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US diplomat turned Cuban spy jailed for 15 years

  • By Bernd Debusmann Jr.
  • BBC News, Washington

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, Victor Rocha abruptly reversed his plea in February after initially pleading not guilty to the charges against him.

A former career diplomat, former US ambassador to Bolivia, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for working as an agent for Cuba.

Victor Manuel Rocha, 73, secretly passed information to the Cuban government for more than 40 years, prosecutors say.

In February, Rocha changed his initial plea to not guilty in a Miami court and assured he would avoid a trial.

The espionage case is one of the most high-profile ever between the United States and Cuba.

Wearing a beige prison uniform Friday, Rocha said in a Miami federal court, “I plead guilty.”

In addition to jail time, Rocha must also pay a $500,000 fine and cooperate with authorities.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland called Rocha’s crimes “one of the largest and most enduring infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent.”

Rocha, born in Colombia and educated at Yale and Harvard, served as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia between 1999 and 2022, as well as in various other diplomatic posts in Argentina, Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

He also held other government positions, including one on the National Security Council.

After his diplomatic service ended, Rocha served as a consultant for the U.S. Army’s Southern Command, which oversees all of Latin America and the Caribbean, including communist Cuba.

In November 2022, an undercover FBI agent contacted Rocha on WhatsApp and claimed to be working on behalf of Cuban intelligence services. The agent said he was delivering a message from “your friends in Havana,” according to court documents.

During three subsequent meetings, Rocha revealed details of his previous espionage activities on behalf of Cuba. At one point, Rocha used the term “we” to describe Cuba and himself, promising to “protect” what “we” did together.

When asked if he was “still with us,” Rocha told the undercover agent that he was “angry” that his loyalty to the Cuban regime was being questioned. “It’s like questioning my manhood,” he said.

The United States has had tense relations with Cuba since Fidel Castro overthrew the island’s U.S.-backed government in 1959, a revolution that was quickly followed by a U.S. trade embargo.

While then-President Barack Obama and former Cuban President Raul Castro took steps to normalize relations in 2015, many of those steps were reversed by the Trump administration.

In an interview with the BBC, former CIA counterintelligence chief James Olson said the case was emblematic of how Cuban intelligence services “beat” their American adversaries over the decades .

“We belonged to them,” Mr. Olson said. “That’s one of the reasons I have this personal grudge against the Cuban secret service, because they were so successful in operating against us.”

Mr. Olson called Rocha a “traitor.”

“He betrayed our country,” he said. “I think it’s despicable, and I don’t think it will see the light of day again.”

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