Former U.S. official arrested in Miami on charges of being unregistered agent for Cuba

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A former U.S. ambassador with a long career in the federal government has been charged with working secretly since the early 1980s for Cuba’s intelligence services as an unregistered “covert” foreign agent in the United States, according to an FBI complaint unsealed Monday in Miami federal court.

Victor Manuel Rocha, 73, a former ambassador to Bolivia who had also worked as a senior diplomat in the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, spent the weekend in custody at the Federal Detention Center in Miami and made his first appearance in federal court Monday. Prosecutors said they plan to file a grand jury indictment on Tuesday and seek his detention at a bond hearing on Wednesday before Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres, who signed the complaint for Rocha’s arrest on Friday.

His defense attorney, Jacqueline Arango, a former Miami federal prosecutor with a national security background, declined to comment but plans to argue for Rocha’s release before trial. His arraignment is scheduled for Dec. 18.

Although the FBI complaint does not charge Rocha with spying for the Cuban government, the nation’s top law enforcement official characterized him that way in a statement released Monday by the Justice Department that harkened back to the Cold War and frosty relations between Cuba and the United States.

“This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said.

Under U.S. law, it is required for anyone working as an agent for a foreign government in the United States to register with the Attorney General’s Office in the Department of Justice. The FBI criminal complaint charges Rocha, who was born in Colombia and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1978, with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and to defraud the United States, acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government, and use of a passport obtained by a false statement.

Over the span of 40 years as an employee in the State Department and private sector, “Rocha secretly supported the Republic of Cuba and its clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against the United States by serving as a cover agent of Cuba’s intelligence services,” according to an affidavit filed with the FBI complaint.

In his covert role, Rocha secured diplomatic positions in the U.S. government that “provided him access to nonpublic information, including classified information,” and “the ability to affect United States foreign policy.”

“After his [government] employment ended [in 2002], Rocha held other positions and engaged in other acts intended to support Cuba’s intelligence services,” states the affidavit, adding that Rocha provided “false and misleading information to the United States to maintain his secret mission, traveled outside the United States to meet with Cuban intelligence operatives, and made false and misleading statements to obtain travel documents.”

The 22-page complaint with affidavit says that the FBI received a tip in November 2022 that Rocha had been working as a “covert agent.” The affidavit alleges that an FBI undercover agent posing as a covert Cuban General Directorate of Intelligence representative met in Miami with Rocha during a series of video-recorded meetings over the past year in which Rocha repeatedly admitted his “decades” of work for Cuba that spanned “40 years.”

When the FBI undercover agent told Rocha he was “a covert representative here in Miami” whose mission was “to contact you, introduce myself as your new contact, and establish a new communication plan,” Rocha answered “Yes,” according to the affidavit. Rocha then went on to describe and celebrate his activities as a Cuban intelligence agent.

Throughout the meetings, Rocha behaved as a Cuban agent, consistently referring to the United States as “the enemy,” and using the term “we” to describe himself and Cuba, according to the affidavit. Rocha also praised the late Fidel Castro as the “Comandante,” and referred to his contacts in Cuban intelligence as his “Compañeros” (comrades) and to the Cuban intelligence services as the “Dirección.”

Rocha described his work as a Cuban agent as “a grand slam,” states the affidavit, filed by prosecutor Jonathan Stratton.

In particular, Rocha noted he was deputy principal officer of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana between 1995 and 1997, when the Cuban government orchestrated the conspiracy to shoot down two Cuban exile planes flown by four pilots for Brothers to the Rescue over the Florida Straits in February 1996.

According to the affidavit, Rocha described the international controversy as “the knock down of the small planes. ... That was a time of a lot tension ... that was the time of the ‘Brothers to the Rescue’ and other similar people ... who were pushing politics towards unnecessary provocations.”

Rocha also told the FBI undercover agent that his last trip to Cuba was in 2016 or 2017.

Word of Rocha’s arrest on Friday was kept secret by U.S. authorities over the weekend.

On Sunday, FBI spokesman James Marshall declined to comment on Rocha’s arrest at his Miami area home. The U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman, prosecutor Sarah Schall, did not respond to several text, email and voice mail messages seeking comment on Sunday. After the AP broke a story that evening about Rocha’s arrest, Schall said later that she could not comment.

Rocha’s most recent former employer, the Foley & Lardner law firm in Miami, where he worked as a senior advisor on international business, said he left the office in August. “We are neither representing nor providing legal assistance to Ambassador Rocha,” a spokeswoman said Sunday afternoon.

The charge brought against Rocha under the Foreign Agents Registration Act has been used by prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the past, including a pending case against former Miami Congressman David Rivera, who is accused of lobbying on behalf of the Venezuelan government without registering as a foreign agent. The offense was also among several charges brought against a Cuban spy ring in the late 1990s, when a group of Cuban government operatives were accused of espionage and a conspiracy to shoot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes in the Florida Straits, killing three U.S. citizens and one Cuban American.

Rocha, who gradated from Yale University and obtained graduate degrees from Harvard University and Georgetown University, had a long diplomatic career working in various foreign posts in the Caribbean, Mexico and South America for the U.S. government, including his service as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

A former colleague said it was hard to believe that Rocha was charged with being an unregistered foreign agent for the Cuban government.

“This is shocking,” said a former U.S. official who knew him. “Manuel would not be in the list of people I would think would be working for these guys.”

While serving as ambassador to Bolivia, Rocha gained some notoriety when he warned voters ahead of the 2002 election that if socialist Evo Morales were elected president, the country would risk losing U.S. aid.

“He was considered sort of a conservative career officer,” said the former official, who did not want to be identified. “[He] spent a lot of time licking these wounds over Bolivia, where he drew a lot of fire and criticism because of what he said about Evo Morales in the middle of an election, with people later claiming that those comments got Morales elected.”

Rocha’s term as ambassador ended in August 2002.

Until that controversy, Rocha was known as a versatile diplomat who moved from one U.S. embassy post to another, starting in the early 1980s during the Reagan administration. Along the way, he also served as deputy principal officer of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as well as the director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council in Washington, D.C.

In his “lucrative” post-government life, as the FBI described his career in the affidavit, Rocha was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and served on the University of Miami’s International Advisory Board. He also served on the advisory board of the Cuba Transition Project at UM and as a special advisor to the U.S. military commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami between 2006 and 2012. He was also a member of the late Henry Kissinger’s International Council on Terrorism.

In addition, Rocha was director of government relations for Arcos Dorados Holdings, which owns and manages most of the McDonald’s restaurants in Latin America.