The Cuban regime recruits hundreds of youth between the ages of 17 and 28 for compulsory military service. In a recent report, Global Americans, a think tank that specializes in human rights and democracy in the Western Hemisphere, indicated that this reserve of military-trained men serves as “cannon fodder for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Cuba, one of 25 countries with compulsory military service, starts recruiting young men from the age of 15, extending the obligation until the age of 45 as part of the reserve. In 2021, the male population aged 15-29 reached one million, forming a significant reserve, Global Americans indicated. Most of these young men face poverty and uncertainty, torn between military training and evading compulsory service.
In addition, 12-year-olds are subjected to military “pre-training” in boarding schools run by the armed forces. Even youngsters with physical or mental limitations are forced to serve; evading service can result in a prison sentence of up to 5 years, while deserters face harsher punishments.
“This is another episode in a familiar story. The Cuban dictatorship has been using its population as modern-day slaves since the 1950s,” Jorge Serrano, a security expert and member of the advisory team of Peru’s Congressional Intelligence Commission, told Diálogo on December 6. “During the recent conflict in Ukraine, the participation of young Cubans, along with other mercenaries from countries such as Syria, Iran, and North Korea, who are backing Russian troops confirms this reality.”
According to the report, the close relationship between Havana and Moscow leads many Cubans to join the Russian Army as mercenaries in the invasion of Ukraine. Many risk their lives in exchange for an annual salary of $29,000 and the possibility of getting residency in Russia for their families.
“The Cuban dictatorship takes advantage of its population’s lack of access to basic goods such as medicine, clothing, food, and educational materials, common in democratic countries,” Serrano said. “They exploit these primordial needs to impose decisions on the population.”
“If this is the sacrifice I have to make for my family to get ahead, I will do it,” said Cesar, 19, who works in a Havana bar, according to accounts from Cubans provided to Politico. “Here you can be a nuclear physicist and starve to death. With my current salary I can barely buy basic things like toilet paper or milk.”
In 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree, offering fast-track naturalization to foreigners who enlisted as mercenaries. A local official personally handed passports to some 15 recruits, some with just months in Russia, Politico reported.
Young Cubans have been used as pawns in the regime’s international interventions since 1959, such as in the protracted Angolan war (1975-1991), the Global Americans report indicated. This experience established a pattern: Young men are forced into military service and the former Soviet Union provides the equipment, turning the population’s shortages into a lucrative business for the Castros, the report added.
The Cuban dictatorship deployed 377,033 soldiers and 50,000 civilian collaborators in Angola. The report indicates that Angola paid Cuba around $1,000 per month per soldier and $2,000 per officer. This conflict generated $9.6 billion to Cuba over 16 years, it added.
“In this shady pact, the Cuban regime retains 80 percent of the income from sending doctors and mercenaries, giving only 20 percent to the families of those involved, tying them to the island,” Serrano said. “These young men risk their lives on the dangerous Ukrainian battlefield […] with daily casualties.”
For years, compulsory military service in Cuba has left deep physical and mental scars. The young men, assigned to remote units, suffer precarious living conditions. In addition, they are coerced to donate blood for a state-owned export business of plasma-derived medicines, says Global Americans.
“These young people are used as guinea pigs in medical experiments and as blood donors on the battlefield, where their lives are put at risk and they are exploited for the benefit of the Cuban regime,” Serrano said. “This pathetic circle even operates on the black market, serving as an additional source of income for the autocracy.”
Both acts constitute crimes against humanity, Serrano said. These abuses of fundamental rights must be denounced, he added, including Putin, who is already under investigation by the International Criminal Court for promoting the murder of children.
According to War on the Rocks, a U.S. analysis platform on foreign policy, Moscow’s search for foreign recruits, which gives out clues about the stability of Vladimir Putin’s regime, its level of trust, and its perception of the war conflict in Russia suggests an increasingly desperate situation for the leader.
This strategy responds to previous problems of loyalty and readiness with the national troops, evidenced by coup attempts and citizen resistance, it said. Thus, the Kremlin opted for recruiting Cubans in Russia to maintain a balance between the needs in the battlefield and the mobilization of citizen-soldiers, to avoid unleashing internal conflicts.
With around 300,000 casualties to date, Russia has increased its foreign recruitment since June, a challenging month for Putin due to the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup attempt, which led Russia to intensify its calls to recruit citizen-soldiers, War on The Rocks indicated.
Moscow, however, reduced service contracts for foreigners from five to only one year, offering payments that exceed what Russian citizens receive, the analytical platform added. This extraordinary move by the Kremlin, despite only a modest return, evidences the great political risks involved, leading the country to seek soldiers outside its own citizenry.
“Cuba does not object to the legal participation of its citizens in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. We have no objections to Cubans who wish to sign a contract and participate legally with the Russian Army in this operation,” Cuban Ambassador to Moscow Julio Antonio Garmendia Peña told Channel News Asia.
“The return of these young soldiers marked by serious physical and psychological problems will inevitably be evident,” Serrano concluded. “Despite years of this sad reality the Cuban regime stands firm. It even exports this grotesque, malevolent, and perverse model to countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.”