Red flags missed clues How the accused US diplomat turned Cuban spy.com2F832F332F669b6f1edf00f59392d3d8312ebf2Feb6149db3cb444ce8557acf3123dd46d

Red flags, missed clues: How the accused U.S. diplomat-turned-Cuban spy evaded scrutiny for decades

MIAMI (AP) — Manuel Rocha was known in Miami's elite circles for his aristocratic, almost regal demeanor, befitting an Ivy League-educated career U.S. diplomat who held top posts in Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba and the White House. “Ambassador Rocha,” as he preferred to be called, demanded and earned respect.

That's why former CIA agent Félix Rodríguez was skeptical in 2006 when a defected Cuban army lieutenant colonel showed up at his Miami home with a startling clue: “Rocha,” he quoted the man as saying, “is spying for Cuba.”

Rodriguez, who took part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the execution of revolutionary “Che” Guevara, believed at the time that the Rocha tip was an attempt to discredit a fellow anti-communist crusader. He said he still forwarded the defector's message to the CIA, which was also skeptical.

“Nobody believed him,” Rodriguez said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We all thought it was slander.”

That long-ago clue resurfaced in devastating clarity in December when Rocha, now 73, was arrested and accused of serving as Cuba's secret agent until the 1970s in what prosecutors described as one of the most brazen and outrageous acts described the longest betrayal in the history of the US State Department.

Rocha was secretly recorded by an undercover FBI agent praising Fidel Castro as “El Comandante” and bragging about his work for Cuba's communist government, calling it “more than a grand slam” against the “enemy” of the United States. And to hide his true loyalties, prosecutors and friends say, Rocha has in recent years adopted the false role of an avid Donald Trump supporter who has spoken out harshly against the island nation.

“I really admired that son of a bitch,” said an angry Rodríguez. “I want to look him in the eye and ask him why he did that. He had access to everything.”

While Rocha pleaded not guilty to 15 federal charges from prison this week, FBI and State Department investigators have been working to unravel the biggest missing piece to the case: exactly what the longtime diplomat may have revealed to Cuba. It is a confidential damage assessment, complicated by the often unclear intelligence world, and is expected to take years.

The AP spoke to two dozen former senior U.S. counterintelligence officials, Cuban intelligence defectors and friends and colleagues of Rocha to summarize what is known so far about his alleged treason and what clues and warning signs he may have missed to avoid scrutiny for decades.

It wasn't just Rodríguez's tipster – he declined to name the AP but said he was recently interviewed by the FBI. Officials told the AP that the CIA knew as early as 1987 that Castro had a “super mole” hidden deep within the U.S. government. Some now suspect that it may have been Rocha and that he may have been on an FBI shortlist of possible Cuban spies in high-level foreign policy circles since at least 2010.

Rocha's attorney did not respond to messages seeking comment. The FBI and CIA declined to comment. The State Department said in a statement it would continue to work with relevant authorities to “fully assess the foreign policy and national security implications of these allegations.”

“This is a huge mistake,” said Peter Romero, a former assistant secretary of state for Latin America who worked with Rocha. “We are all very much looking for our own ideas and no one can think of anything. He did a great job covering his tracks.”


Before he was indicted as a Cuban agent, Rocha's life embodied the American dream.

He was born in Colombia and moved to New York City at the age of 10 with his widowed mother and two siblings. They lived in Harlem for a time while his mother worked in a sweatshop and survived on food stamps.

A talented football player with a sharp mind, he won a minority scholarship in 1965 to attend the Taft School, an elite boarding school in Connecticut. Overnight, he was catapulted from what he called a “ghetto” marked by racial unrest into a sophisticated world of American wealth.

“Taft was the best thing that happened to me in my life,” he told the school’s alumni magazine in 2004.

But as one of the few minorities at the school, Rocha says he faced discrimination – including a classmate who refused to live with him – which fueled a resentment that friends suspect may have led him to support Castro's revolution to admire.

“I was devastated and considered suicide,” he told Alumni Magazine.

From Taft he went to Yale, where he graduated with honors in Latin American studies and then worked at Harvard and Georgetown.

It's not clear exactly how Rocha was recruited by Cuba, but prosecutors say it happened sometime in the 1970s, when he was still getting his degrees and American college campuses were teeming with students. who sympathized with left-wing causes.

