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Cuban police arrest top aide to parliament speaker Alarcón

The top aide to the president of Cuba’s parliament, Ricardo Alarcón, and his wife — both former intelligence agents — have been in police custody for two months in a case that might well be aimed at ousting Alarcón, according to a Havana colleague.

Miguel Alvarez and Mercedes Arce, in their mid-50s, were detained on March 3 in Havana and remained in custody as of Monday for investigation on alleged corruption charges, the colleague added.

Alvarez was long known as Alarcón’s right-hand man in his job as senior advisor on international and political affairs, and he sat in on many of Alarcón’s meetings with visiting dignitaries and journalists.

Arce was assigned to Cuba’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York from 1977 to 1983, and was mentioned in Florida International University professor Carlos Alvarez’s confession that he worked for Cuban intelligence.

The Spain-based blog Penúltimos Días — Penultimate Days— which first made public the arrests last week, reported that authorities started an investigation of Arce for “charging commissions and other small corruptions,” which later led to her husband. But the colleague told El Nuevo Herald that the couple lived frugally in a small Havana apartment and generally made it a point to avoid the black market, where most Cubans buy hard-to-find items, usually stolen from government warehouses. “I don’t believe the target is Miguel or Mercedes. I believe this has a political objective, which is Alarcón,” the colleague said.

He added that investigators may be squeezing Alvarez and Arce in hopes of obtaining some incriminating information about Alarcón. Cuban criminal investigators typically try to squeeze subordinates in an effort to obtain damaging information about their superiors.

The colleague said he has been in touch with relatives of the couple, who confirmed the arrests. He asked to remain anonymous to avoid becoming embroiled in the case.

Alarcón, 75, is generally viewed as one of the island’s most powerful figures. He has been president of the legislative National Assembly of People’s Power since 1993, served as foreign minister from 1992-1993, and was ambassador to the U.N. for 30 years. But he is not known to be close to Cuban ruler Raúl Castro, who has been putting his own people in top jobs since succeeding brother Fidel unofficially in 2006, when Fidel had emergency surgery, and officially in 2008.

Cuba’s state-controlled news media, which seldom report on major corruption cases, hasn’t published anything on the Alvarez and Arce detentions. Alarcón told Penúltimos Días blogger Ernesto Hernández Busto he had “absolutely nothing” to say about the case.

The colleague said the couple worked for Cuban intelligence, mostly as analysts in the 1970s and ’80s, but fell into disgrace in 1992 after the ouster of their friend Carlos Aldana, who was then viewed as Cuba’s third-highest ranking official because of his position as head of ideology for the Communist Party.

Alarcón took them under his wing a few years later, colleagues said. Alvarez stayed with Alarcón, while Arce went on to work for Mexican investors in Cuba. She also has taught at a Mexican university and lived in Mexico periodically.

A biography of Arce published by the Cuban business magazine Futuros said she was assigned to the U.N. mission as an analyst on U.S. foreign policy from 1977-1983. On her return home, she studied the Cuban exile community in the U.S. at the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the United States.

She later founded the Center for the Study of Alternative Politics at the university, which focused on conflict resolution and was widely alleged to be controlled by Cuban intelligence. She also helped the Félix Varela Center in Havana, a nongovernment organization that organized conflict-resolution seminars on Cuba-U.S. relations.

FIU professor Carlos Alvarez — no relation to Arce’s husband — noted in his confession to the FBI that he knew she was a Cuban intelligence agent and met with her repeatedly in New York. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 2007, and his wife, Elsa, to three.

The biography notes Arce earned a doctorate from the University of Havana and a master’s in psychology from the New School for Social Research in New York in 1981. She has also studied in Norway and worked for two Norwegian nongovernment organizations active in Cuba and Central America.