In Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, news and gossip travel at lightning speed, especially when that news involves a juicy spy story.
At the Versailles Cafe, a popular hangout for both Cuban coffee and Cuban politics, everyone is talking about the recent arrest of a college professor and his wife. Carlos and Elsa Alvarez are charged with failing to register as foreign agents for Cuba. In effect, federal prosecutors say, they were spies for Fidel Castro.
"They [spies] are all over," says Raphael Rodriguez as he downed a cup of strong Cuban coffee. He was not surprised, he says, that the Alvarez's were affiliated with Florida International University. "Universities have always been one of their main places of recruiting younger people who are more impressionable. It's par for the course," he says.
Earlier this month, the couple was arrested and charged with failing to register as foreign agents for the Cuban government. If convicted, they face 10 years each in prison.
Federal prosecutors allege that for nearly three decades, they used their cover as employees at a local university to spy on fellow Cuban exiles, transmitting that information to Havana. The indictment reads like a Cold War spy saga, complete with code names, encryption devices and secret meetings in third countries.
U.S. attorney Alex Acosta says the Alvarez couple, both naturalized U.S. citizens, "betrayed their adopted country." They both pleaded not guilty.
Their lawyer, Steven Chaykin, says the information his clients allegedly conveyed to Havana is information available to any reader of The Miami Herald. "There was no national secrets, no national security secrets. There were no defense secrets or confidential information that was provided to anyone on the Cuban side of the equation," Chaykin says.
He acknowledges that his clients made several trips to Cuba, but says they were academic exchanges sanctioned by the U.S. government. Carlos Alvarez made no secret of his desire to foster dialogue between the United States and Cuba — a minority view among the hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles living in the Miami area.
Friends of the couple describe them as low-key and unassuming. "These were folks who were intelligent, soft spoken and unobtrusive," says Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer who has known the couple for years. "Of course, in retrospect, you think back and go: what a brilliant ploy."
For the past few weeks, Miami's Spanish-language radio stations have been chewing over the spy scandal and its significance. Ninoska Perez, host of a popular call-in show on Radio Mambi, says the Alvarez case, combined with other spy scandals in recent years, confirms what she has suspected all along: Castro is watching.
"For many years we have been saying there are spies in Miami. Sure enough, in the last five years, 21 have been tried and convicted — and one was in the Pentagon," she says.
Some worry that the rash of spy scandals has created a climate of fear in Miami. Cuban exiles who favor dialogue with Cuba are now less willing to speak out. "There is that sour feeling of who else is in on this," says Freyre. "This is nasty. This is bad."
The lawyer for the alleged spies plans on requesting a change of venue. His clients, he says, can't possibly get a fair trial in Miami.