Ex-U.S. ambassador Rocha sentenced to 15 years in prison for working as Cuba covert agent

Victor Manuel Rocha, a former U.S. ambassador who had lived a double life for decades as a covert agent of Cuba, was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison by a federal judge in Miami in a stunning case highlighting the communist nation’s long-term success in stealing intelligence secrets from the U.S. government.

Miami U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom called Rocha “an enemy of the United States government” during the hearing.

“Your actions were a direct attack on our democracy and the safety of our citizens,” she said. “You turned your back on this country, a country that gave you everything.”

Speaking before he was sentenced, Rocha apologized to the judge, the United States and his family for his actions.

“As a student, I was heavily influenced by the radical politics of the day,” he said, which led to his betrayal of the United States. “Today, I no longer see the world through the radical eyes of my youth.”

At 73, he would likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Rocha pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the U.S. government and acting as an illegal foreign agent in an agreement struck with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. Those two offenses carried maximum sentences of five and 10 years, respectively. According to his plea agreement, he is cooperating with the U.S. government on investigations about Cuba, including a Justice Department assessment of the damage caused by his own covert work for the late Fidel Castro’s regime and his successors.

However, Judge Bloom, during the hearing, made clear she didn’t think the initial agreement presented by the prosecutors was enough punishment for what she called Rocha’s “betrayal” of the United States.

She did not hide her displeasure with the government’s plea deal, briefly suspending the hearing three times to get clarification on why prosecutors were not seeking forfeiture of Rocha’s properties, as the indictment initially suggested, as well as restitution for his victims. After being charged in December, Rocha transferred the deeds on four luxury Brickell City Centre condos valued at more than $4 million that he bought with his wife, Karla Wittkop Rocha, exclusively to her.

He also transferred his two bank accounts to his wife, prosecutors said Friday.

The judge said she was concerned about restitution to other victims of Rocha’s actions beyond the U.S. government, citing the four Cuban American men who died in the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown in 1996.

Bloom also questioned why the Justice Department was not proposing that Rocha be denaturalized as a U.S. citizen after he completed his prison sentence. Initially, the federal prosecutors Jonathan Stratton and John Shipley told Bloom they were not going to request that Rocha, who was born in Colombia and naturalized in 1978, be stripped of his U.S. citizenship, which would mean he would be deported after serving his sentence if he were still alive.

But after the tense exchanges, the judge decided on a new hearing to consider restitution in the future and ordered prosecutors to include the possibility of stripping him of his citizenship in his plea agreement. Rocha and his defense lawyer, Jacqueline Arango, agreed with the judge’s demands.

As part of his sentencing, the judge also fined Rocha $500,000. His federal pension was also suspended.

Rocha was not formally accused of being a spy – a crime that would have required time-sensitive evidence, such as catching him exchanging damaging top-secret information with his Cuban handlers or other evidence of furtive communications. Instead, he was accused of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires those working under the control of a foreign government to notify the U.S. Attorney General’s office.

Nonetheless, top federal officials have characterized Rocha, who retired from the State Department in 2002 and later worked as an adviser to the commander of U.S. Southern Command and in the private sector, as one of the worst offenders in the annals of foreign spying on the U.S. government.

After his arrest in early December, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Rocha’s covert work for Cuba was “one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent.”

Cuba’s agents inside the U.S. government

Rocha, who climbed the foreign service ladder to become the ambassador to Bolivia in 2000 during the George W. Bush administration, was arrested after the FBI launched a sting operation in late 2022. He was video-recorded telling an undercover FBI agent that he worked for the Cuban intelligence services for four decades, according to a criminal affidavit and indictment. He told the FBI agent his last contact with Cuban intelligence was around 2017 during a secret trip to the island.

Rocha’s prosecution in Miami is the latest in a string of cases that have shown over the years Cuban intelligence services’ sophisticated capabilities to spy on the United States and run agents inside federal agencies.

Other high-profile Cuban spies arrested include Ana Belén Montes, the analyst who spied for Cuba during her 17 years at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, and Walter Kendall Myers, a former State Department official, who, along with his wife, Gwendolyn Myers, worked for Cuba for nearly 30 years and passed its intelligence services highly classified U.S. national defense information.

But unlike Rocha, they were accused of conspiring to commit espionage because the FBI retrieved proof of their communications with the Cuban intelligence services via shortwave radio. The Myers also shared incriminating information with an undercover FBI source about their code names, the ways they passed information to their Cuban handlers and the type of top-secret information they stole.

Still, Rocha´s 15-year sentence is “quite impressive,” said Peter Lapp, a former FBI special agent who arrested Montes. Montes was 46 when she was condemned to 25 years in prison in 2002. She was released in January last year.

“Though time will tell, 15 years is likely a life sentence, and the FBI and the intelligence community will now learn key details from his treachery,” said Lapp, who wrote the details of how the FBI managed to catch Montes in his book, “Queen of Cuba: The Inside Story on How the Perfect Spy Evaded Detection for 17 Years.”

