U.S. officials on Monday accused a Florida university professor and his wife of acting as Cuban spies for more than two decades -- sending Fidel Castro's intelligence agency encrypted reports about American officials, FBI agents and anti-Castro groups and attempting to recruit young Cuban Americans as fellow agents.
In an indictment unsealed in federal court, Carlos Alvarez, 61, and Elsa Alvarez, 55, were charged with acting as agents of a foreign power without registering with the U.S. government, as required by law. If convicted, each could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fined $250,000.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrea M. Simonton ordered the couple, who both work at Florida International University, held without bond. Prosecutors warned that they might try to flee to Cuba, their birthplace, if released. Neither defendant entered a plea. They were due back in court Jan. 19.
The Alvarezes were not charged with the more serious offense of espionage. FBI agents said there was no evidence that the couple had provided classified or defense-related information to Cuba.
But "whenever information is transmitted by spies to the government of Cuba, that clearly endangers the United States," U.S. Atty. R. Alexander Acosta said.
Acosta accused Carlos Alvarez of further betraying his adopted country by leading exchange programs to Cuba, where there would be an opportunity "to further manipulate and indoctrinate students."
"Sometimes individuals who are trusted by a community are not deserving of that trust," Acosta said.
According to federal prosecutors, the Alvarezes -- who were arrested Friday at their South Miami home -- used the codenames "David" and "Deborah" to communicate with Cuba's Directorate of Intelligence, the communist island nation's espionage agency.
Prosecutors said the couple sent information via shortwave radio, using an encryption system furnished by their spymasters. They also allegedly carried messages to and from Cuba in secret briefcase compartments.
In statements that prosecutors said were tantamount to a confession, Alvarez reportedly acknowledged working for the Cubans since 1977, and his wife since 1982. They began their alleged spying activities separately, before they married in 1980, Assistant U.S. Atty. Brian K. Frazier said.
Alvarez holds a PhD in clinical psychology. He is identified on the university's website as a specialist in conflict resolution and the construction of ethnic identities.
His wife, a clinical social worker, is a part-time coordinator of Florida International University's social work training program, specializing in psychological treatment, crisis intervention and group psychotherapy.
Many of the Alvarezes' colleagues said Monday that word of the charges left them stunned.
"I'm totally baffled," said Uva de Aragon, associate director of FIU's Cuban Research Institute, who called Alvarez a close colleague and friend. "He is the last person I could think of doing anything like this. We talked about politics, of course, but he was not active politically in any kind of group or petition."
De Aragon, who has known Alvarez for 19 years, said Alvarez has been worried recently about his wife, who has been on medical leave for the last year. "Really, I'm just so in disbelief of everything," De Aragon said. "If it's true, I feel like I've been taken for a fool by a great friend."
University President Modesto A. Maidique considers himself and Alvarez to be "longtime friends," university spokesman Mark Riordan said. Maidique attended Monday's bail hearing to contend that his friend of 25 years, as well as his wife, Elsa, were not flight risks, Riordan said.
"Obviously the Alvarezes are respected, long-term members of the FIU community, and we'll be watching this and monitoring this along with the rest of the community," Riordan said, adding that there had been no decision about whether to suspend the couple or place them on administrative leave.
In August, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the convictions of five other alleged Cuban spies, saying they should be retried in part because of the widespread prejudice against Castro and his government among the many Cuban exiles living in Miami.
The five were allegedly members of Cuba's Wasp Network of undercover agents who infiltrated the exile community and tried to pass U.S. military secrets to Havana.
In November, a full panel of the 11th Circuit court reinstated their convictions and sentences but agreed to hear arguments on why they might not have received a fair trial.