Manuel Rocha: Fanatic, Spy—and My Colleague
The FBI’s revelation that former State Department official Manuel Rocha was a mole for Communist Cuba indicates a pathetic ideological zealotry in the face of reality.
It is impossible to read the U.S. Attorney complaint against Ambassador Manuel Rocha without deep sadness and outrage. As a fellow Foreign Service officer, I worked alongside Manuel in Havana and feel personally betrayed (as surely others do, too). As of this writing, Rocha has not made any public admissions, but the damning narratives in the court filing present many similarities with the case of Alger Hiss, perhaps the most notorious of all American ideological spies. Serving as an American diplomat, Hiss spied for mass-murderer Stalin, while Rocha’s loyalty was to the tyrant Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution.
While the prosecution’s case is still coming out, the basic indictment unmasks Rocha’s blind devotion to the Cuban dictatorship, which also puts him in company with espionage agents Ana Montes and Kendall Myers, other U.S. officials who violated their allegiances to their country over decades to serve Fidel Castro’s revolution. If a worldly man like Rocha swallowed Castro’s ideological flim-flam and held onto it for an incredible forty years, there are probably still other undiscovered American officials out there also hiding a clandestine record of service to the Cuban dictatorship.
Alger Hiss and Manuel Rocha (as well as Montes and Myers) have in common that they apparently did not betray the United States for any financial or material gain. They worked instead for their own idealistic brands of Marxism, the class-struggle ideology that unleashed so much 20th century conflict and today has been repackaged as a social-justice weapon to push race and gender revolution. It seems probable that Rocha, like Montes and Myers, was somehow infected in adolescence by romanticized visions of Fidel and Che, marching in fatigues, cutting sugar cane, dispossessing property owners and making four-hour speeches.
It is one thing to have caught the Fidel-Che virus as a teenager, in the early days of the revolution, when Cubans of goodwill and their friends wanted to modernize their country. Yet, as with all revolutions, human nature triumphed over Fidel’s empty promises and lies. Without Soviet subsidies, Cuban society imploded, and Castro fully bared his brutal and bloody soul. By the 1990s, to work as a foreigner for Castro’s dictatorship (openly or secretly as a deep mole in the U.S. government) required much more than youthful idealism or ideological abstractions; it required absolute fanaticism.
The story of Alger Hiss can help us to better understand Rocha. Hiss was famously exposed by Whitaker Chambers, whose best-selling autobiography, Witness, is a must-read conservative classic. Witness detailed the espionage case against Hiss, whose years of perfidy as a Soviet agent carried him all the way to the historic 1945 Yalta conference as a senior State Department advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Witness also delved thoughtfully into what motivated otherwise normal people into taking up the Marxist cause. Having once been a communist and Soviet operative himself, Chambers recounted how Marxism seduces vulnerable idealists who want to make a better world; ultimately, however, the Marxist revolution is an ideological con game that disillusions and destroys many adherents and transforms others into bitter-end fanatics. Today, faced with the failures of communism, Castro apologists, unrepentant fellow-travelers, and agents argue that their struggle to defend the revolution was not about excusing the regime’s many mistakes, but about stopping the interventionist policies of the colossus El Norte.
That self-serving “blame America” argument is as unpersuasive as the justifications that Western communists made in defending Stalin’s bloody purges in the 1930s and the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. For someone like Manuel Rocha, who served in Havana as a U.S. diplomat and witnessed firsthand the depravities of Castro’s dictatorship, it would have required extreme fanaticism and self-delusion to remain a deep-cover Fidel agent; to stay loyal to such a criminal regime required cult-like devotion.
Rocha saw firsthand all the abuses that were attributable to Castro’s totalitarianism: millions of Cubans forced into economic idleness and the resulting poverty; no free press, media or expression; corrupt officials rewarded with houses, cars and travel privileges; Potemkin hospitals with no medicine, while Cuban doctors were sent abroad; and above all, a Stalinist state security apparatus that destroyed Fidel’s enemies.
At some level, Rocha must have comprehended that the Cuban revolution was a myth. Castro and his collaborators wanted nothing but raw power, just like any old-fashioned Latin American caudillos. They skillfully manipulated the empty threat of U.S. intervention and el bloqueo yanqui as just useful propaganda tools to crush their internal opposition. In the face of such a stark reality, only fanatics refuse to reassess their values and commitments; only zealots stay loyal to obvious lies.
It is doubtful that Rocha ever read Witness, although part of his Foreign Service persona, very cleverly, was to present himself to his colleagues as right-of-center politically. Manuel’s deceptive act was very good, and it caught my attention when we first met in the summer of 1995 in Havana, after State Department assignments brought us together in the U.S. Interests Section. USINT was the de facto American embassy in Havana, which Fidel allowed to re-open only because he demanded that anti-revolutionary Cubans, whom he contemptuously denounced as gusanos or “worms,” be quickly processed off the island.
