Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 4 December 2023



Retired U.S. Diplomat Accused of Working as a Secret Agent for Cuba

Manuel Rocha, a former ambassador to Bolivia, secretly aided Cuba’s “clandestine intelligence-gathering mission,” U.S. authorities said.

Manuel Rocha surrounded by reporters speaking into a nest of microphones.
Manuel Rocha spoke to reporters in 2001 when he was the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia.Credit...Gonzalo Espinoza/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Federal prosecutors said on Monday that a retired State Department official worked for decades as a secret agent for Cuba, and told an undercover F.B.I. agent that the United States was “the enemy.”

In a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Miami, the prosecutors said that the diplomat, Manuel Rocha, had secretly aided Cuba’s “clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against the United States” since 1981 as he rose undetected through the ranks of the diplomatic corps and the National Security Council.

Mr. Rocha, 73, appeared to have met with handlers from Cuba’s premier spy agency as recently as 2017, prosecutors said, and boasted that his 40 years of spying on behalf of the communist government in Havana had “strengthened the revolution immensely.”

For more than two decades, Mr. Rocha handled matters related to Latin America in a series of roles at the State Department under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, including a stint as ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002. More recently, Mr. Rocha, a native of Colombia who grew up in New York, served as an adviser to the U.S. military command responsible for Cuba.

“This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told reporters in Washington. He said that Mr. Rocha had “sought out employment with the U.S. government that would provide him with access to nonpublic information and the ability to affect U.S. foreign policy.”

The complaint was the latest in a succession of extraordinary cases brought under Mr. Garland, stemming from attempts by foreign governments to spy on, infiltrate and influence American governmental, law enforcement and business institutions.

In October, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, was charged with conspiring to act as an agent of Egypt even as he served as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Those charges came a month after Mr. Menendez was indicted on corruption charges. Last week, federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged an Indian citizen with the attempted assassination of a U.S. citizen who backed Sikh independence.

The department has also brought cases against people accused of working on behalf of China, Russia and Iran.

The new complaint does not delve into details of how Mr. Rocha may have influenced American policy, or what information he may have sent to Cuba. But it describes three meetings over roughly the last year between Mr. Rocha and an undercover F.B.I. agent who Mr. Rocha believed to be a representative of Cuba’s spy agency, the Directorate of Intelligence.

Several times during those meetings, Mr. Rocha spoke of working in the interest of that agency, and he referred to the United States as “the enemy,” according to an affidavit filed in court by Michael J. Haley, an F.B.I. special agent in Miami. Mr. Rocha was quoted in the affidavit saying that “what we have done” is “enormous” and “more than a grand slam,” though the affidavit does not specify what he was referring to. The conversations were in Spanish and were translated by the F.B.I.

In a November meeting with the undercover agent, Mr. Rocha said he had been instructed by Cuba’s spy agency to “lead a normal life” and that he had created the persona of a “right-wing person” as he sought to keep his work as a mole from being uncovered, according to the affidavit.

The complaint charged Mr. Rocha with acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government and with two other crimes.

At an initial court appearance in Miami on Monday, Mr. Rocha broke down in tears and watched wordlessly as his family left the courtroom. He did not enter a plea. A prosecutor indicated that more charges may soon be presented to a grand jury. Chief Magistrate Judge Edwin G. Torres scheduled a detention hearing for Wednesday.

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