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    Former US ambassador accused of secretly spying for Cuba for decades


    Manuel Rocha wept as he sat handcuffed in Miami federal court on charges that he engaged in “clandestine activity” on Cuba’s behalf since at least 1981 — the year he joined the U.S. foreign service — including by meeting with Cuban intelligence operatives and providing false information to U.S. government officials about his contacts.

    The complaint unsealed Monday is short on specifics of how Rocha may have assisted Cuba. But it provides a vivid case study of what American officials say are long-standing efforts by Cuba and its notoriously sophisticated intelligence services to target U.S. government officials who can be flipped.

    The 73-year-old Rocha, whose two-decade career as a U.S. diplomat included top posts in Bolivia, Argentina and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, was arrested by the FBI at his Miami home Friday. He was ordered held following Monday’s brief court appearance pending a bond hearing Wednesday. His attorney declined to comment.

    Instead, the case relies largely on what prosecutors say were Rocha’s own admissions, made over the past year to an undercover FBI agent posing as a Cuban intelligence operative named “Miguel.”

    “What we have done … it’s enormous … more than a Grand Slam,” he was quoted as saying at one of several secretly recorded conversations.

    “It is beyond ironic that he cultivated this cartoonish persona,” he said, “and that everyone apparently bought it.”

    The charging document traces Rocha’s illegal ties to Cuba to well after his departure from the federal government, when he took on lucrative private sector jobs — most recently as a senior adviser to an international public relations firm and prominent U.S. law firm.

    “It’s what I’ve always been told to do,” Rocha told the undercover agent at one of those meetings.

    There’s no indication in the complaint that Rocha aided the Cubans with the military operation — a major flashpoint in more than a half-century of brinksmanship between the communist-ruled island and its right-wing opponents in Miami. But at the time he served as a senior political officer at the U.S. special interest section in Havana.

    Last Friday, when interviewed by two Diplomatic Security Service agents, Rocha repeatedly lied, including by denying having ever met someone matching the undercover agent’s description, according to the charging document.

    The complaint cites Rocha telling the undercover agent that he first proved his loyalty in Chile in 1973 — the year Gen. Augusto Pinochet, with U.S. backing, overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende.

    Born in Colombia, Rocha was raised in a working-class home in New York City and obtained a succession of liberal arts degrees from Yale, Harvard and Georgetown before joining the foreign service.

    At his next post, as ambassador to Bolivia, he intervened directly in the 2002 presidential race, warning weeks ahead of the vote that the U.S. would cut off assistance to the poor South American country if it were to elect former coca grower Evo Morales.

    The comments backfired, angered Bolivians and boosted support for Morales, who joked that Rocha was his “best campaign chief.” When Morales was finally elected three years later, the leftist leader expelled Rocha’s successor as chief of the diplomatic mission for inciting “civil war.”

    GettyImages-1821531885.jpg

    U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (C) announces that Victor Manuel Rocha, the former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, has been charged with acting illegally as a foreign agent for the government of Cuba, during a press conference at the U.S. Departmen

    Criminal cases against American officials accused of doing Cuba’s bidding are rare but not unprecedented. A former State Department official, Walter Kendall Myers, was sentenced in 2010 to life in prison for providing classified information to Cuba, and Ana Belen Montes, a former U.S. defense intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Cuba, was released from prison in January after a lengthy sentence.

    “If this is true, Rocha has stained the institution of the foreign service,” he said. “It’s infuriating.”

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