Not a threat to the US

Translation for Cubadebate: Isabel Perea

Cuban – American college professors arrested and accused of operating as covert agents for the government of Fidel Castro opened another chapter in the conflict between Washington and Havana. For a change, the epicenter is Miami.

The district attorneys in the case and local media have generated the idea that the pair were “spying” for the Cuban government, although the formal charges make no reference to the term. In a telephone interview with La Jornada, from his offices in Miami, Steven Chaykin, defense attorney, has declared this to be “reproachable, since no one has accused them of this.”

Carlos M. Alvarez, 61, and his wife Elsa Prieto, 55, were arrested early in the morning of last Friday and were taken before the U.S. Magistrate Andrea Simonton, who denied them bond before trial after accepting the district attorneys argument that the pair could flee to Cuba. Awaiting their arraignment set for January 19, both remain in detention at the Miami Federal Detention Center.

Even though the formal charge is of failing to register with the federal government as foreign agents, “as a practical matter, these are people who admitted they were spying,” Simonton said. They face a maximum of seven to 10 years in jail.

The law states that any individual representing the interests of a foreign government in the United States, even a Washington ally, must register as a “foreign agent”.

But Alvarez and Prieto – both professors at Florida International University (FIU) – have been tagged as “spies”, and in this context the dominant political climate in Miami, once again, will play a decisive role in the outcome of the case. Despite the admission by the FBI and the District Attorney that the accused never had access to classified official information nor did they exchange it, authorities and the judge have determined they represent a “threat” to the national security of the United States.

Interim U.S. Attorney, Alexander Acosta, spoke to the local press: “Every time spies transmit any kind of information to the government of Cuba, there is a danger to the United States”. According to the Nuevo Herald, Acosta added that “these people were in contact with young people and had the intention to influence them at a very influential age.”

Part of the accusation, according to the Sun Sentinel, is that they tried to “recruit young people of Cuban heritage” in the United States to be spies.

According to the formal accusations, the supposed “dangerous” information they handed over to the Cuban government included analysis of the political situation in the United States, information about the Cuban exile community – including the Cuban American National Foundation and Brothers to the Rescue, and facts about the trial against the Cuban Five accused of espionage, and the Elián Gonzalez case.

Chaykin, attorney for Alvarez, told La Jornada that the same FBI agent in charge of the case has confirmed that there is no evidence of an attempt to communicate secrets or classified information. “In fact the information they were dealing with was at public disposal to anyone in the South Florida community. We have yet to see if one can be labeled an “agent” if their only crime is the exchange of public information, and if so, this becomes a case against the right to freedom of speech.”

According to the district attorney, in June and July of 2005, Alvarez and Prieto voluntarily “admitted”, in separate interviews with FBI agents, that for years they had sent information to the Cuban government.

Yesterday, the Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frasier, told the court: “He confessed to have spied for Cuba, and she told them she felt more fidelity towards the island than towards the United States”. But in spite of this “confession”, authorities have yet to enlighten us as to the reasons why they weren’t arrested at that time.

Chaykin has questioned the supposed “admission” or “confession” of his clients, and have called them government versions. “The only thing we know for sure is that both of them agreed to be interrogated by FBI agents and after that the government let them remain free without any restrictions.”

Among the evidence presented in the case, the district attorneys reported that during the search of the Alvarez home – where they live with their 12 year old daughter and Prietos parents -, authorities discovered a short wave radio, transmission codes and encrypted computer disks, and they assured the court that the defendants “confessed” to sending information to local post office boxes and to have been in contact with Cuban intelligence on the island.

During the hearing, the defense argued that the couple never gave Cuba information “that could in any way endanger the government or military of the United States.”

Yet the district attorneys insist that the couple led a double life, and had been Cuban agents for years.

Alvarez is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at FIU who also does psychological screenings of the police cadets for Miami and the Dade County police departments. Elsa Prieto is the coordinator in FIU´s Counseling and Psychology Services Center. The Assistant U.S. Attorney Frasier, testified that “both had used academic posts to cover their espionage for the Cuban government”. He said Alvarez had spied for Cuba since 1977 and Prieto since 1982 – each on their own – and that once they married they continued their activities together.

Fraiser also said that since the beginning of the 90´s the couple traveled to Cuba on numerous occasions as part of authorized delegations of academic exchanges, accompanying university students, but these trips, according to the district attorney, “were covert covers for their other activities”. He also asserted that the couple met with Cuban intelligence agents in Mexico, various nations in South America and within the United States.

Chaykin denies all charges against his clients, claiming they are United States citizens with “great love” for both their adopted homeland and their nation of origin. He noted that all of their exchange activities and trips to Cuba were “legal and authorized”, and that the opinions they have and the work that both were doing are widely known, particularly the efforts by Alvarez in the promotion of dialogue and reconciliation between the two nations.

As to why if this is such a weak case the district attorneys and the authorities have decided to go ahead with the argument that it’s an issue of serious “espionage” and that the nation has been placed in “danger”, Chaykin said he could only speculate. He indicated that maybe they want to use it as a balance to appease the reaction of the powerful conservative moderates in Miami that have been protesting the legal proceedings against Posada Carriles, considered a hero by some, and by that, achieve “a balance between the process against an anti Castro militant, and then use this case as evidence that they also act against alleged pro Castro activists.”

Or maybe the authorities expect to demonstrate the need for a law such as the Patriot Act, “although one thing has nothing to do with the other”, or maybe they’re doing it for election purposes, taking into account that the district attorney in the case was appointed interim, and wants to win the elected post in the near future.

Chaykin did not discard that the authorities behavior is related, in some measure, to another high profile case of supposed Cuban espionage in the United States that is about to reach a new phase. At the beginning of February a Federal Court of Appeals will review the case on the five Cubans accused of espionage in 2001, whose severe sentences were annulled last August when a three judge panel determined they had received an impartial trial in Miami. That decision was vacated and will now be reviewed by the court en banc. Because of this, many wonder if the timing of the arrests has anything to do with this situation.

Chaykin warned that in generating publicity and using the term “spy”, the government is contaminating the chance for an impartial trial given the prevailing dynamic in Miami.

Alvarez was born in Cárdenas, Cuba, in 1944; he abandoned the island at 17 and earned his US citizenship in 1972. Elsa Prieto was born in Cuba in 1950 and after finishing high school she moved to the United States where she became a citizen in 1979. The couple has three children, and he has another two from a previous marriage. The family is religious and takes part in the local Catholic Church; Alvarez is very well regarded by his colleagues, all of whom have expressed surprise and disbelief upon hearing of the detention. Modesto Maldique, President of FIU and a friend of Alvarez for 25 years, was present at last Mondays hearing.

The Miami Herald reminded us that the accused wrote an article in 1991 published by them after his first trip to Cuba since leaving the island, where he harshly criticized the government in Havana for not responding to the conditions of desperation of Cubans, though he also mentioned the “stimulating” benefits of the academic exchanges with his counterparts. Alvarez returned on numerous occasions under the auspice of the Institute of Cuban Investigations, FIU and Puentes Cubanos, a group that promotes direct exchanges between both nations. He also took part in the so called 1978 Dialogue, which led to the freeing of 3,600 political prisoners, said the Herald.

A promoter for reconciliation and dialogue between Cuba and the exile Diasporas, along with academic exchanges, Alvarez is recognized as much in Miami as he is in Havana.

EN ESPAÑOL El matrimonio preso en Miami por enviar información a Cuba no representa ningún peligro para EE.UU.

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