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Former US diplomat to plead guilty to spying for communist-run Cuba for decades

The US had accused Rocha of having secretly supported Cuba and its intelligence-gathering mission since he joined the State Department in 1981. He pleaded not guilty earlier in February but later decided to plead guilty after his lawyers struck a deal with the prosecution.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Published on: March 01, 2024 10:24 IST
Former US diplomat, spying, Cuba
Image Source : REUTERS Former US diplomat Victor Manuel Rocha

Washington: Victor Manuel Rocha, a former US ambassador, has admitted to spying for communist-run Cuba for decades and said he intends to plea guilty to charges of spying, in what the Justice Department described as one of the highest-reaching and long-lasting infiltrations of the US government by a foreign agent. Rocha is expected to have been spying for Cuba since he started working for the State Department from 1981 to 2002.

Rocha, who was the US ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002, was charged in December with committing multiple federal crimes, including acting as an illegal foreign agent and using a fraudulently obtained passport. The US had accused Rocha of having secretly supported Cuba and its clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against Washington since 1981.

He pleaded not guilty earlier in February and the parties in the case announced on Thursday that he "will be changing his plea," according to an entry in the US online court records system. It added that a sentencing was set for April 12. It is pertinent to mention here that Rocha was arrested in December over the spying charges.

“I am in agreement,” said Rocha, shackled at the hands and ankles, when asked by US District Court Judge Beth Bloom if he wished to change his plea to guilty. Prosecutors, in exchange, agreed to drop 13 counts including wire fraud and making false statements.

Who is Victor Manuel Rocha?

Rocha worked for the State Department from 1981 to 2002, the Justice Department said when he was charged. He served on the White House's National Security Council from 1994 to 1995, and worked as an adviser to the commander of the US military's Southern Command from around 2006 to around 2012, the department added.

Rocha admitted his decades of work for Cuba in a series of meetings in 2022 and 2023 with an undercover FBI agent who posed as a covert Cuban General Directorate of Intelligence representative, according to a court document. He is charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act by acting as a foreign agent, wire fraud and making false statements to obtain a US passport, BBC reported.

In November 2022, an undercover FBI agent contacted Rocha via WhatsApp, claiming to be a representative of Cuban Intelligence Services delivering a message from "your friends from Havana", the charging document stated. Rocha agreed to meet the agent several times, including once at a food court, because there was "no possibility for anyone to see me" there, he said.

The ex-ambassador held three meetings with the undercover FBI agent, during which he began to divulge details about his time working as a secret agent for the Cuban government, the charging document described. Rocha allegedly used the term "we" to describe Cuba and himself, and said he wanted to "protect ... what we have done".

Cuba's penetration of US government

The evidence collected against Rocha includes covert recordings of him admitting to working for Cuba for decades, praising the late Cuban leader, Fidel Castro as "Commandante", and calling the United States "the enemy". He and his legal team struck a deal with the prosecution, calculating that a guilty plea was his wisest option as he had to accept the US government's accusation of working for the Cuban Revolution in the US outposts in Havana and Buenos Aires.

Peter Lapp, who oversaw FBI counterintelligence against Cuba between 1998 and 2005, said the fast resolution of the case benefits not only the elderly Rocha but also the government, which stands to learn a lot about Cuba’s penetration of the US. foreign policy circles. “It’s a win-win for both sides. He gets a significant payoff and the chance to see his family again, and the US will be able to conduct a full damage assessment that it wouldn’t be able to do without his cooperation," Lapp said.

Lawrence Gumbiner, a retired career diplomat, said the fact that Rocha went undetected for so many years underscores the sophistication of Cuba’s intelligence services. Several warnings were missed over the years - such as when a longtime CIA operative received a warning in 2006 that Rocha was working as a double agent. separate intelligence revealed that the CIA had been aware as early as 1987 that Castro had a “super mole” burrowed deep inside the US government, and some suspected it was Rocha.

Previously, Ana Belen Montes, a former senior analyst with the Defence Intelligence Agency, was found to be spying for the Cubans from inside the US intelligence community. Montes, who acknowledged revealing the identities of four American undercover intelligence officers working in Cuba, pled guilty in 2002 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

(with inputs from agencies)

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