In 1973, the year he graduated from Yale, Rocha traveled to Chile, where, according to prosecutors, he became a “great friend” of Cuba's intelligence agency, the General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI). That same year, the CIA helped overthrow the Castro-backed socialist government of Salvador Allende and replace it with a brutal military dictatorship.

Around the same time, Rocha entered into the first of his three marriages, to an older Colombian woman who he had rarely spoken about with friends and who, according to FBI respondents, is currently being investigated for possible ties to Cuba. The AP was unable to reach the woman or find any records of her marriage.


After joining the Foreign Service in 1981, one of Rocha's first overseas postings was as a political-military officer in Honduras, where he advised the Contras in their fight against Cuban-backed left-wing rebels in neighboring Nicaragua.

In 1994, he went to the White House to serve as director of Inter-American Affairs on the National Security Council with responsibility for Cuba. That same year, he wrote a memo titled “A Calibrated Response to Cuba's Reforms” in which he called on the Clinton administration to begin dismantling U.S. trade restrictions, according to Peter Kornbluh, a national security expert who represented Rocha a 2014 book interviewed.

According to Kornbluh, the foreign minister planned to announce the political reform after the midterm elections in the United States. But that speech was never delivered. Republican hardliners who seized control of Congress passed a law in 1996 that tightened the embargo and blocked all efforts to improve relations with Havana.

From Washington, Rocha was sent to Havana, where he served as chief deputy of the U.S. Interests Section for two years. It was a dangerous time – after the 1996 downing of a “Brothers to the Rescue” propaganda plane over Cuba that killed four Castro opponents – and the DGI would have had almost unrestricted access to the diplomat.

Rocha's greatest known act of kindness to Cuba, whether intended or not, came during his last and most important diplomatic post as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, when he intervened in the country's presidential election to help a Castro protégé.

At an embassy event in 2002, Rocha included in his carefully crafted speeches a warning to Bolivians that the election of a drug trafficker – a not-so-hidden reference to coca farmer and eventual presidential candidate Evo Morales – would lead to the United States banning all foreigners cut off would help.

“I still remember it clearly. I felt so uncomfortable,” said Liliana Ayalde, a fellow foreign service officer who later served as U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and Brazil. “I told him that it was not appropriate for the ambassador to make these comments as elections are around the corner.”

The backlash was immediate. Bolivians were deeply angered by the idea that the U.S. might interfere in their elections, and Morales, until then an outsider, surged in the polls and nearly won. Three years later, when he actually prevailed, he called Rocha his “best campaign manager.”

Today, Ayalde wonders whether Rocha's last hurray as a foreign service officer was an act of self-sabotage committed at the direction of a foreign power to further damage the U.S. reputation in Latin America, traditionally referred to as “Washington's backyard.”

“Looking back now,” she said, “it was all part of a plan.”


According to Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst, as early as 1987, when Rocha was a few years into his budding career, the United States became aware of a Cuban “super mole” who had embedded himself in the Washington establishment.

The information comes from Florentino Aspillaga, who left as head of the DGI office in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia.

Before Aspillaga died in 2018, he told the CIA that four dozen Cubans it had recruited were actually double agents — or “dangles” in spy parlance — who had been handpicked by the DGI to infiltrate the U.S. government. Latell said Aspilgaga also spoke of two highly prolific spies in the State Department.

Although Aspilga did not know any of their names, the revelation sent shockwaves through the CIA.

“One of Aspillaga's most important revelations was that Fidel Castro himself was largely acting as Cuba's spymaster,” Latell said.

Enrique Garcia, who fled to the United States in the 1990s, also caught wind of the secret spy ring while leading Cuban agents in Latin America. He said the documents he saw, which were classified as “top secret” and marked by the State Department, were so valuable that they were sent directly to Castro's residence without instructing the Interior Secretary, who was the DGI supervised.

“I have no doubt that Rocha was part of this ring,” said Garcia, who told the FBI about the spy ring years ago.

Jim Popkin, author of “Code Name Blue Wren,” a book about Ana Montes, the highest-ranking U.S. official ever convicted of spying for Cuba, said his intelligence sources recently told him that Rocha's name was on a short list of at least four are suspected Cuban spies who have been in the hands of the FBI since at least 2010. AP could not independently confirm this.

