Victor Manuel Rocha, 73, an ex-career U.S. diplomat, was sentenced on, April 12, 2024, in Miami federal court to 15 years in prison for being a covert agent for the Cuban government.

Victor Manuel Rocha, 73, an ex-career U.S. diplomat, was sentenced on, April 12, 2024, in Miami federal court to 15 years in prison for being a covert agent for the Cuban government. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — A federal judge called a hearing for Friday morning to decide whether a former American ambassador convicted of being a covert agent for Cuba should be required to pay any victims of his betrayal against the United States in a national security case that rocked both the U.S. intelligence and exile communities.

Federal prosecutors argue that the former career diplomat, Victor Manuel Rocha, who in April was sentenced to 15 years in prison and paid a $500,000 fine, is not required to pay restitution to anyone and that the “only victim” in his case is the U.S. government, according to a memo filed in Miami federal court with U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom.

The prosecutors note that Rocha pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Cuba, not to passing national security secrets to his Cuban handlers, and that the 73-year-old is cooperating with U.S. authorities from behind bars. Moreover, they say, no victims have come forward with evidence showing they were harmed by Rocha’s actions while he was interacting with the Cuban government for decades.

“We respect the court’s desire ... to ensure that any other potential victims of the defendant’s criminal conduct be afforded their rights under the law to receive restitution,” wrote prosecutors Jonathan Stratton and John Shipley. “It remains the case, however, that there are no other victims entitled to restitution.”

The prosecutors said that one Cuban who wrote a letter to Judge Bloom — dissident Francisco Pastor Chaviano Gonzalez, who spent years in Cuba’s prison — was interviewed by FBI agents. But agents found no proof to his claim that Rocha was passing sensitive information to the Castro government that directly harmed the now-naturalized U.S. citizen. The prosecutors also said that anyone claiming to be a victim of Rocha’s crime could pursue legal action against him in state or federal court.

In February, the widow of Oswaldo Payá, a prominent Cuban opposition leader who is widely believed to have died in a car crash caused by Cuban state security officials, filed a civil lawsuit in Miami against Rocha, who was still covertly working as an agent for Cuba at the time of Payá’s death in 2012.

Rocha, who climbed the foreign service ladder to become the ambassador to Bolivia in 2000 during the George W. Bush administration, was arrested in December after the FBI launched a sting operation in late 2022. He was video-recorded telling an undercover FBI agent that he worked for the Cuban intelligence services for four decades, according to a criminal affidavit and indictment.

He told the FBI agent his last contact with Cuban intelligence was around 2017 during a secret trip to the island. Rocha was accused of conspiring as an agent for Cuba since 1981, when he started working for the State Department, three years after he naturalized as a U.S. citizen and had earned degrees from Yale, Harvard and Georgetown universities.

At Rocha’s sentencing hear in April, Judge Bloom called Rocha “an enemy of the United States government” during the hearing.

“Your actions were a direct attack on our democracy and the safety of our citizens,” she said. “You turned your back on this country, a country that gave you everything.”

Speaking before he was sentenced, Rocha apologized to the judge, the United States and his family for his actions.

“During my formative years in college, I was heavily influenced by the radical politics of the day,” he said. “My deep commitment at that time to radical social change in the region led me to the eventual betrayal of my oath of loyalty to the United States during my two decades in the State Department.

“Today, I no longer see the world through the radical eyes of my youth.”

Rocha pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the U.S. government and acting as an illegal foreign agent in an agreement struck with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. Those two offenses carry maximum sentences of five and 10 years, respectively. According to his plea agreement, he is cooperating with the U.S. government on investigations about Cuba, including a Justice Department assessment of the damage caused by his own covert work for the late Fidel Castro’s regime and his successors.

However, Judge Bloom, during the hearing, made clear she didn’t think the initial agreement presented by the prosecutors was enough punishment for what she called Rocha’s “betrayal” of the United States.

She did not hide her displeasure with the government’s plea deal, briefly suspending the hearing three times to get clarification on why prosecutors were not seeking forfeiture of Rocha’s properties, as the indictment initially suggested, as well as restitution for his victims.

After being charged in December, Rocha transferred the deeds on four luxury Brickell City Centre condos valued at more than $4 million that he bought with his wife, Karla Wittkop Rocha, exclusively to her. He also transferred his two bank accounts to his wife, prosecutors said Friday.

The judge said she was concerned about restitution to other victims of Rocha’s actions beyond the U.S. government, citing the four Cuban American men who died in the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown in 1996.

Bloom also questioned why the Justice Department was not proposing that Rocha be denaturalized as a U.S. citizen after he completed his prison sentence. Initially, the federal prosecutors told Bloom they were not going to request that Rocha, who was born in Colombia and naturalized in 1978, be stripped of his U.S. citizenship, which would mean he would be deported after serving his sentence if he were still alive.

But after the tense exchanges, the judge decided on a new hearing to consider restitution in the future and ordered prosecutors to include the possibility of stripping him of his citizenship in his plea agreement. Rocha and his defense lawyer, Jacqueline Arango, agreed with the judge’s demands.

Rocha was not formally accused of being a spy — a crime that would have required time-sensitive evidence, such as catching him exchanging damaging top-secret information with his Cuban handlers or other evidence of furtive communications. Instead, he was accused of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires those working under the control of a foreign government to notify the U.S. Attorney General’s office.

Nonetheless, top federal officials have characterized Rocha, who retired from the State Department in 2002 and later worked as an adviser to the commander of U.S. Southern Command and in the private sector, as one of the worst offenders in the annals of foreign spying on the U.S. government.

After his arrest in early December, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Rocha’s covert work for Cuba was “one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gamez Torres, who covers Cuba and U.S.-Latin American policy, contributed to this story.

©2024 Miami Herald.

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