Nothing in Manuel Rocha’s decorous demeanour suggested treachery. Erudite if somewhat outspokenly conservative in his public political stances, he was respected among fellow diplomats as a thoughtful peer who gained added credibility by running an email list server circulating thought-provoking articles about his specialist field of Latin America and other regions.
Beneath the surface, however, deep-seated feelings of resentment coalesced with a carefully concealed sympathy for the underdog to allegedly drive Rocha to spy for communist Cuba for more than four decades. More than half-a-lifetime of betrayal caught up with 73-year-old Rocha this week when US prosecutors filed a complaint with a federal court in Miami charging him with multiple counts of being a secret agent for Cuban intelligence.
“We allege that for over 40 years, Victor Manuel Rocha served as an agent of the Cuban government and sought out and obtained positions within the United States government that would provide him with access to non-public information and the ability to affect US foreign policy,” said the US attorney general, Merrick Garland. US authorities assert that Rocha, who was born in Colombia before his family emigrated to New York when he was a child – was a Cuban agent from or before the time he joined the state department in 1981 and continued his clandestine activities after leaving the diplomatic service in 2002. Rocha has not yet entered a plea.
The allegations have stunned the US intelligence community, which has instigated an urgent damage assessment to discover what secrets might have been passed by a man who held a series of sensitive posts. These included ambassador to Bolivia, charge d’affaires to Buenos Aires and – embarrassingly – deputy head of the US interest section in Havana, Washington’s de facto embassy in Cuba. “It’s huge,” said Jim Popkin, author of a book on Ana Montes, a former Defence Intelligence Agency analyst who spent 20 years in jail after being unmasked as a Cuban spy, before being freed this year.
“It’s unprecedented to have an ambassador accused of espionage. “He served in the White House national security council, where part of his portfolio involved Cuba – and that’s a major problem. But to have served in the US interests section in Havana when it’s acknowledged that he was working for the other side is a nightmare scenario.
“He would have had access to and known the status and names of operatives working in Havana on behalf of the US. That’s a very dangerous proposition.”
Rocha’s 1995-1997 Havana posting coincided with a period when Cuba’s then-leader, the late Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, were believed to fear the prospect of a US invasion or assassination plot during Bill Clinton’s presidency. This followed tensions caused by Cuba’s shooting down of two small civilian planes by a Cuban-American group, Brothers to the Rescue, in 1996.
Charges were brought against Rocha after a series of cloak and dagger-type meetings with an undercover FBI officer posing as an agent for the Cuban general intelligence directorate (DGI).
A 20-page criminal complaint lodged with the court describes Rocha engaging in surveillance-detecting techniques typical of Cuban espionage tradecraft en route to an initial meeting with the undercover officer in November 2022.
The meeting had been arranged on a WhatsApp message after the FBI learned that Rocha was a secret agent, according to the complaint, which gives no details on how the bureau obtained the information.
During the meeting, Rocha talked openly of his work as a DGI agent and described how he “created the legend of a rightwing person”, based on training he received in how to fashion an artificial persona to conceal his covert activities.
In a subsequent encounter, last February, he referred to the US as “the enemy” and expressed satisfaction in his work on behalf of the “revolution” and in beating its enemies.
“For me, what has been done has strengthened the revolution. It has strengthened it immensely,” he told the undercover officer. “They underestimated what we could do to them. We did more than they thought. What we have done … it’s enormous … More than a grand slam.”
In one extraordinary passage, Rocha – belying his genteel image among fellow diplomats – espoused raw macho pride in his achievements after his accomplice said the DGI wanted to know if he was still a “compañero” (comrade).
“I am angry. I’m pissed off,” he said. “It’s like questioning my manhood … It’s like you want me to drop them … and show you if I still have testicles. I have them. I have them.”
Fulton Armstrong, senior fellow of the Latin American programme at American University in Washington and a former CIA analyst, said the disclosures had created shock waves among those who knew Rocha.
“It’s always very shocking to be on the receiving end of a betrayal,” said Armstrong, like Rocha, a former staff member of the US interests section in Havana, who knew him and Montes.
“A big part of the shock is how well he concealed it for 40 years. Then there’s the personal side, where you say, shit, what might I have told him that he could have passed to the Cubans that I didn’t want the Cubans to know.
“At the national security council, in Cuba, when he was in Argentina, and then ambassador in Bolivia, he had access to very sensitive intelligence information, including signals intelligence information.”
The accusations would enable right-wingers to question current US policy in Latin America, Armstrong warned, particularly towards Cuba, with which President Barack Obama’s administration restored long-severed diplomatic ties in 2015.
“They can say, ‘look these policies are influenced by the Cubans because they have recruited our ambassadors’,” he said.
Beyond that, the affair represents an undoubted coup for Cuba’s intelligence services, which observers say remain highly motivated to spy on the US even though the cold war context for hostilities ended decades ago.
“What a triumph for them to place someone in the US state department, see them rise in rank and eventually become a US ambassador,” said Popkin. “If you look at Rocha’s career, pretty much every post was in a location that would have been helpful for Cuba. They must have been tickled pink watching how successful he was.”
Armstrong said Cuban tradecraft was so sophisticated that Rocha and Montes knew and worked with each other professionally as US officials in Washington without knowing the other was covertly spying for Cuba.
“Imagine that you are the handler for these two very well-placed sources of information and they don’t know each of them is working clandestinely for the same boss. That’s pretty cool … The covert communications with Manuel were brilliant.”
While acknowledging Cuban technique, however, Armstrong insisted the key factor was the motivation of Rocha – which he defined as “ego, grudge and resentment”.
“They didn’t recruit him, I think he volunteered,” said Armstrong, who suggested that Rocha – who grew up in Harlem before studying at prep school in Connecticut and then Yale – may never have felt accepted among the US establishment elite.
“He’s a really, really bright guy, goes on to the state department but never felt he was fairly treated – then you look at US Latin America policy and there are a lot of elements that parallel those same things.”