A top aide to one of Cuba’s veteran political figures, Ricardo Alarcón, and the aide’s wife, have been convicted of spying and sentenced to 30 and 15 years in prison, according to persons close to the case.
Miguel Alvarez and Mercedes Arce, both former Cuban intelligence analysts in their 50s, were tried and convicted in December, the persons said, 22 months after they were detained in Havana for interrogation on March 3, 2012.
Alvarez was sentenced to 30 years on charges that he leaked secret information to Arce, according to the sources. Arce got the lesser sentence for allegedly using the information to write analytical reports on Cuba that she sold to private companies in Mexico.
Alvarez is the most senior Cuban official known to have been convicted of spying against the communist government in decades. At least three other Cubans are imprisoned on the island for spying, including two former Interior Ministry officials.
The Cuban government has repeatedly offered to swap U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross, imprisoned in Havana since 2009, for four Havana spies held in U.S. prisons since 1998. But it has made no mention of the spies held in Cuban prisons.
The island’s state-controlled news media, which almost never reports on politically sensitive crimes, has published nothing on the Alvarez-Arce case. Relatives also have not commented publicly, hoping their silence will lead to better treatment for the couple.
There has been no indication of the seriousness of the breach of security allegedly created by Alvarez and Arce, but the Cuban government jealously guards even routine information such as sugar harvest figures and Fidel Castro’s home address.
Alvarez was a senior advisor to Alarcón on international and political affairs when Alarcón served as president of the legislative National Assembly of People’s Power, sitting in on many of his meetings with foreign dignitaries and journalists.
Alarcón, 77, a veteran specialist on U.S. relations, headed the National Assembly for 20 years but was replaced in February of last year, 11 months after the Alvarez and Arce arrests. corru
He is believed to remain a member of the powerful Political Bureau of the Communist Party. Alarcón is seen in public now mostly pushing the government campaign to free the four Cuban spies in U.S. prisons.
Former Florida International University professor Carlos Alvarez (no relation to the Alarcón aide), who was convicted of spying for Havana, described Arce in his confession as one of his Cuban intelligence handlers. He and his wife, Elsa Prieto, were sentenced in 2007 to five and three years in prison, respectively.
A biography published by the Cuban business magazine Futuros said Arce was assigned to the Cuban mission to the United Nations as an analyst on U.S. foreign policy from 1977 to 1983 -- about the same time her husband was also working at the mission. Alarcón served as ambassador to the U.N. from 1966 to 1978.
She later headed the Center for the Study of Alternative Politics at the University of Havana, which hosted several seminars with foreign academics on conflict resolution issues. Several defectors have said Cuban intelligence agents used the Center to spot foreigners who might be recruited to spy for Havana.
The biography says Arce has a doctorate from the University of Havana, and a master's in psychology from the New School for Social Research in New York. She also has worked for two Norwegian nongovernment organizations active in Central America.
A Cuban academic who knows Alvarez and Arce said they worked in the 1970s and 1980s as analysts in the Intelligence Directorate of the Interior Ministry. But they fell into disfavor after the 1992 dismissal of Carlos Aldana, head of ideology for the Communist Party and a key promoter of the Alternative Politics center.
Alarcón later hired Alvarez for his office while Arce went to Mexico, teaching at a university there and writing reports on the Cuban economy and politics that she sold to foreign companies, according to the academic. He asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.
Initial reports on the couple’s arrests, indicating that they were under investigation on charges of corruption, sparked speculation that they had been targeted in order to bring down Alarcón.
At the height of his influence Alarcón was sometimes described as the third most important official on the island after Fidel and Raúl Castro. A skilled foreign policy operator who dealt often with Cuba’s Cold War enemies in Washington, he was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1980 and the Politburo in 1992.
Several El Nuevo Herald calls to the homes of Alarcón and Alvarez in Havana went unanswered.
The Alvarez and Arce convictions bring to five the number of Cubans known to be currently imprisoned on the island on charges of spying
Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, an expert on cryptography at the Interior Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate, was convicted in 1995 of passing state secrets to the U.S. government. He is serving a 25-year sentence. His family maintains he is innocent.
Ernesto Borges, 47, a captain in the Interior Ministry’s Directorate of Counter-Intelligence, was arrested in 1998 for trying to deliver secret information to U.S. diplomats in Havana. He is serving a 30-year sentence.
José Antonio Torres, a Granma newspaper reporter, was arrested in 2011 for investigation on a charge of spying. He remains in prison, fellow inmates say, but it’s unclear whether he was ever convicted.
Friends say the spying charge was a fraud, drummed up by some of the corrupt and inept government officials he wrote about in a 2010 report on a badly mismanaged aqueduct construction project in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba.
Gross is serving a 15-year sentence for illegally providing Cuban Jews with sophisticated communications equipment, paid for by the U.S. government as part of its pro-democracy programs for the island. U.S. officials have said they will not trade the Cuban spies in U.S. prisons for Gross because he is not a spy.
The five Cubans were convicted in a Miami trial in 2001. Prosecutors presented evidence the “Wasp Network” spied on U.S. military installations, and Cuban exile groups, but Havana claims the “Five Heroes” were trying to avert exile terror plots.
One of the five finished his sentence and is back in Cuba, and a second is to be freed from prison Feb. 27. Two others are serving sentences of 22 and 30 years, and the fifth is serving a life term for the deaths of four South Florida men shot down by Cuban MiGs in 1996.