Former U.S. ambassador arrested on charges of being an agent for Cuba since 1981

MIAMI —A former U.S. ambassador was arrested on charges of secretly working for Cuba and boasting that his decades of work for Havana had “strengthened the revolution immensely,” authorities said Monday.

Victor Manuel Rocha, the onetime U.S. envoy to Bolivia, appeared to choke back tears at the defense table as family members entered the courtroom of Chief Magistrate Judge Edwin G. Torres in Miami.

The judge asked Rocha, 73, whether he understood the charges, and the defendant responded, “I understand.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the arrest “exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent.”

“Those who have the privilege of serving in the government of the United States are given an enormous amount of trust by the public we serve,” Garland told reporters Monday. “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.”

U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha
Victor Manuel Rocha, then the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, talks to the media on July 11, 2001.Gonzalo Espinoza / AFP via Getty Images file

Rocha is being accused of working to promote the Cuban government’s interests, which is not a crime unless it’s done on U.S. soil without registering with the Justice Department as a foreign lobbyist.

The government claims Rocha has been working on behalf of Havana from November 1981 to now.

He faces at least three criminal counts: conspiracy to act as foreign agent to defraud the U.S., acting as an illegal agent for a foreign government and use of passport obtained by false statement.

Additional charges are expected to come later this week, the government said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan D. Stratton said Rocha should be held without bail, claiming he’s a flight risk with dual citizenship. The defense said Rocha will make all court appearances if he’s granted bail.

A heading on that matter was set for Wednesday.

An undercover FBI agent allegedly reached out to Rocha via WhatsApp in November last year.

“Good Afternoon ambassador, my name is Miguel and I have a message for you from your friends in Havana,” FBI special agent Michael Haley wrote in a criminal complaint, quoting the undercover agent. “It is in regard to a sensitive matter. Are you available for a telephone call?”

That led to meetings on Nov. 16, 2022, and Feb. 17 and June 23 of this year, when Rocha allegedly boasted about his longtime loyalty to Havana, according to the complaint.

In that final meeting, Rocha allegedly took offense when the undercover agent questioned whether he was still loyal to Havana, a “compañero.” Rocha then used crude terms, saying such an inquiry is “like questioning my manhood.”

“I am angry. I’m pissed off,” Rocha allegedly said. “It’s like you want me to drop them … and show you if I still have testicles.”

Rocha repeatedly called the U.S. “the enemy,” according to Garland.

“He told the undercover that his efforts to infiltrate the United States government were “meticulous” and ‘very disciplined,’ ” Garland said. “And he repeatedly bragged about the significance of his efforts saying that, ‘What has been done has strengthened the revolution immensely.”

Messages left for the defendant’s wife and current employer, a Miami-based public affairs consultant, were not immediately returned Monday.

Defense attorney Jacqueline Arango declined to comment after Monday’s brief hearing.

Maria Piñero reported from Miami and David K. Li and Helen Kwong from New York City.