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The Conviction of US Diplomat Rocha for Spying on Cuba: Uncovering the Hidden Details of the Case

The former career American diplomat, Manuel Rocha, was sentenced Friday to 15 years in federal prison after admitting that he worked for decades as a secret agent for communist Cuba in a plea deal that leaves many unanswered questions about a betrayal that surprised the American foreign service.

Rocha, 73, will also pay a fine of $500,000 and will cooperate with authorities after pleading guilty to conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government. In exchange, the prosecutors dismissed more than a dozen other charges, including wire fraud and false statements.

According to the lawyer Nelson Rodríguez Varela, who spoke with AmericaTeVe Miami, he was sentenced to 15 years because Rocha pleaded guilty to two charges: one with a maximum of five years and another with a maximum of ten. It was expected that the maximum sentence would be imposed for these crimes, since Rocha had agreed with the Prosecutor’s Office that the sentence would be the maximum possible.

The details of the negotiations between Rocha and the Government remain classified. However, the lack of restitution to all victims affected by his actions is criticized, highlighting that the United States government is not the only harmed party.

“Your actions were a direct attack on our democracy and the safety of our citizens,” U.S. District Court Judge Rocha told Rocha, Beth Bloom.

Rocha, dressed in a beige prison uniform, asked his friends and family for forgiveness. “I assume full responsibility and accept the sanction,” he stated.

Miguel Cosío, general manager of America TV Network and journalist who witnessed the sentencing, said the atmosphere in the court was tense and full of expectations. According to the journalist, Judge Beth Blum was a prominent figure due to her questioning of the Prosecutor’s agreement.

According to Rodríguez Varela, in the federal sentencing system, it is generally served 85% of the time, but this is subject to administrative decisions by the Bureau of Prisons. In some cases they may result in early release, although it is unclear if this will apply in this case.

The judge also confronted Rocha with evidence of his past activities, refuting his claim of remorse.

The sentence crowned an exceptionally fast criminal case and avoided a trial that would have shed new light on what exactly did Rocha do to help Cuba? even when he worked for two decades for the United States Department of State.

Prosecutors said those details remain secret and they didn’t even tell Bloom when the government determined that Rocha was spying for Cuba.

The sentence includes prison, probation, a fine of USD 500,000 and a restitution order for victims, including the United States government and possibly other persons. Federal authorities have been conducting a confidential damage assessment that could take years to complete.

Rocha’s sentencing came less than six months after his shocking arrest at his Miami home over accusations that he engaged in “clandestine activities” on behalf of Cuba since at least 1981, the year he joined the U.S. foreign service.

The case highlighted the sophistication of the Cuban intelligence services, which have achieved other damaging insights into high levels of the US government. Rocha’s betrayal went undetected for years, prosecutors said, when the Ivy League-educated diplomat secretly met with Cuban agents and provided false information to U.S. officials about his contacts.

But recent research by Associated Press found overlooked red flags along the way, including a warning a former CIA agent received nearly two decades ago that Rocha was working as a double agent. Independent intelligence revealed that the CIA knew as early as 1987 that the Cuban leader Fidel Castro had a “super mole” hidden deep within the US government, and some officials suspected it might have been Rocha.

Rocha’s prestigious career included periods such as ambassador to Bolivia and senior officials in Argentina, Mexico, the White House, and the United States Interests Section in Havana.

In 1973, the year he graduated from Yale, Rocha traveled to Chile where prosecutors say he became a “great friend” of Cuba’s intelligence agency, the General Directorate of Intelligence, or DGI.

Rocha’s post-government career included time as a special advisor to the commander of the US Southern Command and, more recently, as a tough supporter of Donald Trump and a hardliner toward Cuba, a personality that friends and prosecutors said Rocha adopted to hide his true loyalties.

Among the unanswered questions is what prompted the FBI to open its investigation into Rocha so many years after his retirement from the foreign service.

Rocha incriminated himself in a series of secretly recorded conversations with an undercover agent posing as a Cuban intelligence agent. Initially, the agent contacted Rocha on WhatsApp, calling himself “Miguel” and saying that he had a message “from your friends in Havana.”

Rocha praised Castro as a “Commander” in the talks, called the United States an “enemy” and boasted of his more than 40-year service as a Cuban mole at the heart of U.S. foreign policy circles, prosecutors said in court records.

“What we have done… is huge… more than a Grand Slam,” Rocha said.

Even before Friday’s sentencing, the plea deal drew criticism from Miami’s Cuban exile community, with some legal observers fearing that Rocha was treated too leniently.

When paying compensation to victims, could it be done using property? According Nelson Rodríguez Varela, it depends on the Government’s access to said properties. Restitution has a specific scope in terms of execution. A hearing scheduled for June 21 at 1:30 p.m. is mentioned. The current situation suggests uncertainty for Cuba, since an agreement would be detrimental to them. However, it is not specified what was revealed or how it would affect Cuba.

The widow and daughter of the late Cuban opposition leader expressed concern Friday about the plea deal.

Ofelia Acevedo Maura and Rosa María Payá Acevedo, widow and daughter, respectively, submitted a letter to the court and said they were “deeply concerned” about a guilty plea that “sets a dangerous precedent in cases of this magnitude” because it “eliminates the discretion” of the court to “address the total damage caused by the accused.”

He accuses the letter to Rocha of being part of the reason why “the Cuban dictatorship can silence and murder its political opponents” and remembers that “the Cuban dictatorship killed Payá on July 22, 2012.”

”As victims of harsh injustices of the Cuban dictatorship,” we feel “deeply concerned” by the possibility that the US Government “is trying to eliminate the discretion” of the judge when handing down the sentence against Rocha, they added in the letter.

In 2023, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ruled that there were “serious and sufficient indications” to conclude that Cuban state agents participated in the death of the opposition Oswaldo Payá, winner of the Sakharov Prize, and the activist Harold Cepero.

According to the version of the Cuban authorities, Payá and Cepero died in an accident suffered when they were traveling in a vehicle driven by the Spanish politician, Angel Carromero on a highway in Cuba on that day, but the families of both denounced from the beginning that it was an “attack” and sued the State of Cuba before the IACHR in 2013.

Rocha was in Havana at the time of Oswaldo Payá’s death in July 2012, as Miguel Cosío explained, while he was an advisor in the Southern Command. There is a connection between Payá’s death and Rocha because Rocha, during his time in Havana, requested information about Payá, as stated in a civil lawsuit.

After the sentencing, the dissident’s daughter said: “I believe that the judge did everything in her power to prevent the United States from reviewing that agreement many times to include the possibility of restitution to victims to include each of the points that she saw as unsatisfactory in the agreement and applied the maximum penalty, which is all she can do.”

(With information from AP and EFE)

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