High-level defector Pedro Alvarez Borrego has become a house flipper extraordinaire. Some question the source of his stake money.
By Juan O. Tamayo, JTamayo@elNuevoHerald.com
TAMPA — Pedro Alvarez Borrego, a top Cuban government official who oversaw the nation’s $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 Cuba’s 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 who’s who of the leading agriculture companies known as Big Ag. “He single-handedly said yes and no to billions in sales,” said John Park Wright IV, a Naples, Fla., businessman who signed several cattle deals with Alimport. Cuba’s 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.