Cubans Expelled from Russian Army, No Papers & No Money

Cuban mercenaries fighting for Russia.

Cubans Expelled from Russian Army, No Papers & No Money

7 / mayo / 2024

“They have the advantage of speaking Russian. We don’t. They demand we pay more money and go back to the war,” Yoan explains desperately in a WhatsApp audio from mid-April 2024. He’s one of the Cubans who were “recruited” by two women (Elena and Dayana) to fight for Russia on the Ukraine front.

“They didn’t pay us our full salary, nor did they give us [Russian] passports. We’re illegal. They conned us, and now they’re threatening us,” the Cuban repeats.

A document issued by the Russian government and photos from the battlefield are the evidence that Yoan and his companions have to prove their participation in the war. Now expelled from the army, they’re sleeping in the airport, or the metro, or wherever night finds them. They don’t have papers, or the legal or economic guarantees they were promised if they enrolled in Putin’s troops. The risk of deportation and jail shadows them constantly if they don’t return to the front lines. But they don’t want to go back to the war – or to Cuba.

El Toque has been given access to the testimonies of seven Cubans who were recruited to fight in the Russian war but were expelled from the army in January 2024, for reasons that are still unclear. They now find themselves in a vulnerable situation, after falling prey to a web of “deceits” and “scams.” All are identified only with pseudonyms, to protect their safety.

The recruiting network

Cases of Cubans being recruited to participate in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in exchange for a salary and Russian citizenship, began emerging in May 2023. On September 6, 2023, El Toque published an initial piece exposing the presence of Cuban soldiers in the war. Days before, the widely shared story of two young Cubans – Alex Vegas and Andorf Velazquez – forced the government on the island to admit the existence of a trafficking network that was recruiting Cubans.

In an official statement on September 7 of that year, Cuba’s Interior Ministry indicated that the network had been “neutralized” and “disbanded.” The authorities reported that 17 people had been detained, at least three of which worked directly in Cuba. Recent evidence suggests that the fraudulent “recruiting” operations didn’t end there however. Due to the Cuban authorities’ lack of transparency, it’s impossible to know if the supposedly dismantled network is still functioning, or if it’s a different one.

Since the story of Andorf and Alex went viral, the names of several women who participated in the recruiting came to light. Two of them stand out: Elena Shuvalova, a Russian; and Dayana David Diaz, a Cuban. The names coincide with Facebook profiles posting recruiting announcements that promise a salary, Russian passport, vacations and other benefits. 

Elena and Dayana were the most visible faces of the structure, but not the only ones. The Cuban recruits giving their testimonies repeatedly mention other names: Olga, the “Russian lawyer,” and Indira Noa Martinez, a Cuban who is related to Elena.

The seven men interviewed for the report assured that they made contact – mainly with Elena or Dayana – through acquaintances, social networks, or WhatsApp groups. For the most part, they arrived in Russia between May and August 2023, signed a contract with Putin’s army in the city of Ryazan in western Russia, and were dispatched to Ukraine. Some flew directly from Cuba to the frontlines of the war. Others were already in Russia and saw joining the troops as a way to legalize their immigration status.

Yoan arrived in Moscow by his own means. When he had been in the Russian capital for six months, he began to ask “about the war.” He did some research and found Elena and Dayana’s contacts. The “recruiters” instructed him to go to a pick-up point to be taken to Ryazan.

It was there where the first images of Cubans in Putin’s ranks appeared, in May 2023. A short article in the local media showed Cubans signing contracts. Another photograph showed a group of recruits during a religious ceremony.

In the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, the Russian authorities have had to seek more soldiers to fight on the frontlines. A massive military mobilization of Russian men, while possible, is viewed as an unpopular measure. One of the solutions the Kremlin has come up with is to contract with soldiers from other parts of the world.

To facilitate recruiting, Putin and his allies in the Russian legislature have put forward a series of laws and decrees that award these foreign fighters benefits, including a relatively high salary and the possibility of being granted Russian citizenship.

Yoan, like the other Cuban soldiers, said he signed a contract that wasn’t translated into Spanish, and that they weren’t allowed to take a picture of it for reference. The recruiters promised him and his compatriots that they would legalize their immigration status once the contract was fulfilled. But events didn’t play out like that.

“It was: ‘you signed, now you’re off.’ They put us on a bus and said they’d give us three months training, which was a lie. Before we knew it, we were in Ukraine, on the frontlines of combat. They only paid us for two or three of the months we spent there, and never the complete salary,” Yoan told us.

Salaries for serving in the Russian army can be as high as 204,000 rubles [approximately US $2,185 at the current exchange rate]. Of their first salary, Yoan says, Elena deducted 200,000 rubles as her “commission.” All seven men echoed the same experience of having their first salary withheld as payment for facilitating their contract. At least one of those who arrived from Cuba was told the money was to cover the cost of his flight to Russia and “other expenses” supposedly associated with the recruiting process.

