TAMPA -- One was a senior Cuban government official who handled more than $700 million in U.S. imports in one year. Another is the son of a top Cuban army general. And then there’s the daughter of the island’s powerful vice president.
All three defected and became part of a little-known trend among Cubans who escape their communist-ruled country and settle in Tampa, a city with strong historical ties to the island but not a major focus of current Cuban expatriate life.
To avoid Miami’s anti-Castro cauldron, analysts say. But also because the defectors are less likely to be recognized on the streets and because Miami has many knowledgeable FBI agents — and too many Castro spies.
“They certainly can have a softer landing in this area,” said Ralph Fernandez, a Cuban-American lawyer in Tampa who said he knows of five mid- to high-level government officials living here whose defections in recent months have not been made public.
Miami immigration lawyer Wilfredo Allen said his Tampa office was contacted by half a dozen middle-ranking Cuban military officers and government officials for help with their legal status over the past three years.
Fernandez and other Cubans in Tampa agree that the total number of recent defectors living in the city of 346,000 people is high but unknowable because many of them are in hiding or keeping low profiles for various reasons.
The same refrain
Former Cuban navy commander Armelio Pavon, who has lived in Tampa since he deserted in 1994, said he hears the same refrain from both defectors and regular Cubans arriving recently in his city.
“They say they left Cuba, so why would they want to continue in that intensely Cuban atmosphere that is Miami,” Pavon said. “They prefer to stay away, because they want to keep their distance from that mess that Miami can be.”
One example is Glenda Murillo, 24, daughter of Vice President Marino Murillo, a member of the Communist Party’s politburo in charge of economic reforms. She defected last month and turned up at the Tampa home of an aunt, Idania Diaz, who said Murillo has a boyfriend in Hialeah but will settle in Tampa “because it’s more peaceful here.”
Others have stronger reasons for staying out of Miami, like the former Interior Ministry captain who served in “confrontation,” which monitors dissidents, in a provincial city before he defected in 2009, lived in Tampa for a year and then moved to Las Vegas.
“Look, I never hurt anyone, never hit anyone, nothing. But I was known in town as an officer in confrontation, and I don’t want to run into a neighbor on Eighth Street or Hialeah,” he said, asking for anonymity out of concern for his safety.
Fernandez added that some of the recent defectors may have other reasons for trying to live secretly in Tampa and far from Miami — especially those who may be sought by Cuban intelligence agents.
Pedro Alvarez, 69, was under investigation in Havana on corruption charges when he became one of the highest-ranking government officials to defect in recent years. Reported in February to be living in Tampa, he had headed Alimport, the government agency that imports food — including $711 million worth of U.S. products in 2008.
Pavon, considered to be the highest-ranking Cuban navy officer to defect, said he believes Cuban spies in South Florida still try to keep track of his whereabouts even today. And when his wife visited her hometown in Cuba in 2009, friendly neighbors warned her that state security agents were watching her.