A husband and wife who work at Florida International University were indicted by a federal grand jury Monday on charges of being covert agents of Cuba.
Carlos and Elsa Alvarez are being held in jail, pending a bail hearing. They have not entered a plea, but their lawyer told local reporters that they were not guilty. Carlos Alvarez is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies. Elsa Alvarez is a social worker in the university's counseling center.
A spokesman for Florida International said Monday night that they had been placed on paid leave, pending further developments.
The indictment released by the Department of Justice states that the couple reported to Cuban officials about actions of the anti-Castro movement in the United States and recruited "young people" of Cuban descent to be spies for the Castro government. The indictment and press release did not indicate whether these recruitment activities involved the couple's university positions, but the Associated Press quoted federal prosecutors as saying that Carlos Alvarez had organized exchange trips to Cuba with the goal of indoctrinating students.
The charges are less severe than espionage. According to a press release issued by the U.S. attorney's office in Miami, the charge of being a covert agent carries with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Mark Riordan, director of media relations at Florida International, said that Carlos Alvarez had worked at the university since 1974 and has tenure. His wife has worked at the university since 1990. Riordan said that the university had no indication until Monday of anything unusual about either Alvarez. Leaders of Miami's influential anti-Castro movement have never held back from criticizing people at the university and elsewhere who they believe are sympathetic to the Cuban leader, but Riordan said that there had never been such complaints about either Alvarez.
The university has retained Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. attorney, to provide guidance on how to handle the case.
The indictments come a month after a federal jury cleared Sami Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida, of some of the charges he faced related to allegations that he had helped terrorist groups. The jury deadlocked on other charges, and Al-Arian remains behind bars. South Florida fired Al-Arian in 2003, shortly after he was indicted, and many faculty leaders have argued ever since that the university denied him due process in stripping him of a tenured position.
Riordan said that Florida International hoped to handle the situation in a way that respected the relevant rights of all involved. "Obviously as a result of the Sami Al-Arian case, there's a sensitivity to these kinds of issues in Florida, and all across the country," he said. "In the end our actions are going to be measured by the standards of: Did we act consistent with the U.S. Constitution and due process while at the same time protecting the interest of this government."