Source: Agencia Cubana de Noticias.
Hundreds of Cuban men have enlisted as mercenaries for Russia ostensibly colluding with Cuba’s leadership. With most of the population mired in poverty and the average monthly salary of just USD 17 per month, they are willing to risk their lives by signing a one year contract for a bonus of USD 2,000 plus USD 2,000 a month, residence in Russia with their families, and several other benefits. Russia, meanwhile, gets men with military training for its invasion of Ukraine, and a bankrupt Cuban regime strengthens its alliance with Putin to get desperately needed oil, food and, perhaps, a commission.
Cuba is reportedly one of about 25 countries with compulsory military service, and one of two with North Korea that obligates minors. Males 17 to 28 must serve two years in “Active Military Service” and may be mobilized up to a year until age 45 in the mandatory reserve; the law forbids them from leaving the country without a special authorization. Children as young as 12 receive military “pre-training” in select boarding schools run by the Armed Forces. Even youngsters with physical and psychological limitations are forced into service; evasion calls for a 5-year prison sentence, and deserters are severely punished. According to Cuba’s official data, in 2021, it had 1,033,123 males ages 15 to 29, a large and captive pool that has military training or is eager to avoid the harsh mandatory service in Cuba’s Armed Forces.
Cuba’s young men have long been cannon fodder for the regime’s opportunistic international interventions since 1959. The one in Angola (1975 to 1991) set a particularly frightful precedent. At the expense of young men forced into military service, and with the former Soviet Union providing the military equipment, the Castros turned it into a profitable business. It sent 377,033 soldiers and 50,000 civilian collaborators as Angola reportedly paid Cuba monthly around USD 1,000 per soldier and USD 2,000 per officer. Cuba reaped an estimated USD 4.8 to USD 9.6 billion for the 16-year conflict without counting its lucrative business looting ivory, diamonds, precious woods, and more. Meanwhile, most of the soldiers were paid as if they were completing their mandatory military service in Cuba, a paltry seven Cuban pesos per month for privates (USD 0.71 cents) and fourteen pesos for sergeants (USD 1.43), or USD 8.5 to USD 17 a year. Some, perhaps most, were in the battlefront for three years, unable to go home on vacation for the entire period. Officially, fatalities were 2,085 but the list has never been published and specialists believe the tally was much higher. Soldiers returned mutilated, traumatized, or mentally ill and today, many live in misery.
For decades, Cuba’s compulsory military service has been an ordeal that leaves lasting physical and psychological wounds. Many young men are assigned to remote units far from home to live in deplorable conditions and endure malnutrition, hunger, lacking medical care, abuse, punishments, ideological indoctrination, and extreme exploitation. Most recruits must work long hours for paltry wages in agriculture, construction, and other hard jobs with inadequate gear and equipment. Accidents are rife, often fatal, from poor safety measures. Some must work as prison guards and, after mass protests of 2021, thousands were mobilized with orders to beat demonstrators with sticks. Soldiers are often coerced or forced into donating blood as raw material for a state-run export business of plasma-derived medicines.
Forced labor has long been intrinsic to Cuba’s compulsory military service. In 1965-1968, the Military Production Assistance Units (UMAP in Spanish) held some 30,000 young men in forced labor concentration camps run with military discipline. Most were homosexuals, professed a religion, or had “ideological problems.” The UMAP were ended after an international outcry but the Youth Labor Army (Ejército Juvenil del Trabajo or EJT) was created in 1973. This paramilitary organization of the Armed Forces is generally for young men with health issues, low educational level, or needing “reeducation.” The recruits are not armed but live in barracks under military discipline and must do very hard labor for token salaries such as in agriculture and construction.
University admission requires a year of service before entry, mostly in the EJT. Baptist pastor Mario Félix Lleonart reports that he was exploited as “cheap labor” when, to enter college, he first had to serve in the EJT for eight months in 1993-1994. For three months, he and many other young men were treated like “slaves” in Matanzas, working for a Cuban joint venture with two Israeli companies. They were housed in concentration camps without running water, fed miserably, deprived of their assigned lot of clothing and hygiene products, including soap, and not granted a single pass to go home. Most of them worked long hours with no shoes in the hot sun chopping marabou to prepare the soil to plant citrus trees.
In both active service or the EJT, many recruits end up in prison for deserting, commit suicide, harm themselves seeking a discharge, die in senseless accidents, or are killed in mysterious circumstances. Non-combat fatalities go unreported but are believed to be very high over six decades. Cuba Archive has documented just 54 cases, mostly as of late, thanks to independent or social media reports; 4 were minors and 20 were in 2022-2023 alone. They include one forced disappearance, two firing squad executions, 13 extrajudicial executions, and 14 suicides. Its in-depth report on Cuba’s military service has an Annex on the victims.
The trafficking-in-persons scheme violates Cuba’s own laws regarding minors and forced labor, as well as many international accords it has ratified, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Protocol on Trafficking in Persons, the ILO’s Forced Labor Convention and the Convention against Torture. The U.S. Department of State Trafficking-in-Person’s 2022 report called for the Cuban government to, among other things, “cease the recruitment of children for military activities.”
This outrageous and deadly exploitation is now diverted to kill Ukrainians in the brazen occupation of their homeland. It’s another reason for the international community to stop excusing and enabling the Cuban dictatorship.
Maria Werlau is co-founder and Director of the Free Society Project/Cuba Archive, a non-profit think tank defending human rights through information. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and a Master’s degree in International Studies from Universidad de Chile. This article is based on an in-depth report.
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