Cubans Offered High Pay to Fight for Russia Against Ukraine; Cuban Foreign Ministry Condemns ‘Human Trafficking’

Mika Otsuki / The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Cuban man shows an image on Facebook of his cousin during military training in Russia, in Havana on Sept. 17. (The image is partially obscured.) The photo was later deleted.

HAVANA — Russia is recruiting mercenaries from Cuba to replenish its forces in Ukraine and is thought to have lured hundreds of Cubans to leave their homeland, drawn by high pay and Russian citizenship.

This has led to cracks in the previously close ties between Moscow and Havana.

‘Don’t sell your life’

A 38-year-old man was sitting on a dimly lit staircase in a Havana building, staring at a photo on his smartphone of his cousin, who was undergoing military training in Russia.

“If you’re sent to the front, you’ll definitely regret it. You can only be happy now,” the man recalled saying when he received a phone call in July from his cousin, who said that he was going to Russia to fight.

“Have you lost your mind? Don’t sell your life,” the man told his cousin but his relative was determined.

His cousin, also 38, lived in Havana with his mother, wife and 8-year-old son. He made a living selling fruits and vegetables.

However, in addition to U.S. sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic and an energy crisis have forced Cuba into economic peril. The cousin’s family were struggling just to eat daily meals.

At that time, the cousin found information on social media about Russia’s recruitment of mercenaries. The contract was for at least one year and offered monthly pay that was more than 20 times what he could earn in Cuba. Travel, food and lodging expenses were also covered.

The cousin had no combat experience but told the man, “I’ll happy to take up a gun if I can send money to my family.”

After traveling to Russia, his cousin happily reported to the man that he had been able to send money home without trouble. A relative of his cousin also followed suit and left for Russia in early September.

198 Cuban passports

According to media reports, recruiters who appeared to be Russians repeatedly posted a Spanish-language ad for mercenaries on the social media account of a group called “Cubans in Moscow,” starting several months ago.

The ad reads, “One-year contract with the Russian military. Monthly pay of 204,000 rubles [about ¥310,000]. Those who sign contracts also can get Russian passports for themselves and their families.”

On Sept. 8, the international investigative group Inform Napalm released passport information on 198 Cubans believed to be participating in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. This information was reportedly obtained by hackers working with the Ukrainian government who broke into the personal email account of a Russian officer.

Cubans are exempt from visa requirements to enter Russia for short-term stays of 90 days or less. Direct flights between Cuba and Russia resumed in July, and the number of travelers between the two countries has increased.

‘Human trafficking’ uncovered

On Sept. 4, the Cuban Foreign Ministry said it had uncovered an organization recruiting Cubans to fight for Russia, criticizing the practice as “human trafficking.” An investigator told a state-run TV station that 17 people connected to the organization were arrested.

In Cuba, people who are involved in mercenary activities could face sentences of more than 10 years in prison or even the death penalty.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez has said on social media that Cuba maintains a policy of zero tolerance for its people’s participation in any combat, as well as mercenary activities and trafficking, in accordance with domestic law.

Havana is believed to be taking a firm stance because it wants to avoid giving the impression that it has encouraged Russia’s aggression. Cuba has been receiving economic assistance from European and other countries.

However, shortly before the foreign minister’s post, Cuba’s ambassador to Russia told the Russian media there were no objections to Cubans legally participating in Russia’s military operations.

There seem to be differing opinions within the Cuban government.

Russia has also actively recruited foreign nationals in other countries. On Sept. 3, the British Defense Ministry said that Russia placed online ads aimed at Armenia and Kazakhstan in late June, seeking people to sign up for Russia military services.

The ministry believes that the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to recruit troops among foreign mercenaries because additional mobilization of Russian citizens could affect next year’s presidential election.

According to The New York Times, U.S. authorities estimate Russia’s military deaths have reached up to 120,000, including fighters from private military companies.