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A former U.S. ambassador is charged with being an agent for Cuba

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We begin with a former U.S. ambassador who's been arrested as an agent of Cuba.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Federal prosecutors allege that Victor Manuel Rocha worked for Cuba for decades. His initial court appearance yesterday was a startling turn in his long career. He served in several government posts relating to Latin America.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering his case. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is he?

LUCAS: So Rocha's 73 years old. He was born in Colombia, became a U.S. citizen in the late '70s and a few years after that started working for the State Department. And he had a very successful career. He worked in various U.S. embassies in Central America in the 1980s. He served on the National Security Council in the mid-'90s. He was actually the director of an office that's responsible for, among other things, Cuba. He later served in a senior post for the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba and ultimately ended his career as the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia from 1999 to 2002. After he left the State Department, he went into the private sector. He worked as an adviser to the commander of the U.S. military Southern Command for several years. That command is responsible for - you may have guessed it - Cuba, among other things.

INSKEEP: OK.

LUCAS: But Prosecutors say that all that time, dating all the way back to 1981 and up to the present day, Rocha was also secretly working as an agent of the Cuban government.

INSKEEP: Wow. What are the charges that would illustrate that?

LUCAS: Well, there are three charges in a criminal complaint against Rocha thus far - conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government and using a passport obtained by false statement. But here's how Attorney General Merrick Garland kind of summed up what prosecutors say Rocha was up to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: The complaint alleges that Rocha sought out and used his positions within the United States government to support Cuba's clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against the United States.

LUCAS: Now, Garland only briefly talked about this case yesterday, but even in his limited remarks, he did give a sense of the magnitude of this case. Here he is again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARLAND: This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent.

INSKEEP: OK, talked only briefly, so we don't have a good idea of what he did on a day-to-day basis over those 40 years. But how did the Justice Department catch him?

LUCAS: Well, it's a good question as for how this went on as long as it did. But court papers say the FBI got a tip of some sort in 2022 that Rocha was working with Cuba's intelligence services. And so the FBI ran, in essence, a sting operation against him. A little over a year ago, an undercover FBI agent sent Rocha a text on WhatsApp saying that they had a message for him from his, quote, unquote, "friends in Havana." Rocha ended up meeting the undercover agent three times. The FBI, of course, had Rocha under surveillance at this point. So they recorded all three of these meetings. Court papers include excerpts from them in which Rocha makes incriminating statements about work that he says that he's done at the direction of Cuban intelligence. He allegedly said that Cuban intelligence asked him to lead a normal life. And so he created a legend, which is intelligence lingo for a backstory, of a right-wing person. Court papers say he bragged about what he'd done for Cuba. And he allegedly told the undercover agent that he was still, at this point, dedicated to the Cuban cause.

INSKEEP: I want to understand this - a right-wing person but also bragging about what he'd done for Cuba, meaning that in public, he was, like, anti-Cuba, anti-communist. But privately, he was bragging about what he's doing. Is that what you're saying?

LUCAS: That's correct. Yes.

INSKEEP: So when do we learn more about what he allegedly did?

LUCAS: Well, he was in court yesterday. Prosecutors suggested in court that they are going to bring more charges in this case. A detention hearing is scheduled for tomorrow. So there may be more to learn in the days and weeks to come.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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