What Threat Miami 'spies'?
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published January 15, 2006
MIAMI - Over the years this city with its large Cuban exile population has had its inevitable share of spy scandals.
But when a local university professor and his wife were accused last week of operating as covert agents for Cuba, the news was especially shocking.
Known to friends and colleagues as a quiet, professional couple, Carlos and Elsa Alvarez are the first Cuban-American academics to face spying-related charges.
Local universities have in the past come under fire from exile hard-liners as being a nest of Castro sympathizers. But such allegations were traditionally dismissed as
a byproduct of Miami's often over-heated political discourse.
Hard-line Cuban exile radio broadcasters feasted on the case after federal prosecutors alleged the couple had worked as communist informants for decades.
Prosecutors say the Alvarezes used sophisticated spy techniques involving shortwave radios, numeric codes and computer-encrypted files to communicate with their communist spy masters.
"We have been saying for years there were spies in Miami, and people used to laugh and say "Oh, those crazy Cubans,"' said Ninoska Perez Castellon, a popular radio broadcaster and spokeswoman for the Cuban Liberty Council, a leading anti-Castro group.
"But we were right," she added, noting this was only the latest in a series of recent spying indictments.
In 2001, a Miami court convicted five members of a spy ring sent from Cuba to infiltrate exile groups. Also in 2001 an analyst at the top-secret Defense Intelligence Agency, Ana Montes, was sentenced to 25 years in jail after she confessed to spying for Cuba over a 16-year period.
However, despite being portrayed by prosecutors as a national security threat, the Alvarez case hardly rises to the same level.
Alvarez, 61, and his 55-year-old wife are not accused of passing on classified U.S. government secrets. Rather they are charged with a lesser crime of failing to register with the federal government as foreign agents. If convicted they could face prison sentences of seven to 10 years.
Attorneys for the couple "emphatically" deny the charges and accuse the government of misrepresenting the case.
"There are some serious questions about the timing and the nature of this prosecution," said attorney Steven Chaykin, a former senior federal prosecutor, who
represents Carlos Alvarez.
Chaykin rebutted government claims in court last week that the couple confessed their spying activities to agents last summer. He accused the U.S. Attorney's office of using the case as a political football to curry favor with the Cuban exile community.
Even so, a judge last week denied the couple pretrial bail, citing the gravity of the charges and their past academic trips to Cuba which made them a potential flight risk.
The couple, who both worked at Florida International University, provided Cuba with information about Miami's exile community, according to the indictment.
Carlos Alvarez taught educational and policy studies while his wife was a mental health counselor.
"They used their academic positions as covert covers to spy for the Cuban government," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier told the court. "They were living a lie."
The couple also allegedly used U.S.-approved educational trips to Cuba as a cover for their contacts with Cuban intelligence.
Colleagues and friends of the Alvarezes say the charges are hard to believe.
"They are both sweet, wonderful people," said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-American attorney who considers the couple close friends.
Freyre ridiculed the idea that the Alvarezes could have provided much useful information to Cuba.
"Neither one of them had any inside line on any of the (anti-Castro) groups here. What the hell could they tell them?"
Freyre described Carlos Alvarez as "left-leaning" but highly critical of Cuba's human rights record.
Some analysts wonder if federal agents might have misconstrued the nature of the Alvarezes' communications with Cuba. They point out that authorized visitors to Cuba, including journalists, academics and trade delegations, often share public information with government officials in the natural course of open conversation.
But prosecutors allege the couple's relationship with Havana went much further. Carlos Alvarez had spied for Cuba since 1977 and Elsa Alvarez since 1982, they say, using code names "David" and "Deborah." They were not paid, but both allegedly earned commendations from the Cuban government.
Hard-line exile leaders say the Alvarez case may be only the tip of the iceberg of Cuban penetration of local universities.
"This merits a full investigation," said Perez. "Sadly, we have a public institution in our midst that is being used as a platform for agents of a dictatorship."
But university officials urged caution, saying there is no evidence that students were recruited by Havana. FIU president Modesto Maidique, who is a prominent
Cuban-American community leader, attended the bond hearing last week as a family friend of the Alvarezes.
Maidique later issued a cautious statement echoing the sentiments of many of their colleagues.
"My personal and professional interactions with the Alvarezes gave me absolutely no indication of any of the activities outlined in the indictment," he said.
Alvarez won academic respect for his efforts to bring Cubans and Cuban-Americans together both in Miami and Havana. He developed his program after studying
conflict resolution techniques being taught at Harvard University.
"He very much caught onto the approach," said Herbert Kelman, emeritus professor of social ethics at Harvard.
Alvarez modeled his work on a program Kelman developed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. In 1998 he took Kelman to Cuba to help build support for his program.
Together with a Miami group, Cuban Bridges, Alvarez led five workshops in Cuba for Cuban-Americans interested in examining their identity and cultural ties to the island.
"These were very well focused workshops, not political events," said Cuban Bridges director, Silvia Wilhelm.
Kelman stands by Alvarez's work.
"I don't doubt for a minute that he was doing this work sincerely and with dedication," he said. "I can't believe otherwise. I saw him too much in action."
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com