Sunday, January 15, 2006

Cuban Americans foresee rise of a `climate of fear'

Posted on Sun, Jan. 15, 2006

Cuban Americans foresee rise of a `climate of fear'
The arrest of two spy suspects has spread fear among Cuban exiles who support contact with the Castro government as a way to ease tension.


Fallout from the Florida International University spy scandal is spreading throughout segments of Miami's Cuban-American community, sparking concerns that the affair is fostering a climate of fear among exiles who favor dialogue with communist Cuba.

Already, several of those people have refused to comment publicly about their concerns, and others have expressed alarm that last week's arrest of FIU employees Carlos Alvarez and his wife, Elsa Prieto Alvarez, could prompt pro-dialogue exiles to be less willing to voice views.

The latest spasm in Cuban exile politics comes against a backdrop of increasing tension with Cuba in the aftermath of tougher Bush administration policies restricting travel and money remittances to the island and ongoing efforts to further toughen the U.S. posture toward Cuba. To some, the FIU affair can define today's climate of retrenchment both in Miami and in Cuba -- one echoing a dangerous past when being pro-dialogue was seen by some as tantamount to treason.

''This opens the door to a witch hunt,'' said Bernardo Benes, who helped bring about an era of rapprochement in the late 1970s when the Fidel Castro regime allowed exiles to return for family visits. ''I'm sad that evil people take advantage of moments like this to promote their evil ideas and impose on people more control of the community,'' Benes said.

While many exiles who favor reconciliation or compromise expressed qualms, some Cuban Americans on the opposite side of the political spectrum believe that fears are exaggerated or unfounded.

''Only those who are doing something illegal should be worried about the U.S. government's actions,'' said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, which gets federal grants and has no contact with Cuban government institutions.

''People who are law-abiding and are not collaborating with any foreign governments that are enemies of the United States have nothing to worry about,'' he said.

Ninoska Pérez-Castellón, president of the Cuban Liberty Council and a popular Spanish-language personality on conservative Radio Mambí, said there was no witch hunt, just a deep concern among the anti-Castro right that others in Miami might also be spying for Cuba.

''The last five years, there have been 21 Cuban spies convicted,'' she said. She added that among them was Ana Belén Montes, of Puerto Rican descent, who worked at the Pentagon and was convicted of spying for Cuba.

''These two were at a well-known public university, [allegedly] serving as agents for Castro,'' Pérez Castellón said, referring to the Alvarezes. ``Where is the witch hunt?''

Last week's arrests are different from the arrests in 1998 of five Cubans who later were convicted of spying for Havana. Those five were little known, while the Alvarezes are prominent not only in academic and intellectual circles but among those who favor dialogue.


Carlos Alvarez has been an education professor at FIU since 1974, while Elsa Prieto Alvarez has worked there as a psychological services counselor since 1999. Both have also been linked to liberal or leftist sectors of the exile community since the 1970s, and Carlos Alvarez traveled to Cuba several times for research and as a facilitator in dialogue exchanges between exiles and Cubans on the island.

Federal prosecutors charged the couple with not registering as foreign agents after investigators say they found evidence of links to Cuban intelligence. The two were accused of using shortwave radios, numerical code and computer-encrypted files to transmit information about Miami's exile community to Cuban intelligence officers.

Although officials have suggested that no other arrests are contemplated, some exile leaders who oppose compromise or dialogue with Cuban President Castro have urged the FBI to widen its investigation.

FIU Professor Lisandro Pérez, who knows Alvarez well, said the arrests could revive the charged atmosphere of the 1970s and '80s, which saw the rise of the Cuban exile left, as well as bombings in Miami linked to anti-Castro militants.

''It sort of revives the argument that the talking, the dialogue, the academic exchanges with Cuba, which the so-called left has promoted, should not be supported,'' Pérez said. ``I disagree with that, but obviously it gives greater ammunition to that argument.''

Benes, meanwhile, accused Indiana University Assistant Professor Antonio de la Cova, a Cuban exile, of helping to instigate the climate of fear by urging reporters in Miami to investigate other exiles he views as suspect. Benes said de la Cova should not be given credibility because of his background.

De la Cova was once convicted of possession of explosives. He was arrested in 1976 after FBI agents were told that Cuban exiles planned to bomb Libros Para Adultos, an adult bookstore.

In a pre-sentencing statement, De la Cova said the bookstore was picked as a target by an informant, who had convinced him that the owner was a Castro agent. He served six years of a 65-year sentence. De la Cova's files, posted on the Web at, include information on the Alvarezes.

''I'm an academic, a published author, a historian,'' he said. ``You're trying to read too much into this. Last April, Benes sent an e-mail to my boss complaining about my website, which shows his lack of respect for academic freedom -- just like the Castro regime.''


Calls for a wider search for spies are one source of fear.

''It's not the first time this has happened here in the United States,'' said Max Lesnik, who often criticizes the Bush administration and the U.S. embargo on Cuba on his Spanish-language radio show broadcast on Ocean Radio. ``This type of hysteria is taking shape in some Spanish-language Miami media, not in the wider U.S. society.''

Perhaps those most concerned about being smeared as agents for Cuba are members and former members of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, founded in the 1970s by young Cuban exiles who often split with their parents and supported the Cuban revolution.

Congressional testimony by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents in 1982 attempted to link Alvarez's wife, Elsa Prieto Alvarez, to the group. The agents said Prieto had been identified as a member of the brigade by the Rev. Manuel Espinosa, a Hialeah preacher and self-proclaimed double agent, who died in 1987.

But Andrés Gómez, longtime brigade leader, told The Miami Herald on Friday that Alvarez's wife was not a brigade member -- although he did not rule out that she may have attended a brigade meeting, or taken a trip to Cuba with the brigade from some other U.S. city.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable, a brigade founder and former member, said in an e-mail to The Miami Herald on Friday that the brigade was ``a radical expression of the currents of opinion then arising regarding the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. The debate was as legitimate and necessary then as it is [now.]''

A regular contributor to the editorial pages of The Miami Herald, Pérez-Stable is also vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington. After criticizing the Castro regime in the early 1990s, she no longer travels to Cuba -- banned, she said, by the Cuban government and labeled ``persona non grata.''

''The cause of democracy must be advanced by tolerance, reason and respectful debate,'' she said. ``Otherwise, we unwittingly become like our opponents who justify any means to advance their ends.''

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