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The Alonsos soon relocated to Washington, D.C., where they enrolled in graduate school at Catholic University. One of their first acquaintances was Maria Cristina Herrera, an instructor at the university and a fellow Cuban expatriate. "I taught them in a class, and they would come to my apartment to talk," recalls Herrera, now a professor of social science at Miami Dade Community College. "Leonel told me all about a trip he took with Che Guevara. He told me up-front that he had received red-carpet treatment from the U.S. government, and it was obvious from the new model car they drove and the way they dressed."
Herrera says the couple made no mention of any deal with U.S. officials. "But they didn't need to," she notes. "He was a high-ranking defector, and everybody knew that such a big fish came to this country under special circumstances."
Another professor, Alessandro Crissafulli, recalls the Alonsos as hard-working students who earned top grades in an introductory course they took in 1968. But he confesses, somewhat bemusedly, that he does not remember reading their doctoral dissertations, though he is listed as a reader on both.
TheRev. Thomas Taylor, the education professor listed as director of both Alonso dissertations, says he never read them. In fact, reference librarians at Catholic University report that both works are written in Spanish, a language Taylor cannot read. "It's possible I read a summary in English and signed off on it, but there's no way I supervised them," says Taylor, a retired educator who spent six years at the university. "They may have had trouble getting the works approved in another department and used my name as a front. That shouldn't have happened, but it did in a number of cases."
Just as troubling, Taylor says, is the official chronology. According to school records, the Alonsos received Ph.D.'s in education in May 1969. The earliest they could have enrolled in their doctoral programs was fall of 1966. "The way has to be pretty well greased to do it that quickly, especially with English as your second language," marvels Taylor, who vaguely recalls Miriam Alonso from a summer session. "Most Ph.D.s take five to seven years. Maybe they had some credits transferred, but three years sounds pretty suspicious."
Maria Cristina Herrera, in fact, remembers the Alonsos enrolling at Catholic in 1967. "They could have come before, but I think I would have heard of them, because everyone knew of my interest in the Cuban revolution," she notes. "The only explanation I come up with -- and no one can be sure -- is that some agency put pressure on the institution to grant them fast diplomas." (In her doctoral acknowlegments, Miriam does thank the U.S. government for helping to subsidize her studies through a program to aid Cuban students.)
After receiving their degrees, the Alonsos settled in Maryland, moving to a home, fittingly enough, on Democracy Lane. She took a job teaching Spanish at McLean High School in Virginia. According to former students and administrators, who remember her fondly, Alonso taught at McLean through 1978 before moving to Miami. Alonso's own records, however, indicate that she worked there only until 1974. In either case, by the mid-Seventies she and Leonel already were planting roots in Miami, where they had begun buying property. By 1979 the couple had laid down more than half a million dollars, mostly on homes and apartments in Little Havana.
For years detractors have raised questions about the Alonsos' wealth. Some suggest they raided thousands from Castro's coffers. Others contend they were paid by the Central Intelligence Agency in exchange for defecting. "They counted the money twice and danced for joy," growls Victor De Yurre, Sr., the commissioner's father and a former mayor of Havana. "I had a friend who knew Leonel in Lebanon, and he once asked, 'Why don't you defect?' Leonel said, 'Why? So I can go to America and be a taxi driver or a busboy?'"
The Alonsos have repeatedly denounced these claims, but have refused to clarify how they amassed the $2.3 million Miriam Alonso listed as her net worth in a financial disclosure form filed this past July. Acquaintances remember something about Leonel owning grocery stores in Hialeah. By her own account, Miriam ran a day-care center, which she closed after less than a year. In 1984 the couple incorporated a private school called the Academy of South Florida, where reportedly she worked as principal. Without question, however, the largest income source has been their rental properties, which now total at least fifteen.
Life as landlords, in turn, has afforded the Alonsos time to pursue their true passion: politics. Indeed, while Miriam often speaks of her political "destiny," her career has been meticulously cultivated. According to one newspaper article, as far back as 1968, while still a graduate student, she was campaigning for presidential candidate Richard Nixon. "One day the Alonsos appeared in Miami," recalls Luis Fernandez Caubi, a columnist for Diario Las Americas. "And suddenly every corner you turned, they were there -- giving breakfasts, leading protests, and speaking on the radio."