to sign a contract written in Russian binding them for one year to the Russian army for a salary of 204,000 rubles (about 2,85 thousand dollars). Then they underwent a medical check-up and were given military training. Days later they were taken to the third line of combat, but they fell ill and ended up in a hospital. The women who arranged their passage, they say, withdrew their first pay from the army with the excuse of recovering the expenses of the trip from Cuba.

Their statements have come to confirm what, in truth, has been known for more than six months: there are several Cubans—it is not yet known exactly how many—serving in the Russian military forces that since February 24, 2022 have been carrying out an invasion campaign in Ukraine.

On September 4, a few days after the testimony of these young men came to light, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) issued a communiqué acknowledging the presence of Cubans in the war in Ukraine. According to the note, the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) had detected “a human trafficking network operating from Russia to incorporate Cuban citizens living there, and even some from Cuba, into the military forces participating in the war operations in Ukraine.” The text clarified that the MININT is working on the dismantling of that network, but did not offer more details, and did not even mention the Russian authorities.

Screenshot of the Facebook group “Cubans in Moscow”

The MINREX communiqué reveals that this is an important issue for Cuba. The presence of Cubans in the invading Russian troops leaves a lot of doubts about a possible participation of the Havana regime in the war in Ukraine, which could mean for the island a serious setback in its relations with the West, especially with the United States and the European Union. The Western powers would never look favorably on this matter, especially after the controversial decisions of the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel: the pro-Russian turn of the Cuban economy, the internal position of support for the invasion and the abstention from condemning Russia in the international arena. Therefore, it is not surprising the MINREX’s emphasis on the fact that “Cuba is not part of the war in Ukraine.”

Just a few days after the communiqué, the pro-government media Cubadebate echoed a statement by the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation of the MININT informing about the arrest of 17 people related to a human trafficking network that sent Cubans to fight in the Russian army. The note explains that three of those arrested “belonged to the recruitment scheme within the island, directed from abroad,” and that the other 14 confessed to having voluntarily joined the network in exchange for “substantial monetary retribution.” The MININT acknowledges that this group had a “ringleader” on the island, who identified “individuals with criminal records, coming from dysfunctional families, to incorporate them into the mercenary system.” In spite of the information offered, the note leaves more questions than answers: from which “foreign” country was this network organized?; are the Russian authorities involved in these recruitments, or at least they knew about this network and consented to it?; why did the Cuban authorities wait to act until the news about the recruitment of Cubans in Russia reached important media such as CNN, El País and The New York Times?

The Kremlin’s response came shortly after, through statements made by Alexei Chepa, first deputy chairman of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, to the Russian media Chepa clarified that the Russian Ministry of Defense has no intention whatsoever of recruiting Cubans, however, he did not rule out that these could get together in chat rooms and plan to “help the Russian Federation.”

“There is a big recruitment campaign for the Ukrainian army all over the world, where have you heard about it, where have you heard someone making a fuss? We are not recruiting anyone. But people may be self-organizing, working in chat rooms. All Ukrainian embassies in all countries recruit mercenaries for the Ukrainian army, but we don’t do that,” he added.

Screenshot of the Facebook group “Cubans in Moscow”

Scammed or mercenaries?

Just a day after MINREX’s statement, The Moscow Times, a media quite critical of Putin’s government, published an investigation that shed new light on the recruitment of Cubans by the invading Russian army. According to this report, it is on Facebook that several Cubans have found offers of enlistment in the Russian troops, especially in groups that bring together residents of Russia and people who intend to emigrate to that country.

One of these communities is “Cubans in Moscow,” which has more than 76 thousand members. It is a motley group in which users share all kinds of information: cheap flights Varadero-Moscow, coyotes to illegally emigrate to European Union member countries (this before the war, of course), sending food combos to Cuba, buying and selling rubles, job offers as a maid or builder, requests to share the rent of a room, and much more. There are also many reports of swindlers and, also, some posts from Cuban mothers begging for information about their daughters who disappeared almost a month ago in Russia.

