Original title: Cuban Community in Miami Rallies Behind Anti-Castro Activist
By Peter Whoriskey | Washington Post Staff Writer
He is, depending upon whom you talk to, either a terrorist or a patriot.
The trial of Santiago Alvarez, a 65-year-old businessman here, is scheduled to begin this week on federal charges of maintaining an illegal armory of machine guns, C-4 explosive and hand grenades at a suburban apartment complex he owned.
Federal prosecutors say the anti-Castro crusader was storing “a staggering amount of illegal weaponry and ammunition.” The Cuban government, the presumed target, has denounced him as a terrorist.
But in this city of Cuban immigrants and countless schemes to invade the island and topple the Castro regime, the moral distinctions that elsewhere underlie global antiterrorism efforts seem harder to fix precisely. Alvarez’s alleged stash is viewed by some less as a criminal offense than as a noble quest.
“He’s a patriot,” Miguel Saavedra, leader of the hard-line anti-Castro group Vigilia Mambisa, said of Alvarez. “I don’t see any good reason to prosecute him.”
Particularly galling for many anti-Castro campaigners here is that one of their own has been charged as a criminal for conducting a campaign against Cuba. The country is included on the State Department’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” along with Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.
Making matters worse, Alvarez’s advocates say, is the slim likelihood of having a Cuban American on the jury—because the indictment was made in Fort Lauderdale, rather than in Miami, the jury pool will be drawn far from the large Cuban community of Miami-Dade.
Dozens of his supporters staged a protest on the courthouse steps here last year chanting ” Libertad! ” On Friday evenings, Saavedra and others stand outside the federal detention center holding a Cuban flag and a U.S. flag.
“We just want a chance to fight Fidel Castro,” Saavedra said. “But the U.S. government is not giving us that chance.”
It’s a fight, he says, that is justified by Cuba’s role in the world.
According to a State Department terrorism report, “the government of Cuba maintains close relationships with other state sponsors of terror such as Iran and North Korea, and has provided safe haven to members of ETA, FARC and the ELN,” citing terrorist groups in Spain and Colombia.
Before his arrest, Alvarez may have been best known for his advocacy on behalf of Luis Posada Carriles, a CIA-trained Cuban immigrant linked to the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people in 1976 and to other violent plots. When Posada sought asylum in the United States last year, it was Alvarez who helped present his case to the public.
“He’s been a fighter against Castro all his life,” Alvarez said of Posada, whom he called a hero. “He advocates violence, but that does not mean violence and terrorism are the same thing.”
His association with Posada and other campaigns has earned him the enmity of the Castro regime, according to some press accounts. Supporters say that made Alvarez a likely target for a setup by the Cuban government.
Castro “for an extended period of time campaigned openly in several speeches for the arrest of Mr. Alvarez,” according to a defense document filed in March.
The case against Alvarez and his employee, Osvaldo Mitat, began last year when Customs agents intercepted a FedEx package from Guatemala to Alvarez’s office in Hialeah, Fla. Inside a book entitled “Cuba Mia” (My Cuba), agents found a fraudulent Guatemalan passport and a fake identity card.
Agents searched Alvarez’s office and found electrical switches and detonating cord for explosives. A confidential informant told the agents that Alvarez had asked him to transport a large white cooler of weapons from the apartment complex where they had been stored to a Miami location, according to the agents’ affidavit.
Once the informant delivered the cooler to Mitat, agents moved in. They discovered inside the cooler three live grenades, a grenade launcher, four fully automatic machine guns, a silencer and other weapons, some with the serial numbers obliterated.
“Unfortunately, you guys are doing your job and we got caught with a bunch of guns,” Mitat said at the time, according to the agents’ account. “I love the United States and would never do anything to hurt this country. These guns were not meant to be used against this country.”
The outcome of the trial is expected to turn at least partly on the credibility of the confidential informant, who has been identified as Gilberto Abascal, a former Alvarez employee.
Prosecutors disclosed in April that Abascal was sharing information with a Cuban government official known as “Daniel.” Defense attorneys are expected to portray him as a mentally ill “double agent” who cannot be trusted.
Yet a substantial portion of the pretrial maneuvering has concerned exactly who will sit in judgment of Alvarez and Mitat—and more precisely, how many Cuban Americans are likely to turn up in the jury pool.
Federal prosecutors sought the indictment in Fort Lauderdale, meaning the trial will be heard by a jury from Broward County, where roughly one in 25 people are of Cuban descent. Prosecutors justified the location by saying the apartment complex where the weapons had been stored is in a Fort Lauderdale suburb.
Defense attorneys, noting that the arrests were in Miami-Dade, have charged that the Fort Lauderdale location was strategic—and discriminatory—because it avoids a trial in Miami-Dade, where nearly one in three people are of Cuban descent.
“The government’s decision to indict in Fort Lauderdale to move the case to Broward County is no accident,” they wrote. “No experienced attorney could fairly deny the dramatic difference in jury composition that has resulted.”
While U.S. District Judge James I. Cohn has denied two defense motions intended to draw more Cuban Americans into the jury pool, the issue continues to roil debate about the trial and its larger meanings here.
“The Cuban-American community is still suffering from the Elian [Gonzalez] case and the demonization it suffered,” Jaime Suchlicki, a University of Miami history professor and Cuba expert, wrote in an affidavit for the defense. “The media and elements of the U.S. government stereotyped the Cuban-Americans as ‘terrorists,’ ‘violators of laws’, and ‘radical right wingers.’ “
“This case,” he wrote, ” has meaning beyond its facts.”