Red flags, missed clues: How accused US diplomat-turned-Cuban spy avoided scrutiny for decades

MIAMI (AP) — Manuel Rocha was well-known in Miami’s elite circles for an aristocratic, virtually regal, bearing that appeared becoming for an Ivy League-educated profession U.S. diplomat who held high posts in Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba and the White House. “Ambassador Rocha,” as he most popular to be known as, demanded and bought respect.

So former CIA operative Félix Rodríguez was doubtful in 2006 when a defected Cuban Army lieutenant colonel confirmed up at his Miami dwelling with a startling tip: “Rocha,” he quoted the person as saying, “is spying for Cuba.”

Rodriguez, who participated within the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and the execution of revolutionary “Che” Guevara, believed on the time that the Rocha tip was an try to discredit a fellow anti-communist crusader. He mentioned he nonetheless handed the defector’s message alongside to the CIA, which was equally skeptical.

“No one believed him,” Rodriguez mentioned in an interview with The Associated Press. “We all thought it was a smear.”

That long-ago tip got here dashing again in devastating readability in December when the now-73-year-old Rocha was arrested and charged with serving as a undercover agent of Cuba stretching again to the 1970s — what prosecutors known as some of the brazen and long-running betrayals within the historical past of the U.S. State Department.

Rocha was secretly recorded by an undercover FBI agent praising Fidel Castro as “El Comandante” and bragging about his work for Cuba’s communist authorities, calling it “more than a grand slam” in opposition to the U.S. “enemy.” And to cover his true allegiances, prosecutors and mates say, Rocha lately adopted the faux persona of an avid Donald Trump supporter who talked powerful in opposition to the island nation.

“I really admired this son of a bitch,” an indignant Rodríguez mentioned. “I want to look him in the eye and ask him why he did it. He had access to everything.”

As Rocha pleaded not responsible from jail this week to 15 federal counts, FBI and State Department investigators have been working to decipher the case’s largest lacking piece: precisely what the longtime diplomat could have given as much as Cuba. It’s a confidential harm evaluation, sophisticated by the often-murky intelligence world, that’s anticipated to take years.

The AP spoke with two dozen former senior U.S. counterintelligence officers, Cuban intelligence defectors, and mates and colleagues of Rocha to piece collectively what is thought up to now of his alleged betrayal, and the missed clues and pink flags that would have helped him keep away from scrutiny for decades.

It wasn’t simply Rodríguez’s tipster — whom he refused to determine to the AP however says was not too long ago interviewed by the FBI. Officials advised the AP that as early as 1987, the CIA was conscious Castro had a “super mole” burrowed deep contained in the U.S. authorities. Some now suspect it might have been Rocha and that since a minimum of 2010 he could have been on a brief checklist given to the FBI of doable Cuban spies excessive up in overseas coverage circles.

Rocha’s lawyer didn’t reply to messages searching for remark. The FBI and CIA declined to remark. The State Department mentioned in an announcement it would proceed to work with related businesses to “fully assess the foreign policy and national security implications of these charges.”

“This is a monumental screw-up,” mentioned Peter Romero, a former assistant secretary of state for Latin America who labored with Rocha. “All of us are doing a lot of soul searching and nobody can come up with anything. He did an amazing job covering his tracks.”


Before he was charged with being a Cuban agent, Rocha’s life embodied the American dream.

He was born in Colombia and at age 10 moved along with his widowed mom and two siblings to New York City. They lived for some time in Harlem whereas his mom labored in a sweatshop and bought by with the assistance of meals stamps.

A gifted soccer participant with a pointy mind, he received a scholarship for minorities in 1965 to attend The Taft School, an elite boarding faculty in Connecticut. Overnight he was catapulted from what he known as a “ghetto” engulfed in race riots to a refined world of American wealth.

“Taft was the best thing that happened to my life,” he advised the college’s alumni journal in 2004.

But as considered one of only some minorities on the faculty, Rocha says he suffered discrimination — together with a classmate who refused to room with him — one thing that fueled a grudge that mates suspect could have led him to admire Castro’s revolution.

“I was devastated and considered suicide,” he advised the alumni journal.

From Taft, he went to Yale, the place he graduated with honors with a level in Latin American research, after which on to graduate work at Harvard and Georgetown.

It’s not clear precisely how Rocha could have been recruited by Cuba however prosecutors say it occurred someday within the 1970s when he was nonetheless racking up levels and American school campuses have been teeming with college students sympathetic to leftist causes.