However, since a few months ago, a new offer has reached this and other similar groups: to travel from Cuba to Russia to enlist in the army. The proposal has been shared on several occasions by a user, supposedly Russian, named Elena Shuvalova, and by another, apparently Cuban, who identifies herself as Dayana. Both claim to be able to guarantee the immediate resolution of immigration procedures to travel to Russia, the purchase of tickets, the signing of a one-year contract in the Russian army, the acquisition of Russian citizenship and a salary of 204,000 rubles, in addition to the possibility of transferring the family of the conscript to the Slavic country at a later date.

According to The Moscow Times, the invading army has “international battalions” of between 300 and 1,000 men. An alleged senior Russian officer who preferred to remain anonymous revealed to this media outlet that some of these battalions are made up almost entirely of Cubans and Serbs.

Screenshot of the Facebook group “Cubans in Moscow”

“They speak bad Russian and not all of them speak it. It is not clear how to work with them. And this is not a private company, they are all employed by the [Russian] Defense Ministry,” he said.

The Moscow Times also managed to contact Shuvalova, who confirmed that she is in the business of recruiting Cubans for the war and that her work includes quickly resolving immigration procedures for travel to Russia, as well as purchasing the airplane tickets, even if they are expired. She refused to answer when asked if he worked directly for the Russian Ministry of Defense.

So far, no cases like Alex Vega and Andorf Velázquez have been reported. Even the Cubans that The Moscow Times claimed to interview in its report acknowledged having voluntarily entered the Russian army, knowing the risks involved. For them, the possibility of dying was well worth it if it meant obtaining Russian citizenship and a salary with which to help their families.

Everything points to the fact that there is indeed a human trafficking network that recruits Cubans to enlist them in the Russian troops, however, there is no hard evidence to prove that—perhaps with the exception of a few cases—they were deceived at some point. The data revealed by the hacker group Cyber Resistance, later published by the U.S. media The Intercept and the Ukrainian information platform Inform Napalm, reinforce this idea.

Screenshot of recruitment offer shared by Elena Shuvalova

According to The Intercept, independent hackers from Cyber Resistance, in conjunction with some “allies of the Ukrainian government,” managed to collect information on the recruitment of more than a hundred Cubans by the invading army after infiltrating the personal email account of Major Anton Valentinovich Perevozchikov, a Russian officer of the Western Military District. Among the documents obtained were more than 120 passport scans and images of Cuban citizens, as well as a series of enlistment contracts written in Spanish (which contrasts with the story provided by Alex Vega and Andorf Velázquez), all linked to a section of the Russian Armed Forces based in the Tula region, where a military school and a base for airborne troop soldiers is located.

The contracts promise a one-time cash payment of 195 thousand rubles ($1,979) and a salary of 204 thousand rubles per month to those who sign up to serve in the “special military operation,” that is, the invasion of Ukraine. In addition, it contemplates that this last figure may increase depending on the rank attained by the recruits, as well as “family and spousal benefits.” The documents also reveal that at least five of the Cubans recruited by Perevozchikov entered Russia through Belarus, the Kremlin’s main political and military ally in the region. Another interesting fact is the wide age range of the recruits: the youngest, Yoender Raúl Mena Álvarez-Builla, is only 18 years old, while the oldest, Lázaro Oliva Fernández, will be 69 years old in December 2023. Both hail from Havana.

The Intercept investigated some of the Cubans recruited in Tula and concluded that each enlisted voluntarily. Some of them have even posted photos on their networks in front of a column of tanks with the characteristic “Z” of the invading Russian army, or posing with the uniforms of the paratroopers. Everything indicates that they received military training in Tula.

Profile of Major Anton Valentinovich Perevozchikov revealed by Cyber Resistance

This newspaper said it had tried to contact Cuban authorities on several occasions, but they refused to respond. In addition, it speculates that Cuba knew about these facts and that the MINREX communiqué was nothing more than an attempt to avoid antagonizing the international community after the revelation of the hacked documents.

