Former US ambassador to Bolivia arrested for acting as foreign agent for Cuba for 40 years, DOJ says

Manuel Rocha, 73, was arrested Friday, sources told ABC News.

December 4, 2023, 1:38 PM

Federal prosecutors say as early as 1981 and continuing to present day, former U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha secretly supported Cuba and its intelligence services by serving as an agent for the communist government against the U.S.

As part of his alleged role, Rocha attained high-level diplomatic positions that provided him access to classified information and abilities to affect U.S. foreign policy.

"ROCHA always kept his status as a Cuban agent secret in order to protect himself and others and to allow himself the opportunity to engage in additional clandestine activity," prosecutors said Monday in a newly unsealed criminal complaint.

He faces charges of conspiracy, acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government and unlawful use of a passport obtained by a false statement. He does not have an attorney listed yet on his court docket.

"This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of U.S. government by a foreign agent," Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference Monday.

In charging documents unsealed Monday, prosecutors use Rocha's own words -- recorded secretly by an undercover FBI agent in several meetings dating back to November of last year -- to detail his decades of deception against the U.S.

In Rocha's telling, his diplomatic career was all part of a strategic design under supervision of "the Dirección."

"I went little by little," he allegedly said in one recorded meeting. "It was a very meticulous process, very disciplined -- but very disciplined. I knew exactly how to do it and obviously the Dirrecion accompanied me."

Rocha started in 1981 in lower-level postings in U.S. embassies in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Mexico before being elevated to serve in the National Security Council. That later led to assignments in the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, Cuba, between 1995 and 1995, followed by serving as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Argentina and later his appointment as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia between 1999 and 2002.

More recently, after leaving government, Rocha was an adviser to the commander of U.S. Southern Command on issues regarding Cuba.

PHOTO: In this file photo, an FBI seal is seen on a wall on Aug. 10, 2022, in Omaha, Neb.
In this file photo, an FBI seal is seen on a wall on Aug. 10, 2022, in Omaha, Neb.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

But during all of that time, prosecutors say, he was really acting as an agent for Cuba's intelligence services.

"For me, what has been done, has strengthened the Revolution," Rocha allegedly said in one recorded meeting, bragging about his actions. "They underestimated what we could do to them. We did more than they thought."

Around November of last year, the FBI said it first received information Rocha was a covert agent. An undercover employee for the bureau sent Rocha a note on WhatsApp claiming to have a message from "your friends in Havana" regarding a "sensitive matter."

Rocha later called the undercover agent, who told him he was "ordered ... to make contact with you to give you a message" and was representing Rocha's "friends in Havana."

Rocha agreed to meet with the undercover employee the next day in Miami, prosecutors say. En route, they allege Rocha took a longer, indirect route in line with Cuban intelligence tradecraft and acknowledged to the undercover agent it was "what I've always been told to do."

He then told him, "I have always ... received sufficient training to know that you must be on the alert to -- to provocations," according to prosecutors. The undercover agent then told Rocha his mission in Miami was to contact him to "establish a new communication plan," and Rocha responded by describing and "celebrating" his actions as a Cuban agent.

He further allegedly told the undercover agent after he used the word "Havana" that "we never utilize Havana ... I tend to say 'The Island.'... I never use C or H."

PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha speaks to members of the press in La Paz on July 11, 2001. He has been charged with spying for Cuba for 40 years, the Justice Department announced on Dec. 4, 2023.
U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha speaks to members of the press in La Paz on July 11, 2001. A former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia and member of the National Security Council, he has been charged with spying for Cuba for 40 years, the Justice Department announced on Dec. 4, 2023.
Gonzalo Espinoza/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Rocha further allegedly told the undercover to send his "warmest regards to the Direccion" and then said he had been working as an agent for "almost 40" years, according to charging documents.

Rocha then arranged for other meetings with the FBI undercover agent, to which he further allegedly detailed his actions as a Cuban agent, prosecutors said.

In June of this year, the undercover employee challenged Rocha, pressing him whether he was "still with us," to which Rocha allegedly responded, "I am angry. I'm pissed off ... Because of the question that was asked ... it's like questioning my manhood."

Rocha then promised the undercover that he knew "how to handle it" if he was ever investigated for his actions, adding, "I never -- never have in 40 years put a Companero in danger."

The complaint culminates in an interview Rocha sat for last Friday with two Diplomatic Security Service agents in which they say he lied repeatedly, denying he had ever met with the undercover agent, only to be confronted with a photo of the two of them together. When told by the interviewers that he met with the man on more than one occasion, Rocha said he did not want to comment.

"Those who have the privilege of serving the government of the United States are given an enormous amount of trust by the public we serve," Garland said. "To betray that trust by falsely pledging loyalty to the United States, while serving a foreign power, is a crime that will be met with the full force of the Justice Department."