Posted on December 11, 2023

Ex-U.S. Ambassador Accused of Being a Cuban Agent Rose From Humble Origins

Ernesto Londono et al., New York Times, December 8, 2023

The indictment of Manuel Rocha, the former U.S. ambassador accused of working for Cuba’s spy service for decades, has left longtime colleagues struggling to make sense of what was real and what was deception in a life that straddled poverty and privilege.

The journey that led Mr. Rocha, 73, to the top echelons of the State Department began in Harlem in the 1960s after he and his mother, a widow who worked in a sweatshop and relied on food stamps and welfare, emigrated from Colombia, according to an account he provided years later.

A life-changing break came in 1965, when Mr. Rocha won a scholarship to attend the Taft School, an elite boarding academy in Connecticut that unlocked a string of academic and career opportunities, including an Ivy League education and influential government jobs overseas.

The transition at times made him feel like an outsider. For instance, according to his account to the school’s alumni magazine, Mr. Rocha’s best friend refused to become his roommate because of his ethnicity.


Since his arrest a week ago, friends and former colleagues have expressed shock as they absorbed the allegations  in a federal indictment that Attorney General Merrick Garland said details one of the “highest-reaching and longest-lasting” national security breaches in generations.

Federal prosecutors said that Cuba’s aggressive intelligence agency recruited Mr. Rocha in Chile during the early 1970s at the height of the Cold War, and relied on him as he rose through the State Department’s ranks and briefly held a powerful role at the White House during the Clinton administration.

Cuba, which has had hostile relations with the United States since the 1960s, has had remarkable success infiltrating the U.S. national security establishment by spotting ideologically-aligned young individuals and steering them into sensitive government careers.

Investigators have not said whether they believed Mr. Rocha’s alleged treachery was motivated by money, ideology or something else. The indictment does not specify the nature of Mr. Rocha’s dealings with the Cubans or accuse him of sharing specific secrets. 

Mr. Rocha was charged with acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government, with wire fraud and with lying on passport application forms, but, notably, he does not face espionage charges. The government will likely file espionage charges if it uncovers sufficient evidence that Mr. Rocha disclosed classified information to the Cubans, said Brandon Van Grack, a former federal prosecutor who worked on national security cases.


What is clear is that Mr. Rocha’s 21 years in government gave him the ability to shape foreign policy underhandedly, as well as access to a trove of classified information that would have been enormously valuable to Cuba and its allies. Experts say that an extensive damage assessment could last years.


Getting into Taft transported Mr. Rocha from Harlem, which was convulsed by the 1964 race riots, to a bucolic campus in Watertown, Conn., where he excelled as a student and an athlete.


The 1969 Taft yearbook includes a joking reference to Mr. Rocha, saying “he reminds us of a playboy on welfare,” and notes his nickname, a racial slur against Latinos. At school, Mr. Rocha once proposed creating a system to immerse a single white student in groups of Black peers, “a means for the majority to understand how the minority would feel,” he told the alumni magazine. The idea was scuttled.

After high school, Mr. Rocha moved about 30 miles away to Yale University, where the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s was playing out — particularly student protests against the Vietnam War and support for the Black Panther Party, a Marxist Black power group. He graduated cum laude in 1973.

After college Mr. Rocha traveled to Chile, which was in the midst of social and political upheaval. The year he graduated, the military violently ousted Salvador Allende, the country’s socialist president, ushering in a brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship.

The year of the coup, Cuba’s spy service, know as the Intelligence Directorate, recruited Mr. Rocha in Chile, according to the indictment. The document sheds little light on how that relationship began, other than saying Mr. Rocha became a “great friend” of the agency.

{snip} In 1978, Mr. Rocha became a U.S. citizen, a prerequisite to join the foreign service and to obtain a security clearance.


In 1981, Mr. Rocha joined the State Department. The following year he was sent to the Dominican Republic, the first stop in a career that included assignments in Honduras, Italy, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina and a coveted posting at the White House in 1994.


Fulton Armstrong, a former senior C.I.A. and White House official who worked closely with Mr. Rocha and remained close after both men retired, said Mr. Rocha never stopped feeling like an outsider.

“The feeling that he gave me was that he resented that throughout his life, despite his really strong intellect and his hard work, he felt that he was always a second-class citizen,” Mr. Armstrong said.  That perception of himself, he added, may well have made Mr. Rocha an easy target for the Cubans.