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Cuba's 'crackdown' on Russia's alleged human trafficking ring

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, holds talks with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Mikhail Klimentyev
/
AP / Pool Sputnik Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, holds talks with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in November 2022.

Back in May, there were reports coming out of Russia that Cubans residing there were signing up to fight with Vladimir Putin’s army against Ukraine. They said were doing so in exchange for Russian citizenship as a way to avoid having to return to the repression and economic catastrophe back in Cuba.

But last week, the Cuban government announced that it’s dismantled a Russia-based human trafficking ring that it says was rounding up Cubans on the island to fight for Russia.

Havana also took a rare swipe at its ally — Putin — and distanced itself from his disastrous, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In a statement last week, the Cuban government said, “Cuba’s enemies are promoting distorted information, which seeks to tarnish the country’s image and present Cuba as an accomplice to these [human trafficking] actions, which we firmly reject.” adding that “Cuba is not of the war in Ukraine.”

Critics — especially here in Miami — say it’s hard to believe the Cuban government didn’t know about Cubans being recruited to fight for Russia.

One of them is Erich De la Fuente, a Cuban-American professor of international relations at Florida International University and an expert on Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe. He joined the South Florida Roundup on Friday to discuss the Cuban regime’s claim that it busted a human smuggling ring sending Cuban mercenaries to fight for Russia.

WLRN reached out to the Cuban government to hear its explanation of all this. They did not respond.

Last week, the Cuban government said it arrested 17 people. De la Fuente says that he immediately predicted arrests when he read their statement. He compared it to the Kremlin arresting an oligarch on corruption.

“Even if [as I believe] they [the Cuban government] are part of it, I think you're going to see [arrests]. And I think they're going to tout that as part of taking action [against] this thing,” he said.

On the latest South Florida Roundup, Host Tim Padgett asked De la Fuente, however, if any real concrete evidence has emerged confirming that the Cuban government was actually involved in something it now says it’s cracking down on. De la Fuente said admittedly there is not yet proof.

De la Fuente says he thinks that the Cuban government has come out to speak against this in order to not jeopardize its foreign relations.

“They understand that if they are perceived by the U.S., by the EU, favoring Russia, being complicit or being part of the actual conflict, it could jeopardize its relations.”

But De la Fuente said he believes “there is no doubt that to a certain level, the Cuban government, at the very least, knew about this.”

READ MORE: Miami exiles claim Cuba helped recruit Cubans to fight for Russia; Cuba strongly denies the charge

Cuba has a long-standing relationship with the Kremlin of Russia, and it is particularly strong now, especially after the two countries signed significant investment deals back in May. But De la Fuente said Cuba is also aware it could face international sanctions, and lose some economic advantages, if it’s associated with the Ukraine war.

Reports say that Cuban mercenary recruits were taken to the city of Ryazan, just southeast of Moscow. Although unaware of where this human trafficking ring is based, De la Fuente says that this is definitely where recruits are trained. He himself is very familiar with Ryazan, having been there four times in his life. He says he still has connections in the area who have told him they have seen Cuban recruits there.

“Cubans tend to leave the island for whatever opportunity they see anywhere. And they're promised salaries over $2,000 a month,” he said adding that on the island they earn about $25 a month.

De la Fuente says this announcement from the Cuban government is part of a bigger strategy.

“Cuba has a long history of making money, whether it's with doctors, athletes, artists, etc. And they're probably making money off this as well,” he said, adding he fears that this could also be a way for the island to receive more from Russia, like the millions of dollars they’ve received in oil since the war in Ukraine started.

On the South Florida Roundup, we also discussed the clash between the proposed Miami Wilds water park at Zoo Miami and conservationists and the Parrothead culture that “tropical rock” music legend Jimmy Buffett left in Key West and beyond.

You can listen to the full episode here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Helen Acevedo, a freelance producer, is a grad student at Florida International University studying Spanish-language journalism, a bilingual program focused on telling the stories of diverse communities.
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