BY ADRIAN SAINZ | ASSOCIATED PRESS
A college professor who pleaded guilty in a federal case involving allegations that he and his wife spied for Cuba’s communist government and betrayed their fellow Cuban-American exiles by passing along information about community figures was sentenced Tuesday to five years in prison.
Carlos Alvarez, 61, and his 56-year-old wife Elsa were sentenced by District Judge K. Michael Moore on reduced charges they received in a federal plea deal. Carlos Alvarez also received three years probation.
Elsa Alvarez was sentenced to three years in prison and one year of probation. That was the maximum sentence both could get under sentencing guidelines.
The case involved accusations of exchanging coded messages with Cuban intelligence services about Cuban-American exile groups and prominent figures in Miami. Prosecutors said Carlos Alvarez should receive the maximum term because he did “classic intelligence work” for Cuban President Fidel Castro’s communist government for nearly 30 years.
The case shook the large Cuban-American community in South Florida. It brought about feelings of betrayal among those who feel Castro is the enemy for the revolution that brought him to power and led to the departure of hundreds of thousands of Cubans from the island.
Both Alvarezes apologized and took responsibility during the sentencing hearing. They said they were not communists or supporters of Castro, and were just trying to establish open dialogue with Cuba, where both were born before coming to the United States. Several family members and friends offered emotional testimony on behalf of the couple’s character.
“We are extremely upset,” said the couple’s son, also named Carlos Alvarez, 40, after the sentencing.
The government had asked for a 21 month sentence for Elsa Alvarez, but Moore exceeded that recommendation.
“As we know, a good motive is never an excuse for criminal conduct,” Moore said before sentencing. “Their behavior undermined U.S. foreign policy.”
Carlos Alvarez, a Florida International University psychology professor, was accused of receiving and sending messages under the name “David” and destroying records of communications with Cuban intelligence officials. Prosecutors argued the professor used his university position as cover to travel to New York, Cuba and elsewhere to meet with Cuban agents.
Elsa Alvarez, a social worker who also worked for the university, also provided information under the name “Deborah,” but not to the extent that her husband did.
In December, Carlos Alvarez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to become an unregistered foreign agent, while his wife admitted knowing about her husband’s illegal activities but failing to report them to authorities. Both were charged previously with the more serious charge of acting as illegal Cuban agents.
Carlos Alvarez already has served nearly 14 months in a federal detention facility. His wife had served five months in the federal facility before being released on bond.
In 2005, Carlos Alvarez admitted in FBI interviews to being a “collaborator” with Cuba’s intelligence service beginning in 1977, insisting he was mainly interested in opening dialogue with Cuba. His attorneys unsuccessfully tried to have that confession thrown out.
U.S. Attorney Matthew Axelrod discounted statements by Carlos Alvarez’s attorney Steven Chaykin that his client only gave Cuban intelligence agents harmless information that amounted to simple gossip.
Axelrod painted the Alvarezes as intelligence agents working for the Cuban government, making an effort to hide their actions. He added that the sentence would be closely watched by Cuban officials.
“This was not idle chit-chat,” Axelrod said. “Carlos Alvarez was tasked directly by the Cuban intelligence service to provide certain information, and he provided that information.”
In contrast, Chaykin described Carlos Alvarez as man who never intended to hurt the United States and instead was seeking to open discussions with Cuban agents to relieve political rancor between the countries and bring change to Cuba by sharing ideas.
Speaking to the court in an emotional apology, Carlos Alvarez described himself as someone who once advocated force to remove Castro but later decided that dialogue would be more effective. He said he was naive to believe Cuban officials and “the methods and channels that I used were unfortunately wrong.”
He pleaded with the court for leniency for his wife.
“If you are considering adding any time to the months she has already served, please impose it on me,” he asked Moore. “I’m the one who is responsible.”
Elsa Alvarez: “I believe Carlos acted in good faith at all times. Carlos did not profit from the Cuban government.”