In 1973, the yr he graduated from Yale, Rocha traveled to Chile, the place prosecutors say he grew to become a “great friend” of Cuba’s intelligence company, the General Directorate of Intelligence, or DGI. That similar yr, the CIA helped topple the Castro-backed socialist authorities of Salvador Allende, changing it with a brutal army dictatorship.

Around the identical time, Rocha entered the primary of his three marriages, to an older Colombian lady he barely spoke about to mates, and who’s now beneath scrutiny for doable ties to Cuba, based on those that have been questioned by the FBI. The AP was unable to succeed in the lady or find any document of their marriage.


After becoming a member of the overseas service in 1981, considered one of Rocha’s first abroad postings was as a political-military affairs officer in Honduras, the place he suggested the Contras of their battle in opposition to Cuba-backed leftist rebels in neighboring Nicaragua.

In 1994, he went to the White House to work as director of Inter-American Affairs on the National Security Council, with duty for Cuba. That similar yr, he wrote a memo, “A Calibrated Response to Cuban Reforms,” urging the Clinton administration to start dismantling U.S. commerce restrictions, based on Peter Kornbluh, a nationwide safety skilled who interviewed Rocha for a 2014 ebook.

The secretary of state deliberate to announce the coverage overhaul following the U.S. midterm elections, based on Kornbluh. But that speech was by no means delivered. Republican hardliners who took management of Congress enacted laws in 1996 hardening the embargo and blocking any effort to enhance relations with Havana.

From Washington, Rocha was dispatched to Havana, the place he served for two years because the principal deputy of the U.S. Interests Section. It was a dangerous time — within the wake of the 1996 aerial shootdown of a “Brothers to the Rescue” propaganda airplane over Cuba that killed 4 Castro opponents — and the DGI would have had virtually unfettered entry to the diplomat.

Rocha’s largest identified favor to Cuba, intentional or not, got here throughout his ultimate and most vital diplomatic submit, as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, when he intervened within the nation’s presidential election to assist a Castro protégé.

At an embassy occasion in 2002, Rocha inserted into his fastidiously scripted remarks a warning to Bolivians that voting for a narcotrafficker — a not-so veiled reference to coca grower-turned-presidential candidate Evo Morales — would lead the U.S. to chop off all overseas help.

“I remember it vividly. I was so uncomfortable,” mentioned Liliana Ayalde, a fellow overseas service officer who later served as U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and Brazil. “I told him it wasn’t appropriate for the ambassador to say these remarks with elections just around the corner.”

The backlash was fast. Bolivians deeply resented the thought of the U.S. interfering of their elections, and Morales, till then an extended shot, surged within the polls and virtually received. Three years later when he did prevail, he credited Rocha with being his “best campaign chief.”

Today, Ayalde wonders whether or not Rocha’s final hurrah as a overseas service officer was an act of self-sabotage, finished on the route of a overseas energy to additional harm the U.S.’ standing in Latin America, historically known as “Washington’s backyard.”

“Now that I look back,” she mentioned, “it was all part of a plan.”


As early as 1987, when Rocha was just a few years into his ascendant profession, the U.S. was made conscious of a Cuban “super mole” burrowed into the Washington institution, based on Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst.

The data was supplied by Florentino Aspillaga, who defected whereas heading the DGI’s workplace in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia.

Before Aspillaga died in 2018, he advised the CIA that 4 dozen Cubans it recruited have been really double brokers — or “dangles” in spy parlance— fastidiously chosen by the DGI to penetrate the U.S. authorities. Latell mentioned Aspillaga additionally spoke of two extremely productive spies contained in the State Department.

While Aspillaga didn’t know any of their names, the revelation despatched shockwaves by way of the CIA.

“One of Aspillaga’s major revelations was that Fidel Castro himself was serving to a large degree as Cuba’s spymaster,” Latell mentioned.

Enrique Garcia, who defected to the U.S. within the 1990s, additionally caught wind of the clandestine spy ring whereas working Cuban brokers in Latin America. He mentioned the paperwork he noticed, which carried “Top Secret” and State Department markings, have been so useful that they have been despatched on to Castro’s residence, bypassing the inside minister who oversaw the DGI.

“I have no doubt Rocha was part of that ring,” mentioned Garcia, who advised the FBI concerning the spy ring years in the past.

Jim Popkin, creator of “Code Name Blue Wren,” a ebook about Ana Montes, the highest-level U.S. official ever convicted of spying for Cuba, mentioned his intelligence sources not too long ago advised him that Rocha’s identify was on a brief checklist of a minimum of 4 doable Cuban spies that had been within the FBI’s fingers since a minimum of 2010. AP was not in a position to independently affirm that.