The rest of the months, they should have received a regular salary, but several asserted that it wasn’t so. Some commented they didn’t receive the total amount promised, but it’s not clear whether the money lacking was due to an underpayment by the military authorities or if the “recruiters” continued taking a percentage of their earnings.

“They became millionaires,” Rafael says of the “recruiters.” “They charged each Cuban 200,000 rubles, and there are 4,000 plus [Cubans signed up].” If you consider the number of Cubans recruited, those involved in the network could have taken in some 800 million rubles – over 8 and a half million dollars.

Rafael’s estimate of the number of Cuban soldiers coincides with that of some media outlets. The exact quantity of Cuban recruits in the Russian Army is unknown. Sources on the ground speak of numbers that range from the hundreds to the thousands. The Moscow Times interviewed a Russian official who spoke of entire battalions made up of foreign soldiers, among them Serbians and Cubans.

Copy of the contract facilitated by one of those interviewed.

Luis, one of the former Cuban soldiers who spoke to El Toque, has his own explanation for the amounts that disappeared. The contractor – he preferred not to give her name – helped him set up a bank account with two debit cards. She kept one of the cards, supposedly to send part of the money to Luis’ mother in Cuba.

Luis’ mother did receive some of the money. But thanks to a bank statement, he knows there are discrepancies between what he remembers spending and the money he earned while in the military. Although he’s afraid to say it outright, he believes the difference went into the pockets of the recruiters.

Cuban soldiers expelled

Many foreign recruits, especially from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and from Syria, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Cuba, originally came to Russia as economic migrants. In the process, Russian authorities lure them in using illegal practices that have characteristics of human trafficking, according to the Center for Oriental Studies.

Yoan had been in the Russian army in Ukraine for some time when a senior officer allegedly ordered the Cuban soldiers to return to Russia to regularize their status. Not knowing the language, Yoan was not sure what happened from that moment on. No other military unit in Russia wanted to receive them, and suddenly they were told they’d been expelled from the army. It was January 2024.

Document given them after their expulsion

Luis affirms that they gave him a paper to sign, but he didn’t understand a word of it. He found out later it was his expulsion order.

Russia is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t require a tourist visa for Cubans. Any citizen of the island who has enough money, can buy a ticket and be granted a 90-day tourist visa.

When that period is up, the person must legalize their status or run the risk of being deported. The Russian police have made a name for themselves, especially lately, for their tenacious persecution of illegal foreigners.

Nonetheless, at the hour of recruitment the army apparently doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the legal status of their potential soldiers. What later changed for the dozens of Cubans enrolled in the Army? The reasons for the sudden expulsion order aren’t clear; possible answers range from supposed acts of indiscipline committed to discrimination or external pressures. The fact that the Cubans don’t speak Russian has also not helped them clarify their situation.

According to Yoan, at least 47 soldiers from his same battalion were expelled and taken back to Ryazan. Those who had some money went on to Moscow to look for work. Those without resources remained in a lodging house, apparently arranged by Elena or Dayana. They were to stay there until they resolved their immigration status and could go back to the war. However, up until now they’re still undocumented and no longer have a roof over their heads.

Although he came back from the front with an injured kidney, Rafael hasn’t received the established compensation for the wound. A copy of the contract which the media were given access to, stipulates that the wounded have the right to compensation. In case of death, the family of the deceased receive a compensatory payment. But there’ve been no assurances that these provisions are being upheld.

“They’re asking us to pay another 200,000 rubles and to go back to the war,” Rafael explained. If they don’t do it, the “recruiters” have threatened them with jail or deportation.

Several of the Cubans were given a kind of license that apparently helps them get through the police checkpoints. However, the document that shows they fought in Ukraine, doesn’t offer them any legal status. It’s not a residency or a work permit. It also does nothing to smooth the road towards the promised Russian citizenship. There’s no assurance either that every one of the Cubans expelled from the army has received this document.

Who are the “recruiters”?

The oldest recruiting announcement that El Toque could find appeared on May 9, 2023, under the name of Elena Shuvalova. In her post, Elena asks for candidates with a Cuban passport and some knowledge of Russian. The post promised Russian nationality after six months, and a salary of 204,000 rubles.

In later posts, Shuvalova’s requirements were softened. Russian was no longer necessary, and candidates didn’t have to be in the country legally. “Legal status not required, only health and the desire,” she wrote in a group called “Venezuelans in Russia.”

Before she began recruiting Cubans, Elena Shuvalova was selling flights that connected the Cuban airports at Varadero and Cayo Coco with Moscow. The price ranged from 34,500 to 40,000 rubles [US $378 – $444 at current exchange rates].

