Former US ambassador sentenced to 15 years in prison for serving as secret agent for Cuba

A former career U.S. diplomat has been sentenced to 15 years in federal prison after admitting he worked for decades as a secret agent for communist Cuba

Gisela Salomon,Jim Mustian
Friday 12 April 2024 23:06 BST
Former Ambassador Arrested
Former Ambassador Arrested

A former career U.S. diplomat was sentenced Friday to 15 years in federal prison after admitting he worked for decades as a secret agent for communist Cuba, a plea agreement that leaves many unanswered questions about a betrayal that stunned the U.S. foreign service.

Manuel Rocha, 73, will also pay a $500,000 fine and cooperate with authorities after pleading guilty to conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government. In exchange, prosecutors dismissed more than a dozen other counts, including wire fraud and making false statements.

“Your actions were a direct attack to our democracy and the safety of our citizens,” U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom told Rocha.

Rocha, dressed in a beige jail uniform, asked his friends and family for forgiveness. “I take full responsibility and accept the penalty," he said.

The sentencing capped an exceptionally swift criminal case and averted a trial that would have shed new light on what, exactly, Rocha did to help Cuba even as he worked for two decades for the U.S. State Department.

Prosecutors said those details remain classified and would not even tell Bloom when the government determined Rocha was spying for Cuba.

Federal authorities have been conducting a confidential damage assessment that could take years to complete. The State Department said Friday it would continue working with the intelligence community “to fully assess the foreign policy and national security implications of these charges.”

Rocha's sentence came less than six months after his shocking arrest at his Miami home on allegations he engaged in “clandestine activity” on Cuba’s behalf since at least 1981, the year he joined the U.S. foreign service.

The case underscored the sophistication of Cuba’s intelligence services, which have managed other damaging penetrations into high levels of U.S. government. Rocha's double-crossing went undetected for years, prosecutors said, as the Ivy League-educated diplomat secretly met with Cuban operatives and provided false information to U.S. officials about his contacts.

But a recent Associated Press investigation found red flags overlooked along the way, including a warning that one longtime CIA operative received nearly two decades ago that Rocha was working as a double agent. Separate intelligence revealed the CIA had been aware as early as 1987 that Cuban leader Fidel Castro had a “super mole” burrowed deep inside the U.S. government, and some officials suspected it could have been Rocha, the AP reported.

Rocha's prestigious career included stints as ambassador to Bolivia and top posts in Argentina, Mexico, the White House and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

In 1973, the year he graduated from Yale, Rocha traveled to Chile, where prosecutors say he became a “great friend” of Cuba’s intelligence agency, the General Directorate of Intelligence, or DGI.

Rocha's post-government career included time as a special adviser to the commander of the U.S. Southern Command and, more recently, as a tough-talking Donald Trump supporter and Cuba hardliner, a persona that friends and prosecutors said Rocha adopted to hide his true allegiances.

Among the unanswered questions is what prompted the FBI to open its investigation into Rocha so many years after he retired from the foreign service.

Rocha incriminated himself in a series of secretly recorded conversations with an undercover agent posing as a Cuban intelligence operative. The agent initially reached out to Rocha on WhatsApp, calling himself “Miguel” and saying he had a message “from your friends in Havana.”

Rocha praised Castro as “Comandante" in the conversations, branded the U.S. the “enemy” and boasted about his service for more than 40 years as a Cuban mole in the heart of U.S. foreign policy circles, prosecutors said in court records.

“What we have done … it’s enormous … more than a Grand Slam,” Rocha was quoted as saying.

Even before Friday's sentencing, the plea agreement drew criticism in Miami's Cuban exile community, with some legal observers worrying Rocha would be treated too leniently.

“Any sentence that allows him to see the light of day again would not be justice,” said Carlos Trujillo, a Miami attorney who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States during the Trump administration. “He’s a spy for a foreign adversary who put American lives at risk.”

“As a Cuban I cannot forgive him,” added Isel Rodriguez, a 55-year-old Cuban-American woman who stood outside the federal courthouse Friday with a group of demonstrators waving American flags. “I feel completely betrayed.”


Mustian reported from Natchitoches, Louisiana.

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