“I see this as a huge win for the FBI, the Department of Justice and the intelligence community,” he said. “I think that Cuban-Americans should view this as I do: justice served.”

Key questions remain

Rocha’s sentencing will not provide closure to a case that has shocked former friends and colleagues and the U.S. intelligence community. After Friday’s sentencing, difficult questions still remain: How much damage did he do? What secrets did he pass to Cuba? Why was he able to do Cuba’s bidding for so long undetected? And what steps can federal agencies take to counter Cuban intelligence efforts to plant spies at the center of the U.S. government?

These are questions likely to be asked by government investigators tasked to carry out a “damage assessment” of Rocha’s actions. But their task will be difficult because much of what he did is now history.

Rocha’s career spanned more than 40 years, half that time in the foreign service in positions where he was able to influence U.S. policy toward Cuba and access top-secret U.S. government information.

He rose through the State Department ranks, worked at the White House’s National Security Council’s Office of Inter American Affairs between July 1994 and July 1995, and held several positions in Latin American embassies in places like Mexico City, Honduras and Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic capital, that would have been of interest for Cuban intelligence services.

He also spent two years as number two in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana between July 1995 and July 1997, during a convulsed period in U.S.-Cuba relations marked by the signing of the migration accords after the Balseros crisis, the shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue planes and the passing of the Libertad Act, also known as Helms-Burton.

Even when he was in the private sector, he would try to help the Cuban government. As the Miami Herald previously reported, around 2007, he was behind efforts to buy claims on properties confiscated by the Cuban government. Those properties lie at the heart of the U.S. embargo on the island and resolving those claims would have put the two countries on the verge of fully normalizing relations.

According to his indictment, government prosecutors believe Rocha was recruited by Cuba’s General Directorate of Intelligence (known as DGI in Spanish) around 1973 in Chile, the same year socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende was ousted in a violent coup, and Rocha graduated from Yale.

Though the document shares little about the recruitment itself, it fits with the Cuban intelligence services’ model of identifying young people sympathetic to Cuba because of ideological reasons.

It is unclear how the FBI learned that Rocha was a Cuban mole. But the indictment shows the agency had two pieces of information that helped its undercover agent gain Rocha’s trust as supposedly an agent sent from Havana to contact him: that his name was “Miguel” and that Rocha had been “a great friend” of Cuban intelligence since his “time in Chile.”

“Miguel” was able to approach Rocha through a WhatsApp text, saying, “I have a message for you from your friends in Havana.” The undercover employee then asked him if he would be willing to talk by phone, and Rocha responded, “I don’t understand, but you can call me.”

In the phone conversation, the undercover employee talked about Rocha’s past relationship with Cuba and how he could be helpful with a problem at the Cuban embassy in the Dominican Republic. Rocha agreed to meet with him during a series of video-recorded meetings in Miami over the past year in which the former diplomat repeatedly admitted his “decades” of work for Cuba that spanned “40 years.”

Intelligence sources told the Herald that it was possible that a new Cuban defector came out to provide the information or that U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted communications pointing to Rocha as a possible Cuban agent. A third possibility, the sources said, was that U.S. agencies connected old information with a new lead to conclude Rocha had been working covertly for the Cuban government.

Rocha’s charges

Rocha faced charges of conspiracy, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, wire fraud, and making false statements to obtain and use a U.S. passport, according to the 15-count indictment. All but two of the counts in his indictment were dismissed as part of his plea agreement, which was initially disclosed in late February before Judge Bloom.

Since his arrest, Rocha has remained at the federal detention center in Miami after agreeing to prosecutors’ demands that he be held before trial. Prosecutors argued he was a danger to the community and a flight risk.

Rocha was accused of conspiring as an agent for Cuba since 1981, when he started working for the State Department, three years after he naturalized as a U.S. citizen and had earned degrees from Yale, Harvard and Georgetown universities.

He was accused of obtaining “sensitive” U.S. government secrets and providing them to Cuban agents, according to an indictment. The indictment, which expanded upon a criminal complaint unsealed in early December, further accused Rocha of using “access to [classified] information for the benefit” of Cuba and disclosing “such information without authorization.”

But neither document cites any particular “overt act” accusing him of handing over classified materials to his Cuban intelligence handlers.

At Friday’s hearing, Bloom, the judge, questioned prosecutors about when the U.S. government became aware of Rocha’s covert work as a Cuban agent, as she tried to assess his damage to potential victims.

But they would not tell her — and it wasn’t clear from their response if they even knew.

“Your honor, that is not a public record,” said Stratton, the prosecutor. “It’s classified information.”

After the nearly four-hour court hearing, U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe and other senior law enforcement officials commented about the case at a news conference, focusing on the impact of Rocha’s betrayal on South Florida’s Cuban exile community.

“I am mindful that Rocha’s decades-long criminal activity on behalf of the Cuban Government is especially painful for many in South Florida,” Lapointe said. “Rocha’s willingness to cooperate, as required by his plea agreement, is important, but does not change the seriousness of his misconduct or his clandestine breach of the trust placed in him. “