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.
On the lookout
Miami has too many Cuban intelligence agents who are on the lookout for people like Alvarez, Fernandez said, and too many exiles so intent on doing business with the island that they could be easily tempted to report to Havana on any interesting new arrivals.
What’s more, the Miami office of the FBI, the agency in charge of debriefing Cuban defectors and spotting its spies, is widely viewed as being more experienced in island affairs than the Tampa office, according to U.S. intelligence community analysts.
“The FBI in Miami is sharp, all business. But they are under a lot of pressure because of the large Cuban intelligence presence there. Tampa is also smart, but friendlier,” said one South Florida anti-Castro activist who has dealt with both on Cuba defectors.
Also keeping low profiles in Tampa and elsewhere are defectors whose membership in Cuba’s Communist Party or Communist Youth, government jobs or family relations with senior government officials could complicate their U.S. immigration status, Allen noted.
Defectors are asked about those sorts of links during their initial interviews with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. Some may not reveal them, afraid they will be detained for further questioning instead of being immediately paroled. But the questions can come up again when they try to adjust their status from parolees to U.S. residents.
Allen said three recent Cuban arrivals living in the Fort Myers area sought his counsel on their status adjustments, but did not hire him when he started asking too many questions about their work and memberships in Cuba.
And if the defectors keep a low enough profile, and above all make no public statements even hinting at any criticism of the Cuban government, they may win a Havana permission to return to the island to visit relatives.
Pedro Alvarez and Glenda Murillo have made no public statements. Neither has Ernesto Andollo, the son of a top Cuban army general, found to be living in Tampa in July after he posted a Facebook photo of himself “strangling” a wax museum figure of Fidel Castro.
Also reported to be living quietly in Tampa is a nephew of Ramon Castro, older brother of Fidel and Raúl Castro. A brother of one of Raúl Castro’s sons-in-law and a former girlfriend of one of Fidel Castro’s sons are living in Naples.
Although Tampa has a long history of ties to the island that go back to the 1800s and the cigar industry here, the city today does not have much of a Cuban presence. The 2010 census showed the Tampa Bay area had 65,000 residents who called themselves Cuban.
No Little Havana
Tampa has avenues named Habana and Republica de Cuba, but no neighborhood so densely packed with Cubans that it’s known as Little Havana.
What it does have are two key U.S. military headquarters within the MacDill Air Force Base — Central Command, in charge of all operations in the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan; and the Special Operations Command, in charge of all elite units, such as Seal Teams and Green Berets, anywhere in the world.
An official in the George W. Bush administration who was regularly briefed on Cuba intelligence operations said that’s why U.S. security agencies have been particularly concerned about the presence of island defectors in the Tampa area.
“Any increase in the number of Cubans living near any U.S. military facility is cause for concern,” said the official, who asked to remain unidentified, “specially if they had high-level jobs in the government or were members of the [Communist] Party.”
Nearly 100 suspicious Cubans were spotted settling near U.S. military installations in the late 1990s, he added, and one of them applied for a job as an air traffic controller in an Air Force base in North Carolina.
One of the five Cuban spies convicted in a Miami trial in 2001, Ramon Labañino, was living in Tampa and reporting to Havana on airplanes landing and taking off from MacDill before he arrived in Miami, according to trial evidence.