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President George W. Bush listens to Argentina’s President Nestor Kirchner as the two hold a joint press availability Friday, Nov. 4, 2005, at the Hermitage Hotel in Mar del Plata, Argentina. (White House photo by Eric Draper)
Monday, December 11, 2023

Did Cuba Spy Rocha Help End the FTAA?

Cuban spy may have helped end the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

BY LATINVEX STAFF 

Manuel Rocha – the former US ambassador charged with spying for Cuba – may have played a key role in ending the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) as well as helping catapult leftist radicals into power in Argentina and Bolivia.

After it was revealed that Rocha had been a spy for Cuba for more than 40 years, analysts are taking a closer look at his career as a US diplomat in Latin America. Some have pointed to his irrational behavior during Bolivia’s presidential campaign in 2002, when he threatened US aid to the country if it elected leftist coca union leader Evo Morales – a move that catapulted Morales to second place in the election. Morales was able to win the next elections – in 2005.

Now, there is also speculation about whether Rocha could have played a deliberate part in sabotaging the FTAA, an ambitious initiative started by President Bill Clinton during the Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994.

At that summit, 34 leaders from the Western Hemisphere agreed to implement a free trade area, with negotiations concluded no later than 2005. Between 1994 and 2005 the FTAA was making steady progress, with heads of state, trade ministers and their technical teams meeting regularly on key subjects necessary to make the accord a reality.

However, at the fourth Summit of the Americas held in Mar del Plata in Argentina in November 2005, the country’s president Nestor Kirchner shocked attendees with his criticism of the FTAA. Subsequently he managed to get the rest of the Mercosur trade group (Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay) as well as Venezuela (led by Hugo Chavez) to openly oppose the FTAA, thus marking the abrupt end of the initiative. While the other 29 nations pledged to continue the process, it fizzled out. 

So what role did Rocha play? Rocha had served as the Charge d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina between 1997 and 1999, in effect being the top US diplomat in the country as the US didn’t have an ambassador there at the time. During that time he established close contacts with Eduardo Duhalde, who became president in 2001. Even when Rocha was named ambassador to Bolivia, the two stayed in close contact, according to Carlos Pagni, a well-respected political columnist for Argentina’s top newspaper La Nacion. 

Kirchner was able to become the presidential candidate thanks to strong support from Duhalde in a move that surprised other Peronists.

“Many of us never understood the reason for Duhalde’s insistence on nominating Kirchner as president,” a friend of Duhalde told Pagni. “It was suggested to him that he go with ‘el Gallego’ (Jose Manuel De la Sota) or with [Roberto] Lavagna, but he discarded all those recommendations and insisted on Kirchner, even though he was not doing well in the polls. I now believe that decision may have been recommended by Rocha. And that he [Duhalde] accepted it as a way to get along with the United States.”

Once in power, Kirchner not only ended the FTAA, but also implemented a series of investor hostile policies. In 2006 he nationalized the water company AASA (owned by France-based Suez and Vivendi) after refusing to let them increase prices. He was succeeded by his wife Cristina Fernandez, who also implemented investor-hostile policies, including nationalizating oil company YPF (then owned by Spain’s Repsol) in 2012.

“Was Kirchner’s candidacy, in a secret chess game, a Cuban project?,” Pagni asks in his column. “Is there a straight line, although hidden, between that nomination and the Summit of the Americas in 2005, when Kirchner and Hugo Chávez publicly humiliated George Bush in Mar del Plata? More precisely: when Kirchner, Chávez and, with greater discretion but more determination, Lula da Silva, overturned the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the most ambitious continental experiment that Bill Clinton had launched in Miami in November 1994. ”

Kirchner had from early on a very close relationship with Cuba, among whose mediators stood out a journalist: Miguel Bonasso, perhaps Fidel Castro‘s closest friend in Buenos Aires, Pagni points out. Bonasso entered the Chamber of Deputies in 2003, as part of a list promoted by Kirchner.

Meanwhile, Duhalde’s foreign minister Carlos Ruckauf recalls an encounter with the then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell where they talked about Evo Morales gaining traction in Bolivia.

“I don’t have the same information,” Powell told Ruckhauf then.

“Now one can understand. Rocha would never have given it to him,” Ruckhauf told Pagni.

Rocha’s diplomatic career also included serving as the Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council in Washington, DC.; as the Deputy Principal Officer of the U.S. Interests Section Havana, Cuba; Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and Deputy Political Counselor for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, Mexico.

In 1987 –during the height of the Contras war in Nicaragua – Rocha served as Politico-Military officer for the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The US supported the Contras, who were fighting the Cuba-backed Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

After leaving the US diplomatic service in 2002, Rocha held various prominent private sector jobs, including as president of the Barrick gold mine in the Dominican Republic, which represented the largest foreign investment in the Caribbean country. He also served as senior vice president for global corporate affairs for Xcoal Energy & Resources, a worldwide supplier of U.S.-origin metallurgical coals.

More recently he served as a senior international business advisor in the Government Solutions Practice Group of Foley & Lardner in Miami, from December 2022 to August 2023. In September he joined Spanish public relations firm Llorente & Cuenca’s Miami office as a senior advisor. The firm fired Rocha after his arrest was announced in early December.

At a hearing in Miami on December 4, Rocha was represented by Miami attorney Jacqueline Arango with the Akerman law firm, where she’s the co-chair of white-collar crimes and government investigations, CNN reports. 

“This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent,” US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement. “We allege that for over 40 years, Victor Manuel Rocha served as an agent of the Cuban government and sought out and obtained positions within the United States government that would provide him with access to non-public information and the ability to affect U.S. foreign policy. Those who have the privilege of serving in the government of the United States are given an enormous amount of trust by the public we serve. To betray that trust by falsely pledging loyalty to the United States while serving a foreign power is a crime that will be met with the full force of the Justice Department.”

The FBI Miami Field Office is investigating the case, with contributions by the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at www.flsd.uscourts.gov or at http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov, under case number 23-mj-04368.

 

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