“It is possible that Cuban citizens are recruited for economic reasons, as they are cheaper. Apart from salaries, the Russian government is obliged to provide additional compensation in case of injury or death of its citizens. However, this responsibility does not extend to Cuban citizens,” an alleged senior Ukrainian official told The Intercept about the Cyber Resistance revelations.

So far, according to data from the British agency Reuters, more than 62,200 people have died in the invasion of Ukraine, more than 61,000 have been wounded and nearly 15,000 have been declared missing. In other words, Russia recruits Cubans to use them as cheap cannon fodder in the war.

Another proof in favor of the voluntary nature of the recruitments may be the statements given to the program A Fondo, of América Tevé, by the alleged former Cuban officer of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) Lázaro González. According to this source, Cubans who have enlisted in the Russian army know the dangers they face, but also the “benefits.” González assured that all the points of the contract signed with the Russian Ministry of Defense have been fulfilled. González said he is in command of a company of Cubans that does not exceed 90 soldiers in the Ryazan region of Russia. He also objected to the MINREX communiqué description of him and his companions as “mercenaries,” and clarified that there is no presence of high Cuban military commanders in the field and that, for the moment, Cubans are not sent to the front lines of combat.

Photographs of Cuban recruited by the Russian army revealed by Cyber Resistance

An Open Secret

After the rapid media coverage of the news about the presence of Cubans in the Russian invading troops in Ukraine, the regime in Havana acknowledged the existence of a human trafficking network and said it had absolutely nothing to do with the war that is taking place in Eastern Europe. And, although for the moment there is no evidence directly linking the authorities of the island with the recruitment of Cubans, it can be demonstrated that they have known about these facts for several months.

There are several antecedents that deny Alexei Chepa’s statements and the alleged ignorance of the Cuban government about the recruitment of its citizens for the war in Ukraine. One of them came to light in March 2022, when The Moscow Times published a report revealing the pressures exerted by Vladimir Putin’s regime on Central Asian migrants residing in Russia to enlist them in the army. The news, which provoked the condemnation of such forced recruitment by several Western countries, had as its main source a list of more than six thousand pages, leaked by the Ukrainska Pravda media, with data on the 120 thousand soldiers from Russia who were fighting in Ukraine at the time. The report also mentioned various recruitment networks linked to the Russian Ministry of Defense that promised citizenship to migrants who enlisted in its armed forces.

The Kremlin’s efforts to recruit foreigners were not limited to the Central Asian region, but reached Europe, specifically Serbia. The country’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, demanded that Putin in January 2023 cease his intentions to add Serbian citizens to the ranks of the Wagner paramilitary group via websites and social networks.

Four months after the Serbian government denounced the ruses developed by Russia, Putin signed a decree that expeditiously grants citizenship of his country to foreigners who join the campaign in Ukraine. The decree reduces the period of military contracts for foreigners to one year and greatly speeds up the bureaucratic procedures for obtaining citizenship. Several Western media and other Putin critics called the decree a desperate move by Russia to build up its forces after the failure of forced conscription of its own citizens at a time in the war when the balance was tipped in favor of Ukrainian.

On August 26, 2023, the Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported that Mikhail Matreyev, deputy chairman of the Committee on Regional Policy and Local Self-Government of the State Duma, proposed a bill that would allow the deprivation of acquired citizenship to anyone who evaded military registration and mobilization, as well as their family members. According to this media, just a few days before Valery Fadeyev, head of the Presidential Council for Human Rights of Russia, requested the government that the registration of foreigners in the military registry be carried out simultaneously with the issuance of the Russian passport.

Alleged Cubans during the Russian army recruitment process The Ryazan Gazette

Of the Cubans recruited by the Russian army it is known at least since May 2023, when The Ryazan Gazette reported that several of the 450 foreigners recruited from January to May 2023 in the Ryazan region (more than 190 kilometers southeast of Moscow) came from Cuba. This digital media confirmed, once again, that the monthly salary of 204,000 rubles and the immediate acquisition of Russian citizenship were the two main reasons cited by the volunteers from the island for enlisting.

