FIU couple heading to jail in Cuban spy case
BY JAY WEAVER
Convicted ex-Florida International University academics Carlos and Elsa Alvarez apologized Tuesday as a pair of tearful defendants, expressing regret for a secret life of informing on Miami's exile community for Cuba.
''Please accept my heartfelt apologies for all the wounds and pain caused by my actions,'' Carlos Alvarez, 62, said to a packed federal courtroom in Miami.
''I broke the law,'' said his wife, Elsa, 56. ``I take full responsibility. I'm very sorry.''
The judge didn't buy any of it.
U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore slammed Carlos Alvarez with the maximum five-year prison sentence for conspiring to act as an unregistered Cuban agent and Elsa Alvarez with the maximum three years' imprisonment for harboring her husband's illicit intelligence work and failing to report it to authorities.
The harsh sentences marked the closing chapter to the Alvarezes' life as once-accomplished Cuban exiles who are now viewed by many as ''spies'' for Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The case shook Miami's exile community to its foundation because the couple's targets included their former boss, FIU president Modesto ''Mitch'' Maidique, and other Cuban-American leaders.
The Alvarezes entered guilty pleas to lesser charges in December, when the U.S. attorney's office agreed to drop allegations that the couple were unregistered Cuban agents -- offenses that could have carried up to 10 years in prison had they been convicted at trial. On Tuesday, prosecutors had recommended five years for Carlos Alvarez but only 21 months for Elsa Alvarez.
''The family is absolutely devastated,'' attorney Steven Chaykin, who represented Carlos Alvarez, told reporters outside the courthouse. Elsa's lawyer, Jane Moscowitz, said their sentences were ``all too high.''
The couple's five children, including a 13-year-old, told the judge how much the family has ''suffered'' since the Alvarezes' arrests early last year.
In sentencing them, Moore acknowledged the couple's supporters who testified about their honesty, integrity and spirituality as Catholics, but he condemned them for breaking federal law with their ``personal foreign policy.''
''For all these years, they were in a sense leading a double life,'' Moore said, calling their crime a ''deceit and betrayal'' of the exile community.
He ordered the Alvarezes to surrender on April 27. Carlos Alvarez, a longtime FIU professor who resigned last year, has been in custody at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami since his arrest in January 2006. Elsa Alvarez, an FIU counselor on unpaid leave, was in custody through June, when the judge released her on a $400,000 bond.
During Tuesday's hearing, their attorneys tried to portray them as sympathetic exile figures who tried to bridge the Cold War chasm between Cuba and the United States through a dialogue of educational and cultural exchanges involving the Cuban Intelligence Service.
But the Alvarezes and their lawyers kept insisting the information passed along to Cuban agents was ''innocuous'' and ''harmless gossip,'' causing ''no harm'' to the United States or the exile community.
''I reached out to people with power or who had access to power,'' Carlos Alvarez said in court Tuesday. ``It would require innocuous information . . . The method that I used was unfortunately wrong.''
Elsa Alvarez said her husband's goal was to ''help Cubans to become unified'' on both sides of the Florida Straits. ''I believe Carlos acted in good faith at all times,'' she added.
TALE OF BETRAYAL
Chaykin said Carlos Alvarez was betrayed by Cuban agents and FBI agents who coaxed a confession from him during three interviews in 2005. That was the basis for the indictment against him and his wife.
But prosecutors portrayed the couple's work as ``classic intelligence-gathering activity.''
''They worked for the directorate of the Cuban Intelligence Services and provided ``sensitive information on the exile community's leaders,'' said U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta. ``That is far from innocuous.''
At sentencing, prosecutor Matthew Axelrod said Carlos Alvarez began gathering intelligence for Cuba in 1977 and that Elsa Alvarez became aware of it in 1982, making some contacts with Cuban agents herself.
He said they both relied on shortwave radios, computers and encrypted information to correspond with their Cuban intelligence handlers and also traveled to Cuba and other countries to meet them.
Axelrod noted that Alvarezes' home computer contained files on:
• FIU president Modesto Maidique's personal finances and private business ventures.
• A ''redacted'' U.S. government study on the ``status of telecommunications in Cuba.''
• Brothers to the Rescue leader José Basulto, including that ''an investigation should continue'' into ``the ties he has to the CIA, the Cuban American [National] Foundation and financial interests such as Bacardi.''
• A personal contact who had met with Richard Nuccio, then-President Bill Clinton's special advisor for Cuba, who ''was very depressed'' by Cuba's shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes killing three Cuban-American men and a Cuban exile and the subsequent Helms Burton law toughening the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
• Lula Rodriguez, a Miami-Dade Democrat who later became personal assistant to then-Attorney General Janet Reno and eventually deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Clinton administration.
Axelrod also revealed that Carlos Alvarez had informed two academic colleagues, Fordham University professor Orlando Rodriguez and Spaniard Miguel Escotet.
He had asked both men to write letters of support for leniency.
''He knows he's betrayed them, yet he's calling on them to support him,'' Axelrod said, adding that such a betrayal was ``astounding.''
A moment later, Chaykin questioned Rodriguez in the courtroom, asking him if he wanted to withdraw his supportive letter as well his live statement to the court. ''Nothing at all,'' Rodriguez said.