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Why did Rocha allegedly betray the U.S. to Cuba — and how much damage was done?

This image provided by the Justice Department and contained in the affidavit in support of a criminal complaint, shows Manuel Rocha during a meeting with a FBI undercover employee. 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.
Department of Justice
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Justice Department
A bodycam photo of Manuel Rocha taken during last year's FBI undercover sting operation.

A former U.S. ambassador in Latin America who lives in Miami was charged this week for being a covert agent for Cuba for decades. The mystery is what led him in that direction — and how much damage he may have done to the U.S.

In a criminal complaint, as well as a formal indictment issued Tuesday, the Justice Department accuses retired U.S. diplomat Manuel Rocha, 73, of spying for communist Cuba for at least two decades, starting in the early 1980s, and conspiring to "provide [classified U.S.] information" to the regime in Havana.

According to court documents, Rocha, a former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, told an undercover FBI agent last year that he used to “hit grand slams” sharing sensitive U.S. information with the Cuban regime’s intelligence service, the Dirección General de Inteligencia, or DGI. Rocha also expressed admiration for late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. After his State Department career, he worked as a special adviser to the commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

Those who know Rocha call the revelation stunning.

“He sat around my dining room table for years, and vice versa," Brian Latell, a former senior CIA intelligence official who also lives in Miami and had been a friend of Rocha's since early in his career, told WLRN.

"I’m completely surprised — but I guess I’m not shocked, because I have such respect for the extraordinary skills of the Cuban intelligence service.”

“Rocha strode atop a much larger, broader terrain, at much higher levels [than most spies]. He had access to all of the agencies under the embassy roof. It’s highly likely that Rocha did great damage.”
Former CIA official Brian Latell

The question nagging Latell and other analysts now is why Rocha would have sympathized enough with the Cuban regime to allegedly betray U.S. national security.

Latell says similar cases from the past suggest one key factor: Rocha, who was born in Colombia, grew up in a low-income housing project in Harlem in New York before winning admission to an exclusive Connecticut boarding school and then Yale University.

“Y’know, it’s logical, speculatively, to think that there are deep, deep resentments," says Latell, author of After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader. "And he was obviously a master at concealing his true feelings.”

Indeed, as ambassador to Bolivia in 2002, under the Republican George W. Bush administration, Rocha appeared antagonistic to the Latin American left — condemning then Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales for encouraging the cultivation of coca, the raw material of cocaine, for indigenous use. (Rocha's criticism at the time was widely thought to have boosted Morales with Bolivian voters — leading some to speculate now if that was Rocha's true intention.)

READ MORE: Former career U.S. diplomat charged with secretly spying for Cuban intelligence for decades

The other critical question: how much did Rocha’s alleged intelligence-sharing with Cuba hurt U.S. national security?

Rocha was a senior diplomat at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana in the late 1990s — when Cuban military jets shot down two small planes piloted by Cuban exiles, killing four, after Cuban spies had infiltrated the exile community in Miami. The Cuban government claimed the planes had entered Cuban air space, the U.S. government argued they were shot down over international waters.

Then U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha in 2002.
State Department
Then U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha in 2002.

Rocha, however, is not charged with any specific acts of espionage.

Still, Latell fears those may come to light now that Rocha's alleged history as a covert agent for Cuba has been discovered. And he warns that because Rocha was an ambassador, he could offer the Cubans more than most spies.

“Rocha strode atop a much larger, broader terrain, at much higher levels," Latell points out.

"He had access to all of the agencies under the embassy roof. It’s highly likely that Rocha did great damage.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland himself is calling Rocha’s case “one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations” of the U.S. government by a clandestine operative.

That, says Latell, begs one last question: if Rocha was that skilled and experienced at spycraft, why would he so readily have fallen for an undercover sting last year?

Latell suggests ego played a role: after Rocha retired from diplomatic work in the 2000s, the Cubans wouldn't have had much use for him anymore — and so, after almost 20 years of being out of the game, any contact from Cuba and its DGI would have meant "the excitement of feeling important again."

Former CIA case officer and author Robert Baer told NPR that the Rocha case may represent the “most damaging” spy scandal in U.S. history, worse than convicted FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who exchanged trade secrets with Moscow for cash and diamonds, or longtime CIA agent Aldrich Ames, who was convicted on espionage charges for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union and Russia.

“He had access to the crown jewels,” said Baer, noting Rocha's high State Department positions and work with the U.S. Southern Command would have gotten access to intelligence intercepts, agent reporting, CIA reporting, “the whole the whole gamut, he would have seen that.”

“The question is, what did he pass? Did he pass documents? Did he betray our abilities to intercept communications in Russia or Cuba?” said Baer, who added it may take years for federal authorities to learn what damage has been done.

Baer said discovering Rocha would have been difficult because he reportedly did not get paid for his espionage services, leaving no money trail for the FBI to follow.

He, too, credited the “remarkably good” Cuban intelligence service for recruiting such a valuable spy.

“This is probably the most damaging spy scandal or penetration of the U.S. government going way back to [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt,” he said. “And I don't say that lightly.”

Rocha is set to be arraigned in federal court in Miami later this month.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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