In early December 2023, 73-year-old Manuel Rocha was taken away by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in a townhouse in the suburbs of Miami, Florida, USA. He was a senior diplomat who traveled throughout Latin America, from Honduras to Cuba, from Argentina to Bolivia, and once served as the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia. After resigning from the government department in 2005, he chose to “go overseas” and currently works in several multinational companies.
At first, the FBI’s operation did not attract much attention. After all, Rocha has been out of public office for nearly 20 years, and his business world is complicated and he may get into trouble at any time. However, the trial began three days after he was taken away, and Rocha was accused of serving as a Cuban agent for more than 40 years.
The ambassador suddenly became a spy, something unprecedented in American history. A diplomatic storm is sweeping the United States.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement that this was perhaps “one of the most far-reaching and longest-lasting cases of foreign agents infiltrating the U.S. government.”
The American media described this kind of thing as something that would have only appeared in a Hollywood agent’s script – a MAGA (abbreviation for Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”, which means “Make America Great Again”)-style Republican Party People, in front of others, are glamorous diplomats, but privately they live an unknown life.
The strange behavior of the US ambassador
On December 3, 2023, Rocha appeared in federal court in Miami and remained silent throughout. At the end of the trial, when he saw his family members leaving, the 70-year-old man began to cry.
That bitter look was completely different from Rocha’s previous image. Colleagues remember Rocha as talkative, quick-thinking and charismatic. Previous official reports described him as a diplomat with “a firm character and smooth dealings.”
In 1950, Rocha was born into a working-class family in Colombia. He immigrated to the United States with his family and became an American citizen. Rocha grew up in Harlem, a minority-populated area of Manhattan in New York City, and is extremely talented in learning. He received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in liberal arts from Yale University and Harvard University, and a master’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University.
Rocha’s career began in 1981. At the time, he was the U.S. State Department official responsible for Honduras. In this indictment, prosecutors believe that that was when he first started working for Cuba. Since then, he has served in U.S. diplomatic missions in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico and other places. Starting in July 1994, he served as the Director of American Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council for one year.
In 1996, Cuba shot down two U.S. civilian planes flown by anti-Cuba exiles, causing tensions in U.S.-Pakistan relations. At that time, the United States and Cuba were in a state of severed diplomatic relations. The Swiss Embassy in Cuba had a U.S. Interests Representative Office in Havana, and Rocha was the second-in-command of the representative office. In 1997, Rocha was appointed deputy ambassador of the United States to Argentina. More than two years later, he traveled to Bolivia to serve as ambassador.
In the eyes of his colleagues, Rocha is very diplomatic.
”Most people agreed that Rocha was smooth and smart, with extraordinary diplomatic skills. Yes, he was even very likable. He was on good terms with everyone in the Washington diplomatic establishment assigned to work in Latin America. Everyone felt at the time , he will be a rising diplomatic star, destined to serve as ambassador.” Former U.S. diplomat Philip Lindemann worked with Rocha in Havana for a period of time and saw Rocha’s working ability.
But such an experienced diplomat did something that made his colleagues feel strange during his tenure in Bolivia.
A few weeks before the 2002 presidential election in Bolivia, Rocha, as the U.S. ambassador, made a sudden statement, saying that if the leftist Morales was elected president, the United States would cut off aid to the country. The reason he gave is that Morales not only grows coca himself (coca leaves are the raw material for processing the drug cocaine), but also supports the legalization and export of coca cultivation. However, the threat backfired, significantly boosting Morales’s popularity. Although Morales ultimately narrowly lost the 2002 election, he later won the 2005 election.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich was Rocha’s boss. He said Rocha’s performance at the time was shocking. “For an experienced diplomat, this move was extremely unusual. In actual terms, it was equivalent to a public ‘canvassing’ for Morales. Afterwards, he never gave any explanation.”
Morales Since Sri Lanka’s election, relations between Bolivia and the United States have been tense. During his tenure, he also found an excuse to expel the US ambassador. In his later years, Morales often went to Cuba to recuperate. He once suggested that Rocha’s warning helped him a lot and jokingly called Rocha the “campaign chief.”
Encountered “fishing law enforcement”
Except for the somewhat “showing off” operation in Bolivia, Rocha has always been impeccable.
Lindemann clearly remembers that when he and Rocha worked together in Havana, he often heard Rocha’s unabashed criticism of Cuba in the corridors – “Those Cubans really should be shot.” Lindemann said Rocha cleverly disguised himself as a center-right figure and fooled everyone.
