Ex-U.S. diplomat Victor Manuel Rocha admits to secretly working as Cuban agent for many years

A former profession U.S. diplomat advised a federal choose Thursday that he’ll plead responsible to fees of working for many years as a undercover agent for communist Cuba, an unexpectedly swift decision to a case prosecutors described as one of the brazen betrayals within the historical past of the U.S. international service.

Victor Manuel Rocha’s gorgeous fall from grace may culminate in a prolonged jail time period after the 73-year-old stated he would admit to federal counts of conspiring to behave as an agent of a international authorities.

Prosecutors and Rocha’s lawyer indicated the plea deal contains an agreed-upon sentence, however they didn’t disclose particulars in courtroom Thursday. He’s due again in courtroom on April 12, when he’s scheduled to formalize his responsible plea and be sentenced.

“I’m in settlement,” stated Rocha, shackled by the hands and ankles, when requested by U.S. District Court docket Choose Beth Bloom if he wished to vary his plea to responsible. Prosecutors, in change, agreed to drop 13 counts together with wire fraud and making false statements.

‘Clandestine exercise’ for Cuba

The temporary listening to shed no new gentle on the query that has proved elusive since Rocha’s arrest in December: What precisely did he do to assist Cuba whereas working on the State Division for 20 years? That included stints as ambassador to Bolivia and high posts in Argentina, Mexico, the White Home and the U.S. Pursuits Part in Havana.

A file picture exhibits Victor Manuel Rocha chatting with reporters in Bolivia on July 11, 2001, when he was then serving because the U.S. ambassador to that nation. (Gonzalo Espinoza/AFP/Getty Pictures)

“Ambassador Rocha,” as he most popular to be known as, was well-known amongst Miami’s elite for his aristocratic, virtually regal, bearing befitting his Ivy League background. His post-government profession additionally included time as a particular adviser to the commander of the U.S. Southern Command and extra just lately as a tough-talking Donald Trump supporter and Cuba hardliner, a persona that buddies and prosecutors say Rocha adopted to cover his true allegiances.

Peter Lapp, who oversaw FBI counterintelligence towards Cuba between 1998 and 2005, stated the quick decision of the case advantages not solely the aged Rocha but additionally the federal government, which stands to be taught rather a lot about Cuba’s penetration of U.S. international coverage circles.

Usually in counterintelligence circumstances, the defendant is charged with espionage. However Rocha was accused of the lesser crimes of performing as a international agent, which carry most phrases of between 5 and 10 years in jail, making it simpler for prosecutors and Rocha to succeed in an settlement.

“It is a win-win for each side,” stated Lapp, who led the investigation into Ana Belén Montes, the highest-level U.S. official ever convicted of spying for Cuba. “He will get a big payoff and the possibility to see his household once more, and the U.S. will be capable of conduct a full harm evaluation that it would not be capable of do with out his co-operation.”

“There are particulars that may actually solely come from the defendant,” he added.

However the abrupt deal drew criticism within the Cuban exile group, with some authorized observers worrying it amounted to a slap on the wrist.

“Any sentence that enables him to see the sunshine of day once more wouldn’t be justice,” stated Carlos Trujillo, a Miami lawyer who served as U.S. ambassador to the Group of American States in the course of the Trump administration. “He is a spy for a international adversary who put American lives in danger.”

A U.S. Justice Division spokesperson declined to remark.

‘Your pals in Havana’

Rocha was arrested by the FBI at his Miami residence in December on allegations that he engaged in “clandestine exercise” on Cuba’s behalf since at the least 1981 — the 12 months he joined the U.S. international service — together with by assembly with Cuban intelligence operatives and offering false data to U.S. authorities officers about his contacts.

An image of Victor Manuel Rocha, as  seen during a meeting with an undercover FBI agent.
Rocha is seen attending a gathering with an undercover FBI agent. On Thursday, the 73-year-old former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia advised a choose he would admit to federal counts of conspiring to behave as an agent of a international authorities. (U.S. Justice Division/The Related Press)

Rocha made a collection of recorded admissions to an undercover FBI agent who posed as a Cuban intelligence operative who reached out to Rocha on WhatsApp, calling himself “Miguel” and saying he had a message “from your pals in Havana.”

Rocha praised the late Cuban chief Fidel Castro as “comandante,” branded the U.S. the “enemy” and bragged about his service for greater than 40 years as a Cuban mole within the coronary heart of U.S. international coverage circles, prosecutors stated in courtroom information.

“What now we have finished … it is huge … greater than a Grand Slam,” he was quoted as saying at one in all a number of secretly recorded conversations.

Harm evaluation will final years

Federal authorities have stated little about what Rocha really did to help Cuba, and FBI and State Division investigators have been conducting a confidential harm evaluation that would take years.

However a latest Related Press investigation discovered there have been loads of missed purple flags through the years.

These included a tip {that a} longtime CIA operative obtained in 2006 warning that Rocha was working as a double agent. It was by no means pursued. And separate intelligence revealed that the CIA had been conscious as early as 1987 that Castro had a “tremendous mole” burrowed deep contained in the U.S. authorities, and a few officers suspected it may have been Rocha.

Lawrence Gumbiner, a retired profession diplomat, stated the truth that Rocha went undetected for thus a few years underscores the sophistication of Cuba’s intelligence companies.

“It is a day for reflection for all of us who knew and labored with him,” stated Gumbiner, who served as performing U.S. ambassador to Cuba in 2017 and 2018.

“Though the complete extent of the harm he precipitated is not but revealed, it is onerous to consider he did not move alongside some very critical data that compromised our intelligence companies and our personal efforts towards the Castro regime.”

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