Flurry of Questions on Couple’s Arrest

Times Staff Writer

As Florida International University’s spring semester got underway, office 335A was locked, and a policewoman stood guard outside.

Associate professor Carlos Alvarez wouldn’t be coming in any time soon. He and his wife are in federal lockup, accused of working for more than two decades as Cuban secret agents.

Many here who know Alvarez, 61, a longtime and well-regarded member of the faculty, said they had a hard time comprehending the charges against him and his wife, Elsa, 55, who is a part-time employee at the university.

“This man is a highly respected man. He’s a good-to-the-bone man,” said Joan T. Wynne, a professor in FIU’s College of Education whose office is catty-corner to Alvarez’s. “The students raved about him, and how much he taught them.”


The Alvarezes have been charged with acting as agents of a foreign power without registering with the U.S. government, as required by law.

After they were ordered held without bond by a federal magistrate judge on Monday, Wynne took over one of Alvarez’s classes on cross-cultural studies.

The students, she said, were full of questions about what had happened to their professor -- and as bewildered as she was.

“What happens when someone you know, a good person, gets put in jail for such a nebulous charge?” Wynne asked. Three years ago, she said, she arrived here from Georgia State University and quickly took a shine to Alvarez.

“I found him to be a broad-minded, open-minded scholar,” she said. “Beyond that, he was a profoundly sensitive man, a very gentle soul. One of those people you instantly like.”

According to an indictment unsealed Monday, the Alvarezes sent information about the Cuban American community and officials of the U.S. government and FBI to Cuba’s spy agency, using shortwave radios, coded messages and computer-encrypted files. U.S. Atty. R. Alexander Acosta said the couple had acknowledged those activities.

They were being held at the Miami Federal Detention Center, awaiting a Jan. 19 arraignment. If convicted, they could face prison sentences of up to 10 years and be fined $250,000.

“From the beginning, the one shared emotion has been shock,” said Mark Riordan, a university spokesman. “We’re a busy, large institution, with nearly 38,000 students, and we normally don’t get this kind of scrutiny.”

The university’s main campus, which is near Miami International Airport, is primarily a commuter school.

The professor and his wife, a psychological services counselor, were put on paid administrative leave “pending the outcome of the matter,” Riordan said.

Modesto A. Maidique, president of the state-run school, is a longtime friend of the Cuban-born couple. In a statement issued this week, he called the Alvarezes “valued members of the FIU community for many years” but said the charges against them were “very serious.”

“If the allegations stipulated by the U.S. attorney are substantiated, this will constitute a very significant breach of university trust and values,” Maidique said.

The Miami Herald reported on its website Thursday that as early as 1982, Florida investigators had informed a congressional committee that Elsa Alvarez, then at the University of Miami, was sending private information on mentally ill patients at a Miami hospital to the Cuban government. A lawyer for the woman denied the accusation, the report said.

The Alvarezes married in 1980 and have three children; Carlos Alvarez has two children from a previous marriage. They live in South Miami, where they were arrested Jan. 6 at their home. Friends said Elsa Alvarez suffers from a debilitating disease that has seriously affected her health.

After U.S. officials alleged this week that the couple also tried to recruit young Cuban Americans to serve as agents, and led trips to Cuba where young people might have been given a favorable impression of the regime of Fidel Castro, FIU started its own independent investigation, Maidique said. Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. attorney, is leading the investigation, he said.

The school’s investigation so far had determined that the Alvarezes hadn’t enlisted any FIU students to work as Cuban agents, or taken any students to Cuba under the auspices of an FIU program, Riordan said Thursday.

Some who knew Carlos Alvarez, who earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Florida, said they had found he had nothing of the pro-Castro zealot.

According to the federal indictment, Alvarez had allegedly spied for Cuba since 1977, and his wife since 1982.

“I’m flabbergasted,” said Herbert C. Kelman, emeritus professor of social ethics at Harvard University, who mentored Alvarez in conflict resolution and traveled with him to Cuba. “I considered him an honorary student of mine. I have the highest regard for him as a fine and knowledgeable colleague with the best of intentions.

“We talked about improving relations between Cuba and America, and that had nothing to do with sympathy for the current Cuban government, but sympathy for the Cuban people.”

Alvarez left Cuba for Miami when he was 17. In 1991, he returned to Cuba and later wrote a newspaper op-ed piece that accused its Communist rulers of responding to Cubans’ aspirations “with ideological rhetoric and actions framed within rigid and anachronistic political schemes.”

Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of Puentes Cubanos, which seeks to foster closer relations between Cuba and the United States, said Alvarez was hired by her organization several times as an expert in conflict-resolution techniques. Wilhelm said Alvarez went to Havana for Puentes Cubanos to help foster dialogue between Cubans and young Cuban American professionals visiting from the United States.

“Every time he traveled for Puentes Cubanos to Cuba, he did so completely legally, with a license from the Treasury Department,” Wilhelm said.

In 2004, she said, Puentes Cubanos lost its license to organize trips to Cuba when President Bush clamped down on such travel as a way to punish the Cuban government.

“I’ve known Dr. Alvarez for many, many years,” Wilhelm said. “Right now, I feel about 250 years old. It’s not been a good week.”

“He needs his day in court,” Wilhelm said. “That’s the way our system works.”