Former U.S. diplomat to plead guilty to acting as a secret agent for the Cuban government

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Former U.S. diplomat Victor Manuel Rocha said Thursday in federal court that he has agreed to plead guilty to being an illegal agent for the Cuban government while defrauding the United States, in a plea agreement that will be unveiled on April 12, when he will be sentenced.

Rocha’s defense attorney and federal prosecutors acknowledged the plea agreement at a hearing in Miami federal court that was initially supposed to be about the handling of classified documents in his case, but the focus quickly shifted to sealing the defendant’s fate.

Rocha, who was arrested in early December and pleaded not guilty to a 15-count indictment in mid-February, told U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom that he understood the terms and was ready to change his original plea to guilty.

“Your honor, I am in agreement,” Rocha, 73, told the judge.

Prosecutors Jonathan Stratton and John Shipley and defense attorney Jacqueline Arango said they worked out the plea agreement with a predetermined sentence for his two offenses: conspiracy to be an illegal agent and acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government, which carry up to five years and 10 years, respectively, for a possible total of 15 years in prison. Neither side however, disclosed the jointly recommended prison term.

At the brief hearing Thursday, Arango called the recommended sentence “fair and reasonable,” without revealing details.

Bloom said she would still order a pre-sentence investigative report and use that to guide her in imposing Rocha’s punishment in April.

Arrested in Miami

Rocha, who was cuffed and wearing a khaki detention uniform, is the former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia. He spent two decades at the U.S. State Department until he left the diplomatic service in 2002, and then worked in the private sector for two more decades before being arrested in Miami in early December.

After his arrest, Attorney General Merrick Garland described Rocha much like a spy, saying the case “exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent.”

Rocha is charged with 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. Rocha faces charges of conspiracy, acting as a foreign agent, wire fraud and making false statements to obtain and use a U.S. passport, according to the indictment. All but two of the counts in his indictment will be dismissed at his plea and sentencing in April, prosecutors said.

Stratton, the prosecutor, said both sides have “finalized the documents” and “an agreement on the sentence to be imposed” without revealing any specifics. Stratton made the disclosure while informing the judge there would be no classified documents to be disclosed to the defense before trial, which was set for March 25.

The unusual delay in Rocha’s arraignment until mid-February suggested to legal experts that his endgame would be a plea deal.

Since his arrest, Rocha has remained at the federal detention center, after agreeing to prosecutors’ demands that he be held before trial. They argued he is a danger to the community and a flight risk.

Brickell City Centre condo transfers

After being charged in December, Rocha transferred the deeds on four luxury Brickell City Centre condos that he bought with his wife, Karla Wittkop Rocha, exclusively to her, according to records filed on Feb. 8, with the Miami-Dade County Clerk’s office. The documents were originally signed in January.

The quit-claim deed transfers were first reported by local Spanish-language station America TV.

The Rochas’ two units in the Rise tower and two units in the Reach tower, located at the Brickell City Centre in downtown Miami, are valued at more than $4 million in total, according to the real estate website Zillow.

Arango, the Miami attorney with the firm Akerman who is representing Rocha and formerly worked as a longtime federal prosecutor, signed the deed transfers as a witness. Asked after the arraignment whether the deed transfers might be fraudulent, Arango declined to answer.

According to the federal indictment, if Rocha is found guilty the government would seize any property “derived from any proceeds obtained, directly or indirectly from the commission of such offense.”

“If he did that in order to defeat any government attempt to take his interest in the property if he is found guilty, I don’t think he would be successful because he cannot transfer his equitable interest in the property because he is married,” said Nelson Rodriguez Varela, a Miami attorney specializing in criminal and real estate law,

People who knew Rocha described him as someone preoccupied with money. He told acquaintances that he left the federal government to pursue better-paid positions in the private sector. He worked as senior business advisor at the Miami law firm Foley & Lardner, senior vice president for Xcoal, a coal exporting company, and as senior vice president for Latin America at Canadian firm Barrick Gold Corp.

Although Rocha was not charged with espionage, the U.S. Justice Department accused him of working as an undercover agent of Cuba’s General Directorate of Intelligence. The indictment accuses him of using his position to obtain sensitive information and pass it to Cuba, though it does not provide any details about what damage he may have done or the sort of secrets he revealed. A document attached to the indictment has been sealed by the court.

The case sent shock waves through the diplomatic and intelligence communities, where Rocha was highly regarded as an expert on Cuba and Latin American affairs. In Miami circles, he was known as a fervent Republican and an admirer of former President Donald Trump, although the indictment says Rocha was taped by an FBI undercover agent claiming his “right-wing” persona was part of his cover as a Cuban agent.

On Friday, in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, a former high-ranking official in the George W. Bush administration described Rocha as a traitor.

“Rocha’s treachery will be the most damaging intelligence penetration and influence operation in U.S. history,” wrote Emilio T. Gonzalez, former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Apart from prison, he must be made to surrender assets/properties, government pensions and have his naturalization revoked.

“After completing his sentence, deport him.”

Miami Herald staff writer Nora Gamez Torres contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the potential sentence for Rocha, who is facing up to 15 years in prison.