“The FBI has known Rocha for a dozen years,” Popkin said. “That probably sparked the interest that led to his arrest years later.”

Peter Lapp, who led the FBI's counterintelligence investigation against Cuba between 1998 and 2005 and wrote a book about Montes, “Queen of Cuba,” said he did not know whether Rocha was on the FBI's radar. But he acknowledged that Cuba often plays a secondary role in the national security hierarchy to Russia, China and more dangerous threats.

For example, in 2006, when Rodríguez gave evidence that Rocha was spying for Cuba, U.S. counterintelligence investigators were concerned with the U.S. war in Iraq, the airstrike that killed al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and controversial detention and interrogation programs abroad.

“You don’t get promoted to the highest levels of the FBI’s counterintelligence division by focusing on Cuba,” Lapp said. “But it is a country we ignore at our peril. Not only are the Cubans really good at human intelligence, they are also experts at passing information to some of our biggest adversaries.”


After leaving the foreign service in 2002, Rocha began a lucrative career in business, taking on a series of executive positions and consulting jobs at private equity firms, a public relations agency, a Chinese automaker and even a cannabis industry company.

“I have access to, or know how to get to, almost every country in the region,” he boasted to the Miami Herald in 2006.

From 2012 to 2018, he was president of Barrick Gold's subsidiary in the Dominican Republic, overseeing production at the world's sixth largest gold mine. One of Rodríguez's mementos of his former friendship with Rocha is a photo of the former diplomat in a hard hat, carrying around a newly won gold nugget.

John Feeley, who worked under Rocha when he joined the State Department and eventually became ambassador to Panama, remembers how his former mentor urged him to reject pro bono work in retirement and instead pursue a paycheck.

“He was openly and vocally motivated to make money in his post-Foreign Service career,” Feeley said, “which was not typical of former diplomats.”

One company that came under renewed scrutiny after Rocha's arrest was a company he co-led with a group of offshore investors to settle billions of dollars in claims against the Cuban government for farmland, factories and other properties confiscated during communism were confiscated to buy up revolution at a high discount.

Rocha and his partner said there was no way the Cuban government would ever pay and that the U.S. government was unlikely to help, recalled claimant Carolyn Chester, whose father was a former AP journalist and later ousted Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was close.

Chester recalled how the pair arrived in a limousine in Omaha, Nebraska, and delivered an elaborate presentation in which they competed against each other “like a tag team.”

As his partner laid out the facts of their bid for a claim on a farm and other seized property, Rocha “tugged our heartstrings” and recounted an alleged meeting they had had years earlier in Washington with Chester's parents.

Chester, who ultimately decided against the sale, said the meeting raised doubts in her mind about Rocha, in part because she was all but certain that her father's poor health would have prevented her parents from making such a trip to Washington. And she found it strange that Rocha and his partner spoke as if they knew “for certain” about the intentions of Cuban officials.

According to Rocha's former business partner Tim Ashby, the idea was to “kill communism with capitalism” by exchanging claims for land concessions, leases and joint ventures in Cuba at a time when the communist island was desperate for foreign investment.

“There was a lot more at play for Cuba,” said Ashby, a lawyer and former senior official at the U.S. Commerce Department. “This was crucial for the normalization of relations with the USA”

The investment group would eventually spend about $5 million to buy up nine claims worth more than $55 million, Ashby said. But the effort collapsed after some claimants complained to the George W. Bush administration that they believed they were being duped. In 2009, the Treasury Department decided to ban the transfer of all certified claims against Cuba.

That didn't stop Rocha from continuing to make money. Records show that since 2016 alone, Rocha and his now-wife have spent more than $5.2 million to buy a half-dozen apartments in high-rises in Miami's financial district. This month, four of those properties were transferred outright into his wife's name, a move that could potentially protect them from government seizure, former police officers said.

In hindsight, Ashby admitted he was fascinated by the image his former partner wanted to show the world.

“He was a staunch anti-communist and a staunch Trump supporter early on,” he said. “Rocha was the last person I would have considered a Cuban spy.”


AP reporters Adam Geller in New York, Eric Tucker in Washington and Matthew Lee in Munich, as well as news researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.


Contact AP's global investigative team at [email protected] or