Some old colleagues and friends describe Rocha as a “big fan” of former Republican President Donald Trump. The Obama administration restored long-severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015 and lifted many sanctions against Cuba. After Trump came to power in 2017, he took a tough stance on Cuba and some sanctions were activated again. Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of international relations at Florida International University, has known Rocha since the 1980s. He said Rocha was disguising himself as a right-winger and that “he was becoming more and more like Trump.”
How was Rocha discovered this time? Originated from a “fishing law enforcement”. According to the indictment, starting in 2022, an undercover CIA agent named “Miguel” pretended to be a Cuban agent, established contact with Rocha, and defrauded his trust.
Over the past two years, they have met face to face many times. In front of Miguel, Rocha repeatedly used “enemy” to refer to the United States. He praised late Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, referring to himself and Cuba as “we.”
Rocha told Miguel that he went to Havana twice, in 2016 and 2017, to meet with his handler in the Cuban Intelligence Service. He also asked Miguel to “send his warmest greetings” to the Cuban Intelligence Service.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Rocha met with Miguel at a different location each time and carefully chose to take long detours for appointments, making several stops along the way. Rocha told Miguel that he learned these tricks from the Cubans.
In a secret recording, Rocha said that he had been Cuba’s “mole” within U.S. foreign policy circles for more than 40 years and had carried out astonishing espionage activities. “What we did, it was amazing…even better than the Grand Slams.”
In the last meeting, when Miguel asked Rocha if he was still loyal to Cuba and if he was still a “compa?ero” (comrade) , Rocha was angry. He even cursed, saying that such a question was like questioning whether he was a man.
During these secret meetings, Rocha also mentioned the two U.S. civilian aircraft shot down by Cuba in 1996. “I went through it because I was in charge. It was a very stressful time.”
“He did it voluntarily”
Career diplomat John Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama, dealt with Rocha decades ago. He is well aware of the turmoil that the Luo case may bring to the U.S. diplomatic community. “Rocha can be said to have obtained the ‘key to the king,'” Feli said. “In addition to influencing U.S. foreign policy, he had access to very sensitive intelligence information when he was working in Cuba, Argentina, and Bolivia. This is simply a nightmare.” Analysts
said the case will raise questions about U.S. counterintelligence efforts and force relevant U.S. agencies to conduct damage assessments to determine the amount and scope of confidential information leaks. Chris Simmons, a former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency investigator specializing in espionage cases, said: “The investigation will rely entirely on Rocha’s cooperation, even if people know that he will lie and avoid the important, but it is better than nothing. “Currently, Rocha has not yet reached a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
In fact, even after retirement, Rocha still had access to a lot of valuable intelligence. From 2006 to 2012, he served as the advisor for Latin America to U.S. Southern Command. In recent years, Rocha served as senior vice president at a Pennsylvania coal export company and was a board member of tobacco company Clover Capital. Judging from his statement to Miguel, he still visited Cuba several times during this period.
So far, the accusation that Rocha is a “Cuban agent” is only a U.S. allegation. Cuba has yet to comment on Rocha’s arrest.
Kevin Whitaker, who once served as the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, said that Cuba is special. Americans who provide intelligence for Cuba are almost all out of sympathy and support for the Cuban revolutionary cause and hatred of U.S. foreign policy. Whitaker said that of all the espionage cases that have occurred in the United States in the past 40 years, Rocha may be “the first person among the American diplomatic elite to be accused of betraying the country.”
Previously, the FBI believed that “the most harmful spy in the history of the United States” was Ana Montes. She is the lead Cuba analyst for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. She was recruited by Cuban intelligence in 1984 and worked as an agent in the U.S. Pentagon for 17 years until her arrest in 2001. In January 2023, Anna was released from prison. She wrote to relatives and friends in prison, saying that she was willing to provide intelligence to Cuba because the United States had “done extremely cruel and unfair things” to Cuba.
”I don’t think Rocha was recruited, he volunteered,” said Fulton Armstrong, a senior fellow at the Latin American Program at American University in Washington and a former CIA analyst. Armstrong also suggested that Rocha grew up in Harlem. Big, there’s quite a Hispanic population there. “He is a very smart man who entered the State Department on his own merit, but he may have never felt that he was treated as an equal and will never be accepted by the American establishment elite.” Perhaps this is his response to the long-term suppression by the United States. Latin American countries, especially Cuba, which has been subject to U.S. sanctions for many years, feel sympathy.