Although it is possible that the Cuban government did not suspect the existence of a human trafficking network related to these recruitments, it did know that several of its citizens were enlisted in a foreign army. However, its reaction at the time was far from what was expressed in the MINREX communiqué. On May 29, 2023, only five days after the publication in The Ryazan Gazette, the pro-government website Las Razones de Cuba— associated with the MININT—described the news as a “defamatory media campaign promoted by imperialism,” and declared that the Cuban government was not involved in these events, which it described as “personal decisions.”

The Cuban regime then ignored what was later emphasized in the MINREX communiqué: the Cubans who have joined the Russian troops commit mercenarism, a criminal offense typified in articles 135.1 and 135.2 of the Penal Code. This is not just any crime, but one that, at least discursively, is used by the official media and the Cuban State Security to discredit and threaten anti-Castro activists and opponents inside and outside the country.

Article 135.1: Whoever, in order to obtain the payment of a salary or other type of remuneration or personal benefit, joins military formations or private military companies, totally or partially composed of individuals who are not citizens of the State in whose territory they intend to operate, incurs the penalty of deprivation of liberty from ten to 30 years, perpetual deprivation of liberty or death.

Article 135.2: The same sanction shall be incurred by whoever collaborates or executes any act aimed, directly or indirectly, at achieving the aforementioned objective.

Dangerous Liaisons

Suspicions about a possible direct involvement of the governments of Cuba and Russia in the military registration of Cuban mercenaries are sustained, above all, by the increasingly close ties between the two regimes.

Since the fall of the USSR until 2014, there was little to suggest that the links between Havana and Moscow were of special complicity. However, just when details were being fine-tuned for the announcement of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, the Kremlin decided to write off 90 percent of the Cuban State’s debt: that is, 32 billion dollars. Barely a year later, Russia lent Raúl Castro’s government no less than 1.5 billion dollars, allegedly for the construction of a thermal power plant.

Cuba and Russia also have a mutual visa-free regime for tourist travel, which includes a 90-day residency permit. Before the COVID-19 pandemic became a global problem, an average of 25,000 Cubans traveled to Russia annually. This number, however, also decreased following Nicaragua’s exemption of Cubans from visa requirements, and, of course, since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. According to the Association of Russian Tour Operators, some 11,000 Cubans traveled to Russia in 2022 (it is unknown how many did not return to the island), while about 70,000 Russian citizens flew to Cuba during the first quarter of 2023.

By January 2022, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Riabkov stated in an interview for RTVI channel that he neither ruled out nor confirmed the deployment of Russian military infrastructure in Venezuela and Cuba. Riabkov’s words reach a greater relevance just a month later, when the military invasion of Ukraine started. At that time, the first suspicions about a possible military collaboration between the regime in Havana and the Kremlin began to emerge.

Miguel Díaz-Canel and Vladimir Putin / Reuters

To this must be added the recent pro-Russian turn of the Cuban government, which not only intends to follow the guidelines of the Stolypin Institute, designed to plan a strategy to rescue the collapsed economy of the island, but has also offered land in usufruct to Russian companies for a period of 30 years. There have also been many visits by high-ranking Russian officials to Cuba during the last year: Sergey Lavrov (Chancellor), Dimitri Chernishenko (Deputy Prime Minister), Vyacheslav Volodin (leader of the Duma) and Pyotr Kucherenko (Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education; who died on his return trip from Cuba to his country), among others.

In March 2023, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, was received in Havana by Miguel Díaz-Canel and Raúl Castro, who has rarely been seen in the media since he officially abandoned his political posts. Shortly after, it was Manuel Marrero Cruz, Cuba’s Prime Minister, who paid an official visit to Russia. Marrero, former Minister of Tourism, then met with members of the Russia-Cuba Business Council, whose vice-president, Tatiana N. Mashkova, declared at the meeting: “With no other country in the world [the Russians] have such close connections, a truly close connection. We have been thick as thieves for a long time now.” This visit was followed by that of Major General and Minister of the Interior, Lázaro Alberto Álvarez Casas.

