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Cuban Intelligence Recruits Driven by Ideology, Not Money – WSJ

Bolivian President Hugo Banzer, left, shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador Victor Manuel Rocha in La Paz, Bolivia, in 2000.
Espionage case of former U.S. ambassador sheds light on officials-turned-spies swayed by sympathy for Cuba’s revolution. Bolivian President Hugo Banzer, left, shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador Victor Manuel Rocha in La Paz, Bolivia, in 2000. (Reuters)

José de Córdoba and Aruna Viswanatha, WSJ

MEXICO CITY/WASHINGTON
EnergiesNet.com 12 07 2023

The Cuban espionage case involving former U.S. Ambassador Victor Manuel Rocha might turn out to be the most egregious in terms of how long it is said to have gone on, but it is far from being the first. 

In what Attorney General Merrick Garland called one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting security breaches of the U.S. government, Rocha was detained on Friday on allegations of spying for Cuba’s intelligence service for decades, according to a complaint unsealed on Monday.

In an indictment obtained Tuesday, a grand jury also charged Rocha with wire fraud in connection with retirement benefits he collected from his U.S. government service. 

Former U.S. officials say the damage Rocha is accused of causing might be worse than the harm done by Cuba’s most successful spy, Ana Belén Montes. The senior Cuban analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency pleaded guilty to spying for Cuba in 2002 after working for the island’s intelligence service for 17 years. Known within the U.S. government as the “Queen of Cuba” for her dominance of Cuban issues, Montes was released from prison in 2023.

The espionage affair of which Rocha is accused also echoes the case of a former State Department official and his wife. Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, pleaded guilty in 2009 to having spied for Cuba for 30 years.

What the cases have in common, say U.S. officials and intelligence analysts, is that the agents of Cuba appear to have been driven by deep sympathy for the island nation’s revolution, rather than by financial gain for spying on the U.S.

Attorney General Merrick Garland called the Rocha case one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting security breaches of the U.S. government. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Attorney General Merrick Garland called the Rocha case one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting security breaches of the U.S. government. (Drew Angerer/Getty)

In three long recorded meetings with an undercover FBI agent, Rocha showed his hostility for the U.S. and his undying allegiance to Cuba’s Communist regime. He made it clear that his work for Cuba wasn’t for money.

“He was still professing to be in love with the revolution,” said Brian Latell, a retired former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, referring to Rocha’s taped declarations made to the undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agent during the investigation of the former diplomat. 

In that, he is similar to a handful of other former U.S. officials recruited to spy for the Cuban government during the 1980s and 1970s, current and former U.S. officials say. During those Cold War days, Fidel Castro’s Cuba still had the élan of a revolutionary David facing off against a mighty imperialist Uncle Sam, particularly across Latin America.  

“The normal motivation for American spies is that they are irritated by somebody they worked for, or they need the money,” said Kevin Whitaker, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia. “But these people recruited by the Cubans are motivated by their commitment to the revolution.”

Pete Lapp, a retired FBI agent who investigated Montes, said that Cuban intelligence was very good at recruiting people sympathetic to their cause, while Russians usually paid. Montes was inspired by anti-American ideology, said Lapp, who wrote a book on the Montes investigation called “Queen of Cuba.” 

An unsealed complaint said Victor Manuel Rocha showed his hostility for the U.S. and his undying allegiance to Cuba’s Communist regime. Photo: gonzalo espinoza/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
An unsealed complaint said Victor Manuel Rocha showed his hostility for the U.S. and his undying allegiance to Cuba’s Communist regime. (Gonzalo Espinoza/AFP

The information Montes shared included details of a classified satellite program, and she never took money for passing on information, except for reimbursement for some expenses, according to FBI records.

During the Montes investigation, the FBI had been tipped off to the presence of numerous Cuban spies within the U.S. government, but didn’t have enough information at the time to identify the others. 

“We had enough to know we had a lot of problems, but not a lot of leads to go on,” Lapp said. “Pound for pound they are one of the best intelligence agencies in the world.”

Rocha and Montes would interact periodically in their jobs, Lapp said.

Montes said at her sentencing that she found U.S. policy toward Cuba unfair and “felt morally obligated to help the island defend itself from our efforts to impose our values and our political system on it.” 

Walter Kendall Myers, of the married duo who pleaded guilty to spying for Cuba, was an intelligence analyst specializing in Europe. He was recruited by Cuban intelligence after making a trip to the island in 1978, according to prosecutors. During his visit, Myers declared in a diary entry his affinity for Castro and the Cuban government, prosecutors said.

Myers and his wife were recruited to work for Havana the following year by a Cuban agent who visited their home in South Dakota and urged him to pursue a career at either the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency, the Justice Department said.

For the next 30 years Myers and his wife communicated with their Cuban handlers using shortwave radios, and met with agents overseas. In meetings with an undercover FBI agent in 2009, they admitted their activities. An analysis of Myers’s computer at the State Department found that he had viewed more than 200 top secret documents dealing with Cuba. He was sentenced to life in prison, while Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers received a sentence of 81 months. Prosecutors didn’t identify any monetary gain.

In the Rocha case, U.S. officials are worried that he provided top-secret information to Cuba over a span of more than 40 years during a career where he occupied top posts across half a dozen embassies in Latin America, including that of ambassador to Bolivia. 

The unsealed complaint said that he told an undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who feigned being his Cuban contact and met with him three times in a period of over a year that he had worked for Cuba’s Communist government as a covert agent since at least from 1981 to the present day. 

This week, Rocha’s colleagues and acquaintances were shocked by the accusations against him. In Miami, Félix Ismael Rodríguez, a Cuban-American who worked with the CIA and is known for having captured revolutionary guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia, was stunned. 

“It seems impossible that he was working for Cuban intelligence,” Rodríguez said in an interview with Martí Noticias, a U.S. government-run digital station based in Miami which broadcasts to Cuba. “If true, it will be the greatest disappointment of my life.” 

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com and Aruna Viswanatha at aruna.viswanatha@wsj.com

Appeared in the December 6, 2023, print edition as ‘Ideology Drives Cuba Spy Recruits’.

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