“The FBI has been aware of Rocha for a dozen years,” Popkin mentioned. “That’s likely what stirred interest that led to his arrest years later.”

Peter Lapp, who oversaw FBI counterintelligence in opposition to Cuba between 1998 and 2005, and wrote a ebook on Montes, “Queen of Cuba,” mentioned he was unaware whether or not Rocha had been on the bureau’s radar. But he acknowledged that within the nationwide safety hierarchy, Cuba is commonly an afterthought to Russia, China and extra harmful threats.

At the time of Rodríguez’s 2006 tip about Rocha spying for Cuba, for occasion, U.S. counterintelligence investigators have been occupied with the U.S. warfare in Iraq, the airstrike that killed al-Qaida chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and controversial detention and interrogation applications abroad.

“You don’t get promoted to the senior ranks of the FBI counterintelligence division by focusing on Cuba,” Lapp mentioned. “But it’s a country we ignore at our peril. Not only are the Cubans really good at human intelligence but they are experts at brokering information to some of our biggest adversaries.”


Following his retirement from the overseas service in 2002, Rocha launched into a profitable profession in enterprise, racking up various senior positions and consulting jobs at non-public fairness companies, a public relations company, a Chinese automaker and even an organization within the hashish trade.

“I have access to just about every country in the region or know how to get it,” he bragged to the Miami Herald in 2006.

From 2012 to 2018, he served as president of Barrick Gold’s subsidiary within the Dominican Republic, overseeing manufacturing on the world’s sixth-largest gold mine. Rodríguez’s mementos of his one-time friendship with Rocha embrace a photograph of the previous diplomat in a tough hat lugging round a freshly extracted chunk of gold.

John Feeley, who labored beneath Rocha when he joined the State Department and ultimately grew to become ambassador to Panama, remembers his former mentor urging him to reject professional bono work in retirement and as a substitute chase a paycheck.

“He was openly and vocally motivated by making money in his post-foreign service career,” Feeley mentioned, “which wasn’t typical among former diplomats.”

One enterprise that has acquired new scrutiny within the wake of Rocha’s arrest was a enterprise he headed with a bunch of offshore traders to purchase up at a steep low cost billions of dollars in claims against Cuba’s government for farmland, factories and different properties confiscated through the communist revolution.

Rocha and his accomplice mentioned that there was no manner the Cuban authorities would ever pay up and that the U.S. authorities was unlikely to assist, recalled declare holder Carolyn Chester, whose father was a former AP journalist and later near deposed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Chester remembered how the pair rolled as much as meet her in Omaha, Nebraska, in a limousine and delivered a sophisticated presentation by which they performed off each other “like a tag team.”

While his accomplice introduced the info of their provide for a declare to a farm and different seized property, “Rocha would tug on our heartstrings,” recounting a supposed assembly they’d with Chester’s mother and father years earlier than in Washington.

Chester, who in the end determined to not promote, mentioned the assembly left her with doubts about Rocha, partly as a result of she was all however sure her father’s poor well being would have stored her mother and father from making such a visit to Washington. And she discovered it unusual that Rocha and his accomplice spoke as if “they knew for sure” of the intentions of Cuban officers.

The concept, based on Rocha’s former enterprise accomplice, Tim Ashby, was to “kill communism with capitalism” by swapping the claims for land concessions, leases and joint ventures in Cuba at a time when the communist island was determined for overseas funding.

“For Cuba, there was a lot more at play,” mentioned Ashby, a lawyer and former senior official within the U.S. Commerce Department. “This was crucial to normalizing relations with the U.S.”

The funding group would ultimately spend round $5 million shopping for up 9 claims valued at over $55 million, Ashby mentioned. But the enterprise collapsed after some declare holders complained to the George W. Bush administration that they thought they have been being bamboozled. In 2009, the Treasury Department moved to bar the switch of any licensed claims in opposition to Cuba.

That didn’t cease Rocha from persevering with to earn money. Records present that since 2016 alone, Rocha and his present spouse spent greater than $5.2 million to purchase a half-dozen flats in high-rise buildings in Miami’s monetary district. This month, 4 of these properties have been transferred solely into his spouse’s identify, a transfer former legislation enforcement officers mentioned might probably protect them from authorities seizure.

In hindsight, Ashby acknowledged he was taken in by the picture his former accomplice wished the world to see.

“He was fiercely anti-communist and a staunch, early, Trump supporter,” he mentioned. “Rocha was the last person I would have suspected of being a Cuban spy.”


AP reporters Adam Geller in New York, Eric Tucker in Washington and Matthew Lee in Munich, and information researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.


Contact AP’s world investigative group at or

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