At that time the short uprising of the Wagner paramilitary mercenary group took place, due to disagreements between its leader, Yevgueni Prigozhin, and the Kremlin hierarchy. Immediately, Miguel Díaz-Canel sent a “message of solidarity” to Vladimir Putin, knowing that this gesture would be met with disapproval by most Western governments. Just a few weeks later, the Minister of the Arm Forces Álvaro López Miera traveled to Russia to meet with his counterpart, Sergey Shoigu. “Cuba has been and continues to be Russia’s most important ally in the region [of the Americas],” Shoigu declared at the time, who also spoke of the plans of both armies to jointly develop a series of “projects in the military-technical field.” Before returning to his country, López Miera received the Order of Friendship from Putin.

Finally, in what could be perceived as an act of provocation directed specifically towards the United States, Cuba allowed in early July 2023 the warship Perekop, belonging to the Baltic Sea Fleet, to sail in its waters and arrive at the port of Havana.

A Spark That Can Start a Fire

Cuba’s “imprudent” handling of its ties with Russia may have serious political consequences, especially in such tense circumstances as the world has been experiencing since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. In this situation, the news of the recruitment of Cubans by the Russian army could be the spark that unleashes a real diplomatic catastrophe for the island. The fact that the Castro regime flirts with the Kremlin does not mean that it is willing to be dragged back to the absolute isolationism it suffered during the Cold War; that is why it has tried to emphasize its dissociation with these events.

Moreover, this does not seem to be a good time to further tarnish its image in the eyes of the West.

The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, made his concern about Cuba’s support for Russia very clear during his official visit to the island between May 25 and 27, 2023. The Cuban government seems to have bet on maintaining its closeness with the Kremlin without losing its good relations with the European Union (EU). The scandal of the recruitment of island mercenaries for the Russian army could be a sword of Damocles hanging over the Cuba-EU Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement (ADPC).

In November 2023, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, will travel to Havana. Díaz-Canel and his acolytes know that the ADPC depends on the progress made by his government on human rights, and that such progress does not exist; they also know that so far a group of high officials of the European bloc have managed to contain the initiatives of several MEPs to annul the agreement, and also that the invasion of Ukraine is an extremely sensitive issue for the Europeans, who consider Vladimir Putin their main enemy. Therefore, if the Cuban regime intends to continue receiving aid from the EU, it would do well not to cross this last line and to obtain, in the worst-case scenario, a tepid recommendation from Gilmore.

Eamon Gilmore, EU Special Representative for Human Rights Affairs Eamon Gilmore’s website

A scandal would also affect the Cuban government ahead of the upcoming G77 + China Summit, to be held in mid-September 2023 in Havana; Cuba currently holds the pro tempore presidency of the organization. The event—to be attended by several world leaders, in addition to Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General—will be focused on the “current challenges in the development of science, technology and innovation”; its importance for Cuba consists mainly in that it is another opportunity to give a “good image” and score points as an international diplomatic actor.

None of this will be possible if the news about the Cuban mercenaries recruited by Russia were to become more visible. And this cannot be ruled out.

Recently, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Ukrainian Parliament, Oleksandr Marezhko, wrote on his X account (Twitter): “The communist regime pretends that it has nothing to do with this human trafficking. In reality, this totalitarian regime is on the side of the aggressor. The European Union must immediately stop funding this pro-Russian totalitarian regime!”

Screenshot of the tweet by Oleksandr Marezhko, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Ukrainian Parliament

For its part, Washington has acted cautiously and soberly in the wake of the news. Last week, Vedant Patel, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, declared in a press conference that the White House, although aware of the fact that there are Cubans in the invading Russian troops, “is evaluating the information” since, for the moment, it does not have evidence directly involving the Cuban government in the mercenary recruitment activities.

Darío Alejandro Aleman. Cuban journalist based in Mexico.


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