Former U.S. Ambassador Pleads Guilty to Acting as Cuban Agent

A former United States ambassador accused of working for decades as a secret agent for Cuba in one of the biggest national security breaches in years pleaded guilty on Friday and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Manuel Rocha, 73, pleaded guilty to two charges — conspiring to defraud the United States as a foreign agent and failing to register as a foreign agent — as part of an agreement with the federal government. He also faces three years of supervised release, and a $500,000 fine.

Mr. Rocha, wearing a beige prison uniform and black glasses, conceded before he was sentenced to the “betrayal of my oath of loyalty to the United States during my two decades in the State Department.”

“During my formative years in college, I was heavily influenced by the radical politics of the day,” said Mr. Rocha, whom prosecutors said was recruited by Cuban intelligence agents in 1973. “Today, I no longer see the world through the radical eyes of my youth.”

In imposing the sentence, Judge Beth Bloom of Federal District Court in Miami said that as recently as 2022 and 2023 Mr. Rocha was recorded by an undercover F.B.I. agent showing “a lack of allegiance of the United States.”

“You turned your back on the country,” she said. “A country that gave you everything.”

The proceedings did not shed much light on Mr. Rocha’s dealings with the Cuban government or whether he shared secrets during his diplomatic career, which included serving as ambassador to Bolivia and briefly working in a White House role under President Bill Clinton.

In an unusual turn of events, Judge Bloom expressed deep frustration with prosecutors for not seeking more penalties for Mr. Rocha, such as forfeiture of his assets. She demanded changes to the plea deal from the bench and pressed prosecutors to reveal more about when the government learned that Mr. Rocha had become “an enemy of the United States government.”

Prosecutors said details beyond those made public in the indictment were classified.

Mr. Rocha was charged in December with acting as an agent of a foreign government; he was also charged with defrauding the United States, wire fraud and making false statements to obtain and use an American passport.

Prosecutors dropped the other charges as part of his plea agreement; the wire fraud charge had carried a 20-year maximum sentence. Mr. Rocha last appeared in court in February, when he indicated that he would change his earlier plea of not guilty.

Mr. Rocha’s plea deal compelled him to share with the government “a full, detailed damage assessment of that harm that was committed,” Jonathan Douglas Stratton, one of the prosecutors, said in court.

“Fifteen years for an individual who is 73 and a half years old is tantamount to a life sentence,” Mr. Stratton said, adding that “it was incredibly valuable to have the defendant not only plead guilty and admit his criminal conduct but to continue cooperating with the United States.”

Before accepting the agreement, Judge Bloom required prosecutors to include language making clear that Mr. Rocha remained liable for restitution should any victims of his actions emerge.

“I can’t accept that the victim is only the United States,” Judge Bloom said.

The judge also pushed to include language saying that the agreement did not preclude the government from pursuing civil denaturalization against Mr. Rocha, who was born in Colombia and became a naturalized American citizen in 1978.

“Importantly,” Mr. Rocha said, “I am making and will continue to make, as required, significant amends throughout my unconditional collaboration to those I have betrayed.”

Two former American officials convicted of spying for Cuba in past high-profile cases also agreed to provide information to federal authorities as part of their plea agreements.

The cooperation of Ana Belén Montes, a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, following her arrest in 2001, led to the charging of Marta Rita Velazquez, who worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Ms. Velazquez fled to Sweden after Ms. Montes’s arrest; an indictment against Ms. Velazquez was unsealed in 2013, but she remains a fugitive.

Ms. Montes was released last year.

In another major case, Walter Kendall Myers, a former State Department official, pleaded guilty in 2009 to spying for Cuba for decades. He is serving a life sentence. His wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, was also charged and sentenced to nearly seven years in prison.

The indictment against Mr. Rocha said that he had aided the Cuban government since at least 1981. Federal prosecutors believe that Cuban intelligence, which has had notable success infiltrating the U.S. national security establishment over the decades, may have recruited Mr. Rocha in Chile in the 1970s. He was posted at the U.S. mission in Havana during the 1990s.

The indictment did not detail Mr. Rocha’s interactions with the Cuban government or accuse him of sharing specific secrets. It also did not charge him with espionage.

“He is not charged with passing classified information,” Mr. Stratton said in court, but rather with “acting at the direction and control of the Cuban government.”

Raised in New York, Mr. Rocha worked in the State Department under Mr. Clinton and President George W. Bush on matters related to Latin America. He served as ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002 and as an adviser to the U.S. military command that includes Cuba from 2006 to 2012.

After leaving government, he moved to Miami. Former colleagues said they had watched in astonishment as Mr. Rocha became a supporter of former President Donald J. Trump — an embrace of conservative politics that the indictment suggested may have been part of an effort to cover his tracks.

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