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Diplomat charged as Cuban agent told FBI he was "agent in charge" of 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shootdown

The group would scour the Straits of Florida searching for Cuban refugees trying to sail to freedom on rafts and rescue them. In 1996, the Havana regime shot down two of the planes, killing four Miami exiles who gave their lives to save their Cuban brethren.

Photographs of the four heroes killed during the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue operation
Photographs of the four heroes killed during the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue operation | Cuba Studies Institute

December 5, 2023 9:12am

Updated: December 5, 2023 11:43am

The former U.S. diplomat arrested in Miami on Friday for acting as an agent for the Cuban communist regime, appeared in court at the Southern District of Florida on Monday, answering charges filed by the Justice Department.

According to a felony complaint filed by federal prosecutors, Victor Manuel Rocha, 73, acted as an agent for the regime in a clandestine capacity for more than four decades since 1981.

Rocha began his career as a Honduras desk officer in November 1981. He moved on to work at various Latin American desks and even served as a Politico-Military officer for the U.S. Embassy Tegucigalpa, Honduras and in 2000, was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia.

He even worked as an expert on Latin America for the White House National Security Council.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Rocha’s case was “one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations” of the United States by a foreign agent.

“For over 40 years, Victor Manuel Rocha served as an agent of the Cuban government and sought out and obtained positions within the United States government that would provide him with access to non-public information and the ability to affect U.S. foreign policy,” the attorney general said. 

Cuba has had high success in recruiting Americans to do their bidding by using their Marxist-Leninist ideology as a cause. Before Rocha, their most successful agent was Ana Belen Montes who worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency for many years. She was eventually brought to justice as the result of a comprehensive federal investigation that resulted in her incarceration for more than two decades.

Rocha believed in Cuba’s mission of promoting its Marxist ideology throughout Latin America and even called the United States “the enemy,” asserting that his work as an agent of the Cuban regime “strengthened the Revolution,” a salute to Fidel Castro’s 1959 seizure of power.

The former U.S. ambassador was arrested on Friday in Miami as the result of a one-year undercover FBI operation, according to the Justice Department.

Rocha was not American born and emigrated to the U.S. from Colombia at a young age. He was raised in New York City and earned Ivy League university degrees from Georgetown, Harvard and Yale. 

After Rocha served as a Honduras desk officer for a little more than a year, he was promoted as a Political Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo in January 1983. He then rose in the ranks of the State Department as a Watch Officer in its Operations Center and as a Consul for Political and Economic Affairs for the U.S. Consulate General Florence, Italy.

In March 1987, Rocha was appointed as a Politico-Military officer for the U.S. Embassy Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Finally, on July 14, 2000, before President Bill Clinton left office, he was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, a position he maintained until 2002.

He also did work with the White House National Security Council for 25 years and advised the U.S. government on matters involving several Latin American countries including Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Mexico.

Rocha’s arrest comes at a time when U.S.-Cuba relations have been teetering. The communist regime in Havana has struggled economically because of Trump era sanctions, which have remained in place under President Biden.

While some of Biden’s advisers have reportedly encouraged the 46th president to repeal the Trump era sanctions, he has refrained from doing so, telling the nation in the wake of the July 11, 2021 island wide protests that Cuba’s communist state was a failed system.

Despite the tension between Havana and Washington since the 1959 Revolution, some Americans have taken trips to the island and engaged in tourism. One of those Americans was Rocha, according to court documents that said he made several trips to the island, where he worked with the regime to help advance Havana’s interests.

Federal agents began suspecting Rocha in November 2022. Court documents suggest that an undercover FBI agent contacted Rocha via WhatsApp and pretended to be a DGI (Cuban Intelligence Services) agent who needed to get him a message from “your friends from Havana.”

Rocha said he would meet the undercover agent several times, including once at a food court, because there was “no possibility for anyone to see me” there, he asserted, according to documents filed in federal court.

In those meetings with the FBI, Rocha revealed details about working with the Cuban regime, according to the felony complaint.

“I knew exactly how to do it and obviously the Dirección [DGI] accompanied me ... lt’s a long process and it wasn't easy," Rocha told the undercover FBI agent according to the complaint. 

He also “described and celebrated his activity” working for DGI, the Justice Department said. 

Rocha repeatedly referred to himself in the collective when speaking to the FBI as if to align himself with the Cuban regime. He often used the term “we” and vowed to “protect ... what we have done.”

When the undercover FBI agent, asked him “are you still with us?” Rocha became flustered and said he was “angry” that the regime was questioning his allegiance. “It's like questioning my manhood,” he said.

He also made a veiled reference to orchestrating the famous 1996 “Brothers to the Rescue” shooting, which made worldwide news and remained a spur in the side of the Cuban exile community.

The humanitarian, non-violent group would scour the Straits of Florida searching for Cuban refugees trying to sail to freedom on rafts, and make efforts to rescue them.

In 1996, the Cuban Air Force shot down two of the planes, killing four Miami exiles who gave their lives to save their Cuban brethren.

Rocha alluded to his involvement in the incident by referring to himself as being the agent “in charge” during “the knock down of small planes,” which prosecutors alleges was a reference to the 1996 shoot-down.

The incident has been widely recognized as an “act of terrorism” and was even condemned by the U.N. Security Council. 

Rocha is also accused of making false statements to obtain travel documents and providing false and misleading information to the U.S. government, according to the felony complaint. 

During a Monday State Department briefing, spokesman Matthew Miller said the federal agency would work with the U.S. intelligence community to minimize the harm caused by Rocha and the breach. 

“We will in the coming days, weeks, months, work with our partners in the intelligence community to assess any long-term national security implications for this matter,” Miller told journalists.

Executive Editor

Gelet Martínez Fragela

Gelet Martínez Fragela is the founder and editor-in-chief of ADN America. She is a Cuban journalist, television producer, and political refugee who also founded ADN Cuba.