TAMPA — A Tampa grocer who starred in a campaign ad for Gov. Rick Scott was convicted of human smuggling on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten four years ago, a newspaper there reported.
And although he supports Scott for governor, he also has apparently expressed support for the Castro government, which Scott rails against.
The Scott campaign, which doesn’t deny the story, is no longer running the Spanish language ad but denies it was taken down because of the revelations.
The ad features an endorsement of Scott by Maikel Duarte-Torres, owner of MD Food Market on West Hillsborough Avenue, where Scott made a campaign stop in May on the subject of boosting small business.
In the ad, Duarte praises Scott’s emphasis on job creation.
He was also named as a member of a Small Business Coalition campaign group Scott announced in June.
Duarte wasn’t available when a reporter visited the store recently, and didn’t respond to a fax message sent to the store.
According to Tineke Kamps, a prosecutor in the island nation of St. Maarten, an American named Maikel Duarte-Torres was arrested there in November 2010 on charges of human smuggling.
Kamps said via email that Duarte-Torres stayed in pre-trial detention until he was summoned for a court hearing in March 2011.
Kamps said she didn’t have records of the outcome of the case, but referred to a local newspaper story from August 2011. The story said that after a postponement of the March trial, Duarte was sentenced to two years’ in prison for his role in a human smuggling ring that moved 10 Cubans from the island of St. Lucia near St. Maartens to St. John’s in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The story said Torres was released after only days and “is safely back in Tampa, Florida” because of prison overcrowding on the island.
According to the newspaper account, the Cubans paid $12,500 each.
In a 2012 story in Centro Tampa , the Spanish-language sister publication of The Tampa Tribune, Duarte told a reporter he and his wife came to the U.S. by a similar route in 2009, travelling with a friend’s help from Cuba to St. Lucia to St. Thomas. There, he asked for asylum as a Cuban refugee. Cubans on U.S. soil are automatically granted political asylum.
He told Centro he left Cuba because neither he nor his wife could find work in their fields. She was a veterinary technician and he was an actor and graduate of the Cuban National Academy of Dramatic Arts.
“I left Cuban because of the tyranny, there’s no future for young people and there’s no place to look for money or freedom of expression,” he said.
In March, 2014, however, someone using the name Maikel Duarte-Torres of Tampa took a different attitude toward the island nation, in comments posted on the web site of Granma, the official news agency of the Cuban Communist Party.
Describing himself as a Cuban emigre, an actor and graduate of the Cuban National Art Schools, which includes the School of Dramatic Arts, he asked advice on how to invest in cattle ranching or fishing boats in Cuba “for the development of my country Cuba.”
“Thank you Raul and Fidel for the possibility of helping my revolution and my cuba and I want to invest in my cuba through its cattle/ranching industry long live cuba,” he wrote. He described the business he hopes to start in Cuba, “all for the development of my cuba and my revolution ... long live the revolution long live victory always.”
Scott campaign spokesman Greg Blair said the campaign ad featuring Duarte-Torres ran in Tampa until the end of July, but its “run has ended.”
At the time of Scott’s May visit, Duarte-Torres told a Tampa Tribune reporter, “I started with a watermelon in my hand, selling fruits and vegetables on Lois Avenue. Things have grown from there.”
He said then that the store employed 18 full-time workers, and that he hoped to build it into a chain of 15 or more stores.
Scott brought his lieutenant governor and running-mate, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, to the event. Lopez-Cantera spoke to the crowd in Spanish. Scott said a few words in halting Spanish then switched to English.
“I grew up working in a grocery store,” Scott told the crowd of supporters. “I love selling things to people.”
On a recent weekday morning, the small grocery near the heart of West Tampa’s Hispanic community was bustling with shoppers. It caters to Hispanic tastes, selling yuca, plaintains, coconuts and calabaza, Latin spices and 20-pound bags of rice.
Tribune reporter Rich Mullins contributed to this report.