Víctor Manuel Rocha: The former US ambassador who spent 40 years as an undercover agent for Cuba

Washington has admitted that the diplomat’s detention has exposed ‘one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations by a foreign agent.’ Rocha also served as an advisor to the U.S. Southern Command and the National Security Council

Macarena Vidal Liy
Manuel Rocha
Former U.S. diplomat Manuel Rocha during a press conference in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) in May 2013.Orlando Barría (EFE)

You can’t fool everyone all the time, but there are those who almost always succeed. Víctor Manuel Rocha, 73, is a former U.S. ambassador who retired in Miami after a distinguished career. He held positions in Latin America, the White House and — following his retirement — as an advisor to the U.S. Southern Command. In recent years — after a life of conservative leanings — he became an ardent supporter of Donald Trump.

But all of this was a facade. Manuel Rocha lived a double life. During his 40 years as a diplomat and consultant, he acted — according to the U.S. Department of Justice — as an agent of the Cuban intelligence services. It’s now feared that he could have passed a river of sensitive information about U.S. activities and plans in Latin America to Havana, up until his arrest last week.

The case could have very serious repercussions for U.S. national security and diplomatic relations, given Manuel Rocha’s long career and the important positions he held. He was deputy director of the United States Interests Section in Havana during the mid-1990s, as well as chargé d’affaires in Argentina during the economic upheaval from 1997 until 2000. He was also a member of the National Security Council under Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1995, amidst the Cuban rafter crisis. He concluded his diplomatic career as the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 until 2002, in the years before an activist named Evo Morales came to power.

The revelations also demonstrate the ability of Cuba’s Intelligence Directorate (DGI) to place agents in critical positions within the American administration. Upon announcing the indictment, Attorney General Merrick Garland acknowledged that the investigation “exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent.”

The former diplomat — who faces 15 charges — will appear in a Miami courtroom this coming Tuesday to answer questions about his role as an agent for Cuba since 1981. He has been accused of accessing classified information to benefit Cuba and distributing that information without authorization. He faces up to 60 years in prison after acknowledging his work for the island’s DGI in conversations with an undercover FBI agent. Manuel Rocha knew him as Miguel — he believed him to be a Cuban espionage contact.

Born in Colombia in 1950, Manuel Roach emigrated to New York in the 1960s with his widowed mother. His academic talent allowed him to win a scholarship to one of the best private schools in the United States and rub shoulders with children from the most privileged classes. From there, he continued on to prestigious universities: Yale, Harvard, Georgetown. He became an American citizen in 1978 and entered the diplomatic service in 1981. According to the indictment, by then, he had already been recruited by the DGI. This had apparently taken place during a stay in Chile, around the time of the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende.

The court documents don’t specify how Manuel Rocha was recruited, nor what motivated him to collaborate with the DGI. However, the FBI agent’s statement points to ideological reasons. The 73-year-old is described as an ardent supporter of the regime of the “Comandante” Fidel Castro, who refers to Cuban spies as his “compañeros” (comrades).

“The Cuban secret services have to be very good at what they do, because they don’t have many resources, and their main objective is the United States. Unlike the Russians — who motivate [collaborators] with money — they find people with a visceral empathy for what Cuba wants to do. These people don’t act for money. I suspect that, if they had offered to pay him, Manuel Rocha would have been outraged,” explains Peter Lapp, a retired FBI agent, in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS. Lapp is the author of the book Queen of Cuba, about the Puerto Rican spy Ana Montes, a Pentagon analyst who worked with the DGI for 17 years. Lapp took part in her arrest in 2000.

There have been other such cases: in 2007, two professors at Florida International University were arrested for spying against anti-Castro Cuban exile groups in Miami. In 2009, analyst Kendall Myers — an official with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research — was arrested, along with his wife, for passing confidential information to Cuba.

The indictment notes that the FBI received a complaint in November 2022, alleging that Manuel Rocha had worked as an undercover agent for Cuba. Miguel contacted the former diplomat by WhatsApp: “I have a message for you from your friends in Havana.” The suspect responded: “I don’t understand, but you can call me.”

They both agreed to meet in front of a church in the wealthy Brickell area of Miami. To get there, Manuel Rocha adopted classic counter-espionage techniques, from taking a long detour, to stationing himself nearby to study whether the meeting place was under surveillance. They met like this up to three times. During these talks, the former diplomat expressed that he was proud of having collaborated with the DGI and reiterated his willingness to continue. His feigned right-wing inclinations — he donated $750 to an anti-Castro legislator in the U.S. Congress, which the legislator has since returned — were nothing more than part of his “legend,” as he told his contact.

He boasted of having worked to “strengthen the [Cuban] Revolution,” a task of “enormous” importance for Cuba and a great triumph for the interests of the island and against “the enemy” — the United States. “They [Washington] underestimated what we could do to them. We did more than they thought,” he declared to his supposed contact. When asked if he continued to support the DGI, he responded a little later, indignantly, that “it’s like questioning my manhood. It’s like you want me to drop [my pants] ... and show you if I still have testicles.”

This past December 1, agents from the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service sat down with him. Manuel Rocha initially denied having met anyone who matched Miguel’s description. Confronted with a photo of both of them together, he assured the agents that he had only seen the man once, and only because Miguel had approached him. That same day, he was arrested.

The prosecutors and the FBI now have to determine the extent of the damage that Manuel Rocha may have caused. What kind of data could someone who had access to top-level classified information have passed on to his contacts? And to what extent did he influence the United States with his actions and reports, to make decisions contrary to its national interests?

Miguel’s sworn declaration hardly provides any clues. But in it, Manuel Rocha recalls that he was in Havana when, in 1996, Cuba shot down two small planes belonging to the Cuban exile organization — Brothers to the Rescue — near the island, in an incident in which four people died.

In Bolivia, the then-ambassador became known for publicly meddling in the 2002 electoral campaign. Rocha warned that if the electorate voted “for those who want Bolivia to return to exporting cocaine, that will seriously jeopardize any future aid to Bolivia from the United States.” That statement outraged the population, boosted Evo Morales to second place (he would eventually triumph in the 2005 election) and subtracted votes from the until-then favorite, the moderate Manfred Reyes Villa. The neoliberal Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada ended up triumphing. The current accusation have raised questions about if the then-ambassador’s provocative words were actually a deliberate initiative to favor the coca union leader. On several occasions after that, Morales ironically described Manuel Rocha as his “campaign manager.”

“As an ambassador and as a member of the National Security Council, in the high positions he held, he had the ability to influence foreign policy. Not only did he have the opportunity to provide classified information to Cuba, he was also able to influence foreign policy. That’s very damaging,” Lapp affirms. “Montes was very harmful, because she had access to very high levels of confidential [Department of Defense] information. But this case — due to its ability to influence politics — is at least as serious as that one.”

The fact that Manuel Rocha acted as a Cuban agent for so long “is a counterintelligence failure. There’s lots of blame to go around for that,” says the former FBI agent. But “it’s better to have identified Rocha at age 73″ — while he’s still alive and agents still have the opportunity to question him, and find out exactly what he did and who he was in contact with.

Although he’s accused of being an agent on behalf of Cuba, Rocha hasn’t been charged with the specific crime of espionage. Experts attribute this to a possible lack of evidence. “But the indictment paints a very damning picture,” Lapp emphasizes. “The government doesn’t think that he was passing cooking recipes to Cuba.”

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