WhatsApp to war: How Cubans were recruited to fight for Russia
LA FEDERAL, Cuba — Cuban seamstress Yamidely Cervantes has bought a new sewing machine for the first time in years, plus a refrigerator and a cellphone – all on Russia’s dime.
She said her 49-year-old husband Enrique Gonzalez, a struggling bricklayer, left their home in the small town of La Federal on July 19 to fight for the Russian army in Ukraine. Days later, he wired her part of his signing-on bonus of about 200,000 roubles ($2,040) which she received in Cuban pesos, Cervantes told Reuters.
That represents a windfall on the economically stricken communist-run island. It’s more than 100 times the average monthly state salary of 4,209 pesos ($174 in the informal market), according to the national statistics office.
Few places feel the pinch more than La Federal, a community of about 800 people on the outskirts of Havana where one in four residents are unemployed, government data for 2022 shows.
On the 100-meter dirt road where Cervantes lives, at least three men have left for Russia since June, and another had sold his home in anticipation of going, she said.
“You can count on one hand those who are left,” the 42-year-old said as she surveyed the street from a small terrace where she’d repurposed two broken toilet bowls as flower pots.
“Necessity is what is driving this.”
Reuters traced the stories of those four men, together with more than a dozen other Cubans recruited to go to Russia from districts in and around the capital Havana, ranging from a builder and a shopkeeper to a refinery worker and phone company employee. Eleven of the men ended up flying to Russia while the other seven got cold feet at the last moment.
Interviews with many of the men plus friends and relatives, together with a trove of WhatsApp messages, travel papers, photos and phone numbers they provided to corroborate their accounts, paint the most detailed picture yet of how Cubans are flocking to shore up Moscow’s war machine.
The Kremlin and Russian defense ministry didn’t respond to queries about Cubans being recruited for their military. The Cuban government also didn’t respond to queries for this article.
News of Cubans ending up in the Russian military hit headlines this month when the Havana government – a longstanding ally of Russia that says it is “not part of the war in Ukraine” – said it had arrested 17 people connected with a human-trafficking ring that lured Cubans to fight for Moscow. Reuters could not establish the identities of those involved in the alleged trafficking ring and when or whether they were arrested.
The recruits identified by Reuters volunteered to go to Russia to work for the military following overtures on social media from a recruiter who identified herself as “Dayana”. In La Federal, for example, all nine recruits identified by Reuters signed up to fight in the war. In Alamar, an eastern Havana suburb, most of the five men signed up for non-fighting roles such as in construction, packaging of provisions and logistics.
Cervantes’ husband Gonzalez, speaking via video call from a Russian military base outside the city of Tula, south of Moscow, told Reuters he was one of 119 Cubans training there. When he arrived in Russia, he said, he had signed a contract to work for the military, translated into Spanish.
“Everyone here knew what they were coming for,” he said, smiling in military garb as he gave Reuters a digital phone tour of the camp, ringed by pine trees. “They came for the war.”
Gonzalez said the 119 Cubans there were being trained to fight in the war, though still wasn’t clear where they’d be sent.
“I have several friends in Ukraine, and they are in places where bombs are falling but they haven’t actually been in confrontations with Ukrainians,” he added. “Everything is good here, but when we go there, we will be in a war zone.”
Reuters was unable to contact any of the other men who joined the military, though confirmed via WhatsApp messages and photos that they had flown to Russia and two are now in Crimea.
Contacted for comment on the recruitment of Cubans into the Russian military, Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said: “I can confirm that the Ukrainian embassy in Havana has reached out to the Cuban authorities on this matter.”
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the United States was monitoring the situation closely. “We are deeply concerned by reports alleging young Cubans have been deceived and recruited to fight for Russia,” the spokesperson said.
Dayana in camouflage cap
The Cuban recruitment activity identified by Reuters began weeks after a May decree issued by President Vladimir Putin that allowed foreigners who enlisted with the military on year-long contracts to receive Russian citizenship via a fast-track process, along with their spouses, children and parents.
In La Federal, word of the army work began to spread in June, according to the residents interviewed. Offers to join up, shared via Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, became the talk of the town, with Dayana named as the contact.
More than two dozen young men interviewed by Reuters in and around Havana spoke of the scale of the exodus.
Cristian Hernandez, 24, broke into laughter when asked how many people had left the area around La Federal. “A ton of people,” he said. “Almost all of our friends have gone over there.”
Yoan Viondi, 23, who lives a few-minute bike ride up the road from the main drag, said he knew about 100 men in Villa Maria, the district that includes La Federal, had been recruited for the Russian war effort since June.
He said a friend gave him the WhatsApp contact for Dayana, a Cuban woman who he said bought plane tickets for recruits. Dayana was also mentioned as a key contact by most of the recruits and relatives Reuters spoke with.
