A Cuban leader suggested that the arrest of two FIU professors on spying charges was a political decision linked to the upcoming hearing of five other Cubans.
BY VANESSA ARRINGTON
HAVANA - A top Cuban official said Monday that this month’s jailing of two Florida academics on charges they spied for Cuba for three decades was ‘‘strange’’ and “worrisome.’‘
In the government’s first public reaction to the case, Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon questioned the timing of the married couple’s arrests, which came as a federal appeals court prepared to rehear arguments in the case of five other Cubans accused of being secret agents of the Cuban government.
‘‘This story comes across as strange and very worrisome because the FBI has supposedly known since June what they said about their activities,’’ Alarcon told journalists concerning Carlos Alvarez, 61, and his 55-year-old wife, Elsa.
The pair reportedly provided voluntary statements to the FBI last summer about their lengthy contacts with Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence.
‘‘so why come out with this case now? Obviously, it has to do with something that goes beyond these two people,’’ Alarcon said.
In the earlier espionage case, a federal appeals court in Atlanta is expected to rehear arguments on whether the five men got an unfair trial in Miami because of intense publicity.
The men all acknowledge being Cuban agents but have said they were spying on ‘‘terrorist’’ exile groups opposed to President Fidel Castro and not on the U.S. government.
‘‘They are trying to create an environment of McCarthyism to influence the Atlanta appeals court,’’ Alarcon said of the newest arrests, referring to the sensationalist anti-communist campaign conducted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
The five agents were convicted in Miami in June 2001, but a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the convictions and sentences in August and ordered a retrial, citing pretrial publicity and community prejudice in Miami.
The full Atlanta appeals court agreed in November to rehear arguments, voiding the three-judge panel’s earlier decision.
Of the arrest of the married couple, Alarcon said, “It appears the most grievous thing they did was come to Cuba and have academic exchanges.’‘
The husband and wife both hold positions at Florida International University and could get up to 10 years in prison if convicted of failing to register as agents of a foreign power.
A U.S. attorney said Alvarez had spied for Cuba since 1977 and his wife since 1982.
Federal investigators allege they engaged in spying while working quietly at the university—Alvarez as a psychology professor and his wife as coordinator of a social work program.
Alarcon said the latest case underlines growing censorship in South Florida, home to many Cuban immigrants opposed to Castro and his communist government.