Global Economy

For U.S. Cuban claims holders, spy Manuel Rocha's plea deal raises fresh questions

The Miami Herald profiled former Ambassador V. Manuel Rocha in 2003 when he joined the firm of Steel Hector & Davis to help open doors in Latin America.

Raul Rubiera | Miami Herald | Getty Images

When Carolyn Lamb saw news of Cuban spy Victor Manuel Rocha’s arrest on the news last December, she recognized him immediately. It was the same man who had sat in her Omaha living room 17 years ago, trying to make a deal. 

On Friday, Rocha, 73, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for acting as a foreign agent on behalf of the Cuban government, pleading guilty to two counts of conspiracy. On top of his prison sentence, Rocha faces three years of supervised release, a $500,000 fine, and several other conditions.

Rocha’s arrest last year stunned the diplomatic community, in part because of his longevity as an agent—more than 40 years, much of it spent working for the US State Department, including a stint as US ambassador to Bolivia and another at the National Security Council.

In exchange for a reduced sentence, Rocha’s agreement requires him to cooperate with prosecutors and reveal what clandestine activities he performed for Cuba. 

Carolyn Lamb hopes that process will reveal what Rocha was up to in her living room nearly 20 years. 

The claims

Lamb describes how Rocha traveled across the country in 2007, and offered to purchase the paper claims to an 80-acre farm, a 1959 Buick, and thousands of shares in the Cuban Telephone Company that belonged to Lamb’s father before they were seized by the Castro regime.

The former Coca-Cola building in Havana, ironically painted the company colors. The Building now houses the headquarters of the state-owned “Beverage Company of Havana”.

Justin Solomon | CNBC

A former Woolworth’s store which is now used as a “10 Cent Store”, the equivalent of a dollar store in the United States.

Justin Solomon | CNBC

This wide scale confiscation of Americans’ property was one of the chief reasons the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba more than 60 years ago.

Before the embargo can be lifted, the claims for those properties must be settled.  

“It’s still one of the biggest impediments to normalization of relations with Cuba,” says Jason Poblete, Lamb’s attorney. 

“Was [Rocha] part of a scheme to help depress the value of these claims, to give an escape clause to the Cuban government?” Poblete wondered aloud.

The lower the value of the claims, the less the Cuban government would have to pay in any future negotiated settlement.

Poblete also wondered if Rocha was thwarting the process. “Did he make it harder to settle the claims issue?” he said in an interview with CNBC.

It would be helpful to the Cubans to have information from Rocha because in a negotiation on the claims “any intelligence you could get would be useful,” said John Kavulich, head of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

The former Sears Roebuck and Co. in Havana is now a computer center for Cubans to use the internet.

Justin Solomon | CNBC

But if Rocha’s participation in the claims buying business was indeed part of his covert work, that would come as news to his business partner.

Timothy Ashby says he was “astonished” by Rocha’s arrest because “He was almost too right wing to be believed,” and Ashby couldn’t imagine Rocha working for a communist government.

But looking back on it, Ashby says there were signs. “He had a chip on his shoulder about rich people.”

And that’s not all. “Once a week he would have the offices swept for bugs because he said he was concerned about the FBI listening to them,” Ashby told CNBC in a recent interview.  

Ashby assumed Rocha’s paranoia about eavesdropping was in response to the George W. Bush administration’s opposition to the Cuba claims buying business.

But according to the Justice Department, by that point Rocha was already in his third decade as a Cuban agent.

Ashby says that buying up the claims was his idea, and he brought Rocha in because of his connections in the US government.

The company they formed ultimately raised $10.5 million and bought nine claims including large pieces of land and some hotels. But they were forced to shutter the operation, says Ashby, when the Bush administration deemed their activities a violation of the embargo.

Timothy Ashby now writes spy novels. Little did he know he’d be a character in a real-life case.

Covert career

Born in Columbia in 1950, Rocha became a naturalized US Citizen in 1978, and a State Department employee in 1981. During his long diplomatic career, he served in US embassies in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Argentina, and finally Bolivia where he was ambassador.

In the mid-90s he did a 1-year stint on the National Security Council, where he had special responsibility for Cuba and he subsequently served in the US Interest Section in Havana. Throughout his career, the DOJ says he had unique access to nonpublic US government information.

Rocha was caught when an undercover FBI agent, impersonating a Cuban spy, recorded him on camera during 3 separate meetings in Miami in 2022 and 2023.

According to the Justice Department’s complaint, throughout the meetings Rocha behaved as a Cuban agent, consistently referred to the United States as “the enemy,” and used the term “we” to describe himself and Cuba.

“What we have done … it’s enormous . . . More than a grand slam,” he bragged at one point.

The recordings suggest Rocha was recruited by the Cubans in Chile in the 70s and may have become a State Department employee expressly to become a covert agent.

In the FBI recordings, he says his well-known right-wing persona was part of his cover. 

File photo of former US ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, talking to the press on the 11th of July 2001.

Gonzalo Espinoza | AFP | Getty Images

After retiring from the State Department in 2006, Rocha became an advisor to US Southern Command, a joint command of the United States military whose area of responsibility includes Cuba.

It was at this time he went into the claims business. 

Poblete is hopeful that Rocha’s debriefing with US officials might reveal more about what information he was giving to the Cubans regarding the claims, the claims process, and whether he was manipulating the settlement process to thwart it.

Lamb says she and the smaller claims holders feel forgotten.    

“We are not part of a large voting bloc, and we don’t have deep pockets to pay lobbyists on our behalf.”

Poblete said his client may indeed sue Rocha. “We’re going to use any and all instruments to aid Americans whose property was confiscated.”

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