Conservative FSOs are relatively few, and those who admit it publicly even fewer, so Manuel made a good start with me. We served together two years in the small USINT community, sharing conversations in meetings and brief hallway encounters, usually lambasting Castro’s struggling regime. My hope today is that deep-cover Marxist Manuel at least chalked me up as counter-revolutionary to be shot and not just, as Lenin would have said, one more useful liberal idiot.
We were not close, in part because Rocha outranked me; he was USINT’s deputy principal officer, the number two U.S. diplomat in Havana, supervising all staff and post activities. Observing his work, most of us agreed that the Colombia-born, naturalized American Rocha was smooth and clever, with exceptional diplomatic talents that included native Spanish. He was, yes, even very likeable.
Natural gifts in dealing with people serve diplomats well, and they serve spies even better. Like the notorious Hiss, Rocha had attended all the right Ivy League schools and had made extensive connections with everybody in the Washington foreign-policy establishment who worked Latin America. Rocha was clearly a rising Foreign Service star, destined for an ambassadorship which he later got in his Bolivia assignment.
Although few details are public as of this writing, the likely damage of Rocha’s treachery to U.S. policy in Latin America cannot be minimized. In recruiting Rocha, probably when Manuel was a young idealist in 1973 Chile, influenced both by Allende’s Marxism and Pinochet’s coup against it, Cuba’s Dirección General de Inteligencia made a small investment with a big payout. Over his long career, which included work on the NSC staff, Rocha was indeed in a position to steal much information and subtly influence policy in a pro-Castro direction. During his posting in Havana and in other assignments abroad, Rocha likely double-crossed numerous anti-Castro Cubans, particularly democratic and human-rights activists who put their trust in American hands. That was the very real human cost of Rocha’s treachery.
Yet I doubt he changed history, or even meaningfully put U.S.-Cuban relations on a different path. Rocha would have been one more intelligence source of many, admittedly very highly placed, but Cuba’s DGI had—no doubt still has—many clandestine operatives in the United States, and all their information went into Castro’s hopper. Moreover, Fidel was constantly wary that sources could be double agents; the paranoid Cuban leader could never had been fully confident that Rocha stayed loyal to the revolution.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration went through a love-hate diplomatic courtship with Havana, which decidedly ended in hate. A product of 1960s radical chic, the young Bill Clinton himself was surely smitten with Che’s revolutionary excitement. As a hard-nosed politician, Governor Clinton had lost a re-election because of mismanaging rioting Cubans jailed in Arkansas, and President Clinton had faced a massive and chaotic rafter crisis of desperate Cubans going to sea, sparked when Fidel unleashed them on South Florida.
Although Castro was always trouble, a too-eager President Clinton thought he could maneuver the wily dictator into a historic rapprochement, built on parlaying the 1994–95 American-Cuban migration accords into a new Caribbean detente. Clinton wanted to be the American president remembered for “normalizing” bilateral relations with Havana, a dubious distinction that was destined to go to Barack Obama.
Ultimately, President Clinton’s diplomatic initiative failed because Castro yet again revealed his true colors in February 1996 by ruthlessly ordering Cuban MiG fighter jets to shoot down unarmed airplanes piloted by the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue. But the president declined, wisely, to rise to the bloody provocation, refusing to go down a path that possibly could have made the U.S. military responsible for Castro’s broken-down country.
Get daily emails in your inbox
Instead, the White House reimposed a freeze on many nascent bilateral activities, such as direct airline flights, while killing talk of ending the trade embargo. Further, the president made common cause with an unlikely ally, anti-communist Senator Jesse Helms. Congress passed the hardline Helms-Burton legislation, today known as the Cuban Libertad Act of 1996, as another U.S. policy tool to squeeze the bandit Fidel. Rocha would have had little to no influence on those large events.
As his former friends and colleagues await news of his judicial fate, it is probable that Manuel will never renounce his service to Castro; the authentic fanatic descends down the stairs into the bunker with his Führer when all is lost. In dismissing his perfidy, Rocha will swell in pride as a Hero of the Revolution; he will tell himself that he was much more than a pedestrian “spy,” but instead part of the select revolutionary vanguard who ensured that small minds and bungling yanqui policies did not go off the rails and start a war with Cuba. He will tell himself he fought to push human nature into the brave new world that Fidel and Lenin promised is coming.
Above all, Manuel will remind himself in the silence of his empty prison cell, he was smarter than everybody else, just like Alger was.