A different post appeared on July 1, 2023, in the Facebook group “Cubans in Moscow.” “I once wrote that I was going to do everything possible and even impossible to change the lives of Cubans in Russia,” Shuvalova wrote. “There are posts talking about the dead. They’re all alive, they’re all being paid, and they’re all working and happy.”

The Moscow Times published an interview with Elena Shuvalova, talking about the Cubans in the army. At that time, the recruiter affirmed that she “was helping the illegal immigrants obtain contracts.” She even said that she could support and help the soldiers’ families until they could stand on their own. However, she evaded the question of whether she was working for the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Despite that, Shuvalova has presented herself to some of the recruits as part of the Russian army; at the same time, she’s told others the opposite. In some images, she’s in uniform, although that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s part of the army, as she could be wearing them to be in fashion. Some Cubans have noted that there’s “great familiarity” between Shuvalova and the members of the military.

Between April and May of 2023, Elena created a WhatsApp group with the aim of recruiting Cubans, both those illegally in Russia and those still on the island.

The group was called “Clarification of Cubans’ doubts about the Russian Army.” Administered by Shuvalova and another person, it attracted dozens of members, ostensibly Cubans. Through that group, she made contact with interested parties, and many times finalized the arrangements to pick them up at the Moscow airport and take them to Ryazan.

Dayana, in a social media image later deleted.

The questions discussed in the group were many and varied: about the contract, the salary, the time it would take to obtain Russian citizenship, if the recruits would be sent right to the front lines of combat.

“To the very front line, no – the second or third,” Shuvalova responded.

On many occasions Elena’s “job” didn’t end with the recruiting. She intervened for the Cubans when they had a problem or were mistreated at the Russian military bases.

The case of Diana David Diaz was similar. It’s not clear whether she is, or has ever been, a formal member of the Army. In at least one of her WhatsApp profile photos she appears in uniform, at what seems to be a military installation.

On social media, Dayana appears together with a man named David Lopez. Lopez’ Instagram profile (“war machine mma”) contains images of him signing a contract with the Russian army, and others of him carrying out military activities. In another photo, Lopez appears with a patch from the Wagner group, although it’s unknown if he actually belonged to that organization.

Elena in military uniform.

Olga, the “Russian lawyer,” is apparently the one who took care of the contracts and other legal documentation. Her level of involvement in the network isn’t clear, nor is her current connection with Elena and Dayana. In several social media posts El Toque was able to access, she has tried to set herself apart from them.

El Toque attempted to contact all three – Elena Shuvalova, Dayana David Diaz and Olga – but received no response. Shuvalova and Dayana Diaz have since deleted a number of the posts mentioned.

The level of connection or influence that these women have with the military authorities in Ryazan, the city where the majority of their activities are carried out, isn’t clear. The Cuban victims of the network describe them as women with great power and mobility in the Army.

In the morning of April 26, 2024, El Toque received reports that Elena Shuvalova had been detained and was under investigation. Up until now, there’s been no official confirmation of a legal case, nor do we know what they’ve been charged with. According to the statements from one of those interviewed, several of the Cuban soldiers Elena recruited were called to give declarations.

Trapped

We don’t know how the situation of Yoan, Rafael or Luis will be resolved. Will they choose to return to Cuba and risk the consequences? Stay in Russia in a state of extreme vulnerability?

“They [the Cuban government] calls us mercenaries. So, if we enter Cuba, we do so as mercenaries,” Luis laments. “Without Russian documentation, it’s very difficult for me to return. If I had fought in the Ukrainian ranks,” he reflects, ”well, that would be something else. But ever since I was a child, they’ve been telling me about the Cuba-Russia friendship”.

In Cuba, being a mercenary is a serious crime, with penalties ranging from 30 years in prison to death. Article 359 of the Russian Criminal Code also outlaws being a mercenary. But in the eyes of the Kremlin, the Cuban recruits aren’t mercenaries, but “volunteers” offering to fight.

Another option for the Cubans would be to return to the war in Ukraine. The fate of many of those participating in the invasion is not entirely clear. Reports of deaths and disappearances are common, although the total number of casualties remains unknown.

Confirmation of Elena’s alleged detention is still pending. So far, it is unknown what consequences that process could have for the Cubans. Meanwhile, the soldiers expelled from the army continue to wait for the economic and migratory benefits they were promised, in exchange for participating in the Russian expansionist effort.

The testimonies given El Toque will be published later, in a series of reports.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.
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el hoax

Entertaining: should be a movie! Incredible reporting detailing a total derailment of promises and expectations! It's like a Bob Dylan song: any part reveals the whole story's theme! So, what can one conclude from all this scandalous behaviour? The unmasking of true lies and typical government corruption but more seriously seems someone picked the wrong horse to win. Just an opinion.
el hoax

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