Former career US diplomat charged with secretly spying for Cuban intelligence for decades

This image provided by the Justice Department and contained in the affidavit in support of a criminal complaint, shows Manuel Rocha. The Justice Department says Rocha, a former American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, has been charged with serving as a covert agent for Cuba's intelligence services since at least 1981. Newly unsealed court papers allege that Manuel Rocha engaged in "clandestine activity" on Cuba's behalf for decades, including by meeting with Cuban intelligence operatives. (Justice Department via AP)

MIAMI — A former career American diplomat was charged Monday with serving as a secret agent for communist Cuba going back decades in what prosecutors portrayed as one of the most brazen and long-running betrayals in the history of the U.S. foreign service.

Manuel Rocha wept as he sat handcuffed in Miami federal court on charges that he engaged in “clandestine activity” on Cuba’s behalf since at least 1981 — the year he joined the U.S. foreign service — including by meeting with Cuban intelligence operatives and providing false information to U.S. government officials about his contacts.


The complaint is short on specifics of how Rocha may have assisted Cuba. But it provides a vivid case study of what American officials say are long-standing efforts by Cuba and its notoriously sophisticated intelligence services to target U.S. government officials who can be flipped.

“This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “To betray that trust by falsely pledging loyalty to the United States while serving a foreign power is a crime that will be met with the full force of the Justice Department.”

The 73-year-old Rocha, whose two-decade career as a U.S. diplomat included top posts in Bolivia, Argentina and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, was arrested by the FBI at his Miami home Friday. He was ordered held following Monday’s brief court appearance pending a bond hearing Wednesday. His attorney declined to comment.

The Justice Department did not reveal how Rocha attracted the attention of Cuba’s intelligence operatives nor did it describe what, if any, sensitive information he may have provided while working for the State Department and in a lucrative post-government career that included a stint as a special adviser to the commander of U.S. Southern Command.

Instead, the case relies largely on what prosecutors say were Rocha’s own admissions, made over the past year to an undercover FBI agent posing as a Cuban intelligence operative named “Miguel.”

Rocha praised the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro as “Comandante,” branded the U.S. the “enemy” and bragged about his service for more than 40 years as a Cuban mole in the heart of U.S. foreign policy circles, the complaint says.

“What we have done … it’s enormous … more than a Grand Slam,” he was quoted as saying at one of several secretly recorded conversations.

To cover his tracks, Rocha referred to Cuba as “the island” and led a “normal life” disguised as a “right-wing person,” he said in one of the recordings. Former colleagues and friends described Rocha as a vocal admirer of former President Donald Trump, who took a hard line on Cuba.

John Feeley, who ended a long diplomatic career serving as U.S. ambassador to Panama, said he was surprised how his mentor, who had served administrations of both parties, had so fully embraced Trump’s politics.

“It is beyond ironic that he cultivated this cartoonish persona,” he said, “and that everyone apparently bought it.”

Washington and Havana restored diplomatic relations in late 2014 after a half-century of Cold War acrimony, though the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Cuba and, in 2021, redesignated it a state sponsor of terrorism. The Biden administration has moved more gingerly to restore some Obama-era concessions.

The charging document traces Rocha’s illegal ties to Cuba to well after his departure from the federal government, when he took on lucrative private sector jobs — most recently as a senior business adviser to an international public relations firm.

The FBI learned about the relationship last year and arranged a series of undercover encounters in discrete locations in downtown Miami. Rocha deliberately strayed from the most-direct route to those encounters, pausing along the way in what prosecutors allege was classic, counter-surveillance “tradecraft” taught by Cuba’s spymasters.

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