TAMPA -- Pedro Alvarez Borrego, a top Cuban government official who oversaw the nations $1.5 billion-a-year food-importing enterprise, is living the American Dream in Tampa a mere two years after he defected.
Alvarez has bought and sold at least eight homes worth a total value of nearly $600,000 and opened a management company, official records show. He has also reportedly become a consultant on how U.S. businesses can enter the Cuba markets.
Yet mystery lingers over exactly how the 70-year-old could buy so much real estate so soon after his arrival from Cuba, where he was under criminal investigation in a kickback-for-imports scandal at Alimport, the state monopoly for food imports.
Before his hasty defection, his job at Alimport made him the powerful main negotiator of contracts with chomping-at-the-bit U.S. exporters that hit a record of $711 million in 2008 and turned the United States into Cubas fifth-largest trade partner.
Today, Alvarez, one of the top Cuban defectors in recent memory, is trying to keep out of the public eye and enjoy the good life a neighbor said he drives a red H3 Humvee even as some anti-Castro activists in Tampa complain that he may be living off corrupt money.
The man who answered an El Nuevo Herald call to the telephone number Alvarez has given in official U.S. documents said he was a different Pedro Alvarez. I am just a simple carpenter. Do you have any jobs for me? he said before he laughed and hung up.
An economist, Alvarez was named to head Alimport in 1998 and was perfectly positioned in 2000 when the U.S. Congress authorized the cash-only sale of agricultural products to Cuba under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act.
Cuba was suddenly awash in U.S. visitors looking for sales contracts including several dozen Congress members, six governors and a whos who of the leading agriculture companies known as Big Ag.
He single-handedly said yes and no to billions in sales, said John Parke Wright IV, a Naples, Fla., businessman who signed several cattle deals with Alimport. Cubas global food imports hit $1.6 billion in 2011, according to official Havana figures.
And in 2003, Alvarez masterminded the controversial scheme under which Alimport pressured U.S. politicians and exporters to sign written pledges that they would lobby the Congress to ease economic sanctions on the island. The pledge might have technically made them agents of the Cuban government, though no one was prosecuted.
With such a powerful job, Alvarez would have been routinely briefed by Cuban intelligence on his U.S. contacts, their weaknesses and any misbehavior that could be exploited in price negotiations, Intelligence Directorate defector Juan Antonio Rodríguez Menier wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald.
The directorate also had collaborators that had been recruited within Alimport to identify possible targets to do industrial and corporate espionage, said Juan Manuel Reyes Alfonso, who defected in 2000 from the DIs science and technology section.
Alvarez was moved out of Alimport in 2009 and reassigned to head the Cuban Chamber of Commerce after it became clear that his lobbying campaign had failed to significantly change U.S. sanctions.
But he was fired in late 2010 after police detained him half a dozen times for questioning about the kickback scandal. Two top Alimport officials who worked for Alvarez are serving long prison terms, and at least two others are under interrogation, according to sources who asked for anonymity to protect relatives still in Cuba.