The former US ambassador to Bolivia has been charged in federal court with acting as a secret foreign agent of Cuba, according to court documents unsealed Monday.
Manuel Rocha, the 73-year-old former American diplomat, “secretly supported the Republic of Cuba and its clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against the United States by serving as a covert agent of Cuba’s intelligence services,” prosecutors wrote.
Rocha served as the US ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002 and as the deputy principal officer of the US Interests Section in Cuba in the 1990s. Rocha also worked for the US Embassy in the Dominican Republic in the 1980s as well as the US Consulate in Italy, and served in different roles for US embassies in Mexico and Argentina.
In several meetings with an undercover FBI employee posing as a member of Cuban intelligence, Rocha repeatedly referred to the US as “the enemy” and praised Cuban revolutionary and politician Fidel Castro, according to court documents.
Rocha described being “in charge” of what he called the “knock down of the small planes” – which prosecutors believe to be an incident during Rocha’s tenure working for the State Department in Havana when Cuba shot down two unarmed airplanes operated by members of Brothers to the Rescue, a US-based group opposed to Castro’s government, killing four men.
In the indictment, prosecutors say the Cuban government has worked for years to recruit persons within the United States to assist with intelligence gathering, including individuals within the US government.
As an employee of the State Department, Rocha had “unique” access to non-public government information, prosecutors said.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday that the case against Rocha “exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent.”
Rocha is facing three federal charges, including acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government. Rocha was arrested and had an initial court appearance Monday in Miami, where federal prosecutors asked a judge to keep him detained until trial.
Rocha was represented by Miami attorney Jacqueline Arango with the Akerman law firm, where she’s the co-chair of white-collar crimes and government investigations.
US Chief Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres set a pretrial detention hearing for 1 p.m. Wednesday, and Rocha will remain in custody until that time.
Assistant US Attorney Jonathan Stratton said the government plans to bring additional charges with a grand jury, saying those will hit the docket Tuesday.
Torres also set a preliminary hearing and arraignment for December 18.
FBI undercover officer approaches Rocha
An undercover FBI employee posing as a Cuban intelligence agent messaged Rocha on WhatsApp in November 2022 soon after investigators were tipped off to Rocha’s alleged covert work, court documents say. In the message, prosecutors say, the undercover employee said that they “have a message for you from your friends in Havana. It is in regards to a sensitive matter.”
Rocha allegedly replied: “I don’t understand but you can call me.” The former ambassador agreed to meet the undercover employee in Miami to talk.
During the meeting, Rocha allegedly took several precautions to make sure that he wasn’t followed, including taking a longer route to their rendezvous, and asking the undercover employee to talk at a “food court” with only “low-level employees. … So, there is no possibility for – for anyone to see me.”
During their first meeting, Rocha allegedly told the undercover employee that the Cuban intelligence agency, called the Dirección General de Inteligencia, “asked me … to lead a normal life,” and said that he has “created the legend of a right-wing person.”
“I always told myself, ‘The only thing that can put everything we have done in danger is – is … someone’s betrayal, someone who may have met me, someone who may have known something at some point,’” Rocha said, according to a recording of the meeting cited in court documents.
He allegedly added: “My number one concern; my number one priority was … any action on the part of Washington that would – would endanger the life of – of the leadership, or the – or the revolution itself.”
During another meeting several weeks later, Rocha allegedly described obtaining his State Department employment to the undercover employee, saying, “I went little by little. … It was a very meticulous process … very disciplined.”
“I knew exactly how to do it and obviously the Dirección accompanied me … they knew that I knew how to do it. … It’s a long process and it wasn’t easy,” he said, according to prosecutors.
Rocha also allegedly boasted about his “decades” of work on behalf of the Cuban government, saying that it “strengthened the revolution” over “the last 40 years,” and lamented “the blows that the enemy,” allegedly referring to the US government, “has dealt to the current revolution.”
Rocha worked at consulting firm LLYC USA as a “senior international business advisor” at the time of his arrest, according to court documents. LLYC said in a statement to CNN Monday that Rocha is “no longer associated with LLYC, effective immediately” and that it will “collaborate fully with the authorities if required.”