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.
“I was devastated and considered suicide,” Mr. Rocha told the magazine in 2004, shortly after he had retired from the State Department.
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.
“Trying to wrap your hands around what could have been compromised” over 40 years will be “incredibly daunting,” he said. In other espionage cases involving Cuba, he noted, the government has offered plea deals in exchange for a full accounting of how Cuba recruited and handled its American spies.
Mr. Rocha’s lawyer, Jacqueline Arango, did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Rocha has not yet entered a plea.
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.
“I feel so betrayed I can’t stand it,” said Liliana Ayalde, a former American diplomat who worked under him in Bolivia when Mr. Rocha served as ambassador. “I’m exhausted thinking of all the unknowns.”
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.
Glenn T. Tucker, 72, a classmate, remembered Mr. Rocha as a gifted soccer player who was amiable and strikingly disciplined and ambitious.
“He was focused on working hard and playing by the rules, perhaps knowing that being from his background, he could easily be thrown out of this world of privilege he had worked himself into so effectively,” Mr. Tucker said.
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.
Later that decade, Mr. Rocha did graduate work at Harvard and Georgetown and received master’s degrees in public administration and foreign affairs. In 1978, Mr. Rocha became a U.S. citizen, a prerequisite to join the foreign service and to obtain a security clearance.
Around that time, Mr. Rocha, who was working at a small government agency that funded development projects in Latin America, cultivated a relationship with Brian Latell, a C.I.A. analyst focused on Cuba and Latin America. In an interview, Mr. Latell said that he was teaching at Georgetown when Mr. Rocha visited his home in Virginia several times around 1980 and 1981, often bringing friends from Latin America. Mr. Latell said nothing felt amiss.
“It never seemed like it, but I’m sure he was pumping me,” Mr. Latell said. “He did it so discreetly.”
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.
Former colleagues described Mr. Rocha as a careerist who had a knack for getting influential jobs in the foreign service. He was gregarious and leveraged his native command of Spanish to build relationships across Latin America. But some colleagues said they found him pompous and arrogant and to be a shameless womanizer.
“He was enormously charming,” said John Feeley, a former colleague who considered Mr. Rocha a mentor and friend for many years. “He was a bon vivant and a decided ladies’ man in a culture that looks down on that.”
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.
Early in his diplomatic career, while posted in Honduras, Mr. Rocha appeared to trade the liberal politics of his youth for a portrayal of himself as an ardent conservative.
The capstone of his career was becoming the ambassador in Bolivia in 2000. Early in his tenure, he startled colleagues in Washington and La Paz by blatantly meddling in the upcoming Bolivian election. Mr. Rocha urged Bolivian voters not to vote for a leading candidate, Evo Morales, an Indigenous politician who had risen to prominence as the leader of a union of coca growers. A win by Morales, he warned, could jeopardize Bolivia’s sizable U.S. aid package.
Ms. Ayalde, the former colleague, who at the time oversaw U.S. assistance to Bolivia, recalled being dismayed.
“‘Sir, this is totally inappropriate,’” she recalled having told him at the time. “‘We don’t want to politicize this, because elections are right around the corner.’”
Mr. Rocha’s heavy-handed messaging also struck American officials as self-defeating, because it appeared to boost Mr. Morales, a socialist politician ideologically aligned with the Cuban government. “Now I look back and think, maybe it was all part of a plan,” Ms. Ayalde said. Mr. Morales lost the 2000 election but became president in 2006.
A couple of years later, Mr. Rocha stunned colleagues again by resigning from the State Department well before completing the three-year term ambassadors typically serve. His resignation letter, which got passed around by disapproving colleagues, conveyed a desire to make better money in the private sector in order to build a college fund for his children, Ms. Ayalde recalled.
After retiring, Mr. Rocha moved to Miami and pursued several business opportunities, including with a gold mine in the Dominican Republic, a Chinese car maker trying to make headway in Latin America, a law firm and a public relations firm.
Throughout, he leaned on years worth of relationships that he had forged throughout Latin America.
“I have access to just about every country in the region, or know how to get it,” he bragged to The Miami Herald in 2006.
More recently, Mr. Rocha surprised friends and former colleagues by signaling fervent support for former President Donald J. Trump. The charging document quotes Mr. Rocha telling an undercover F.B.I. official who posed as a Cuban spy that his right-wing politics were part of a cover story.
While the State Department has embarked on an extensive internal damage assessment, decades have passed since Mr. Rocha’s government service.
The indictment does not say how the investigation began, nor does it suggest Mr. Rocha remained in contact recently with the island’s spy service. But when the F.B.I. undercover agent asked whether Mr. Rocha was still loyal to Cuba, he was unequivocal. The question stung, Mr. Rocha was recorded saying.
“It’s like you’re questioning my manhood,” he is quoted as having said.
The post Ex-U.S. Ambassador Accused of Being a Cuban Agent Rose From Humble Origins appeared first on New York Times.