STORY: “I knew the contract was real when I arrived here. The Russian Federation brought me here. Everyone here knew what they were coming for. I know it for sure.”
Former bricklayer Enrique Gonzalez is one of many Cubans who say they were recruited by Russia to fight in the war in Ukraine.
On a video call to his wife, Yamidely Cervantes, he films the training camp he now works from near Tula, a few hours south of Moscow.
Reuters spoke to Cervantes at their home in the small town of La Federal in Cuba.
She says Gonzalez’s decision to fight for Russia was a financial one.
Just days after he left, Cervantes received part of his $2,040 signing-on bonus.
She has since been able to buy much-needed essentials – all on Russia’s dime.
“I am going to say that necessity is what is driving this. If we weren’t so much in need, I am sure these men wouldn’t have gone. So, you work, and work, and work…. my husband worked alone without any assistance because he used to say, I work in bricklaying alone because I would rather give you the money that I would give to someone to get help and to tell him what to do. He worked very hard. One day, he said: I can’t bear this anymore. I asked: what happened? He said: no worries, I know what I will do, but I can’t bear this anymore.”
Russia didn’t immediately respond to queries about Cubans being recruited for their military.
The Cuban government didn’t respond to queries for this story either.
The Caribbean island is economically stricken and communist-run.
National data shows the sign-on bonus Gonzalez received is over 100 times the average monthly state salary in Cuba of just $17.
Few places feel the pinch more than La Federal, which is just outside of the capital, Havana. 2022 data says one in four of its 800 residents are unemployed.
On the short dirt road where Cervantes lives, at least three men have left for Russia since word of the army work began to spread in June.
“Several were recruited. Because you can count on one hand those who are left.”
Reuters traced the stories of those men, and those of more than a dozen others from districts in and around Havana.
They come from all different walks of life. One is a shopkeeper, another a refinery worker.
The interviews with many of the men and their loved ones, as well as a trove of WhatsApp messages, travel papers, photos and phone numbers, paint the most detailed picture yet of how Cubans are flocking to back Moscow’s war machine.
23-year-old Yoan Viondi said he knew about dozens of men in Villa Maria, the district that includes La Federal, that had been recruited for the Russian war effort since June.
He showed Reuters WhatsApp messages with someone called “Dayana”, who he says is a Russian recruiter.
Viondi kept in touch with multiple friends who had signed contracts with the Russian army.
As far as he knew, “they were fine”. Most, he said, were now in Ukraine.
“…here, you have to work hard to get things done, and you face 25,000 barriers here. For this reason, everybody said: I choose this so that I don’t die of hunger in Cuba. They perfectly knew where they were going. I perfectly knew where I was going too.”
Despite his initial enthusiasm, Viondi became anxious about going to Russia and cut contact with the recruiter.
But “Dayana” was mentioned as a key contact by most of the people Reuters spoke with.
All nine recruits identified by Reuters signed up to fight in the war.
Reuters was unable to reach “Dayana” for comment, and couldn’t confirm her full name.
News of Cubans ending up in the Russian military emerged in September when the government – a longstanding ally of Russia – said it had arrested 17 people linked to 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, or when and whether they were arrested.
Cuba has sent mixed messages about its citizens fighting for Russia.
In early September, it 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.”
Cuba has since reiterated that citizens were prohibited from fighting as war mercenaries.