Viondi wasted no time.
“Hi, good afternoon,” Viondi said to her in a July 21 message, viewed by Reuters. “Please I need information.”
Dayana, who appears in her chat icon as a dark-haired woman in a camouflage cap, responded with contract terms almost instantaneously, according to time stamps. The first line of the message states: “This is a contract with the Russian military by which you receive citizenship.”
The contract was for one year and offered a signing bonus of 195,000 roubles followed by a monthly salary of 200,000 roubles, plus 15 days of vacation after the first six months of work.
Those terms are in line with those relayed to Reuters by other recruits and their families.
“If you’re in agreement, you should just send (a copy of) your passport,” Dayana’s message read.
Within two minutes, Viondi had sent a digital copy of his passport. One hour later, Dayana responded in an audio message heard by Reuters: “Perfect, tomorrow I’ll be able to tell you what day you will travel,” she said.
Reuters was unable to reach Dayana for comment on the number used by Viondi and others, or to confirm her full name.
I won’t die of hunger
In the end, despite his initial enthusiasm, Viondi became anxious about going to Russia and cut contact with Dayana. He stressed that the people who signed up in La Federal knew they would be going to fight.
“It’s hard living here. Everyone said, ‘If I choose this, I won´t die of hunger in Cuba,” he said. “But they knew where they were going. I knew perfectly well where I was going too.”
Viondi told Reuters neither Dayana, nor anyone else, had asked him to keep their interactions a secret.
He said he maintained contact with at least four friends who had signed contracts in Russia with the army and that, as far as he knew, “they were fine”. Most, he said, were now in Ukraine.
Cuba is mired in its worst economic crisis in decades, with long lines for even the basics like food, fuel and healthcare, spurring an exodus of Cubans to the U.S., Latin America and Europe last year.
Alina Gonzalez, president of a neighborhood block committee in La Federal tasked with mobilizing support for the communist-run government, recalled the excitement stirred by the Russian military work.
Many men jumped at the opportunity in her neighborhood, she said, including her nephew Danilo.
“The one that lives over there? He went with his wife and two children. That one over there, with his wife. And the mother of another lives further down,” she said.
Roberto Sabori told Reuters that many of the men who left – including his 30-year-old son, Yasmani – had done so in a hurry, keeping their plans secret from even their families.
“I heard he was leaving the same day he left,” said the 53-year-old, who lives around the corner from Gonzalez, adding that his son had called him as he prepared to board a flight from the resort town of Varadero to Moscow.
“He never told me anything.”
‘Mami, I can’t take it’
Cervantes, the seamstress of La Federal, recalls the desperation her husband Gonzalez, now in Russia, had felt in the months before he left. “Work, work, work,” she said of his life. “One day, he said to me, ‘Mami, I just can’t take it anymore’.”
“One day he told me, ‘I’m going to Russia. He showed me the photocopy of his passport, and had the ticket and everything. That was the 17th (of July) and he left on the 19th.”
While Cervantes chose to stay behind, Reuters confirmed through WhatsApp photos and videos that at least three wives from La Federal had joined their husbands in Russia, as well as at least one child.
Cervantes said her cousin, Luis Herlys Osorio, had enlisted in the Russian army weeks after her husband departed, and that his wife, Nilda, was also now in Russia: “She went, and so did many of the women in the neighborhood.”
Reuters reviewed photos on social media of Nilda, with two other wives from La Federal, at a rented home in the city of Ryazan in western Russia. Osorio is in Crimea, Cervantes said.
Cuba has sent mixed messages this month about its citizens fighting for Russia.
On Sept. 8, when it announced the trafficking-ring arrests, it also said it was illegal for its citizens to fight for a foreign army, punishable by life in prison.
Days later, though, Cuba’s ambassador in Moscow said Havana didn’t oppose Cubans “who just want to sign a contract and legally take part with the Russian army in this operation.” Within hours, Cuba contradicted its envoy, reiterating that Cubans were prohibited from fighting as war mercenaries.
Gonzalez objects to being called a mercenary. The former bricklayer, who had received his Russian passport, likens his decision to fight with Russia to that of the Cubans who fought in a Soviet-backed war in Angola in the 1970s.
In that war in southern Africa, widely viewed as a Cold War proxy conflict, Cuba deployed tens of thousands of troops to fight for a communist guerrilla group supported by Moscow against a rival, U.S.-backed anti-communist movement.
“I’m following their example,” Gonzalez said of those Cuban fighters in Angola, adding Moscow had been a steadfast ally of Cuba for decades and the Soviet Union had provided economic aid to the island.
“Russia helped to maintain my family.”