Cuban Mercenaries in Russia, As If We Were in the Cold War

Cubans entering the Russian Army. Foto: Composición CPEM

By Francisco Acevedo

HAVANA TIMES – The story we spoke about last week with testimonies from young Cubans who felt scammed after signing a contract to work in Russia in war-affected areas in Ukraine, has had great repercussions and forced our dear Miguel Diaz-Canel’s Government to officially respond, and to even make arrests.

Let’s look at it in parts.

First things first. Russia is currently going to great lengths to reinforce its troops in Ukraine, and at the beginning of the year, it revealed a plan to increase its Armed Forces by 30%, to reach a total of 1.5 million soldiers. Furthermore, in July, the State Duma voted in favor of extending the military recruitment age to include citizens aged 18 to 30, instead of the 27-year-old age requirement today.

The week before last, photos of young Cubans (specifically Andorf Velasquez Garcia and Alex Vegas Diaz, as we later learned) who were pretty much still children even though they’d reached adulthood, had signed contracts to allegedly go to Russia to help with building work in areas damaged by the war with Ukraine.

According to them, they signed the documents without knowing what they said, because they were in Russian. Once they got there, their personal documents were taken away, they were moved from city to city doing tests, but never being given a specific task, much less being paid for their work. In fact, one of them said that he wasn’t recruited straightaway because he only has one kidney.

In early May, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, issued a decree-law that fast-tracks Russian citizenship for foreigners who join his military campaign, and after serving a year-long contract.

Anyway, on September 4th, the Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) published an official statement in which the authorities assured the Ministry of Interior had “detected” (are you being serious? If people have been complaining for weeks) and is working to neutralize and dismantle the human trafficking ring that is operating in Russia to enlist Cuban citizens living there (in exchange for speeding up their citizenship paperwork), and even some coming from Cuba (for money), into the Russian military forces that are fighting in war operations in Ukraine.

Without going into details, it added that criminal prosecution against those involved had begun. On September 8th, it was announced that 17 people had been arrested in connection to this scandal, and the investigation is still underway, but Havana hasn’t condemned Moscow for the invasion at any point.

Let’s remember that in an unusual interview, in May as well, Diaz-Canel told Russia’s state-owned RT channel that Cuba condemned “NATO’s expansion towards Russia’s border,” but he doesn’t find fault in Russia expanding its own into Ukraine.

The reality is that ever since this war began, both countries have signed different agreements that promise to increase Russian foreign investment in Cuba, including of staple foods and oil shipments.

Taking the statement as a starting point, in which he says that Cuba has a firm and clear historic stance on mercenarism (it didn’t have this in the 1970s or ‘80s because it sent tens of thousands of young people and officers to fight in Ethiopia and Angola) and it plays an active role in the United Nations rejecting this practice (to clean its image and appear as a guardian of democracy, of course).

It’s hard to believe the Cuban Government wasn’t aware of the situation, when it knows when an opposition member even goes to the bathroom. Here, contracts, flight tickets and life insurances were in play, did they really not pick up on anything fishy?

Some people think that this statement was made because the dictatorship felt offended because its ally has capitalized on the desperation of its citizens to send them to war, but this is a very naive take. To put it in good Cuban terms: Do you criticize the only one that has thrown you a lifeline? I don’t think so, the statement is rather to soften the avalanche of criticism received after these young men’s videos went viral.

No mention is made in the statement of groups on social media who openly offer year-long contracts with the Russian army.

The arrests that were announced last Friday include three people who form part of recruitment efforts on the island, who weren’t named and they only said that they had a criminal background.

In Havana, 60-year-old Marilin Vinent, reported that her son Dannys Castillo, 27 years old, is one of the Cubans who has been recruited in Russia, scammed because he wasn’t told about military services and she showed photos of her son on her cellphone, including some of him dressed up in Russia’s military uniform.

I guess that the Chairman of the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation at Cuba’s Ministry of Interior, Cesar Rodriguez – who is leading the investigation -, had sat down with her, and they must have tied loose ends by giving some names, which is necessary in this case because we are talking about citizens who could be facing up to 30 years in prison, a life sentence or even the dealth penalty.

The US State Department also responded this week, issuing a statement to say it was up-to-date on these reports and “that it is extremely concerned for young Cubans who might have been scammed and recruited into fighting for Russia.”

You can tell in the not so aggressive tone that we are no longer in the Cold War, but at least it’s a direct mention of what happened.

This phenomenon really stinks. Close ties between both the Russian and Cuban governments make it suspicious that they didn’t take action on this issue beforehand. I continue to hope, for now, that they at least reveal the names and faces of those arrested, because it’s not like they were acting in secret anyway.

I recommend continuing to watch this horrifying soap opera to see the final episodes.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times