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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How did a former U.S. ambassador come to be arrested as an agent of Cuba?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Federal prosecutors allege that Victor Manuel Rocha worked for Cuba for decades. His initial court appearance yesterday was a startling turn in his long career. He served in several government posts relating to Latin America.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering his case. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is he?

LUCAS: So Rocha's 73 years old. He was born in Colombia, became a U.S. citizen in the late '70s and a few years after that started working for the State Department. And he had a very successful career. He worked in various U.S. embassies in Central America in the 1980s. He served on the National Security Council in the mid-'90s. He was actually the director of an office that's responsible for, among other things, Cuba. He later served in a senior post for the U.S. Interest Section in Cuba and ultimately ended his career as the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia from 1999 to 2002. After he left the State Department, he went into the private sector. He worked as an adviser to the commander of the U.S. military Southern Command for several years. That command is responsible for - you may have guessed it - Cuba, among other things.

INSKEEP: OK.

LUCAS: But prosecutors say that all that time, dating all the way back to 1981 and up to the present day, Rocha was also secretly working as an agent of the Cuban government.

INSKEEP: Wow. What are the charges that would illustrate that?

LUCAS: Well, there are three charges in a criminal complaint against Rocha thus far - conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government and using a passport obtained by false statement. But here's how Attorney General Merrick Garland kind of summed up what prosecutors say Rocha was up to.

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MERRICK GARLAND: The complaint alleges that Rocha sought out and used his positions within the United States government to support Cuba's clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against the United States.

LUCAS: Now, Garland only briefly talked about this case yesterday, but even in his limited remarks, he did give a sense of the magnitude of this case. Here he is again.

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GARLAND: This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent.

INSKEEP: OK, he talked only briefly, so we don't have a good idea of what he did on a day-to-day basis over those 40 years. But how did the Justice Department catch him?

LUCAS: Well, it's a good question as for how this went on as long as it did, but court papers say the FBI got a tip of some sort in 2022 that Rocha was working with Cuba's intelligence services. And so the FBI ran, in essence, a sting operation against him. A little over a year ago, an undercover FBI agent sent Rocha a text on WhatsApp saying that they had a message for him from his, quote-unquote, "friends in Havana." Rocha ended up meeting the undercover agent three times. The FBI, of course, had Rocha under surveillance at this point, so they recorded all three of these meetings. Court papers include excerpts from them in which Rocha makes incriminating statements about work that he says that he's done at the direction of Cuban intelligence. He allegedly said that Cuban intelligence asked him to lead a normal life, and so he created a legend, which is intelligence lingo for a backstory, of a right-wing person. Court papers say he bragged about what he'd done for Cuba, and he allegedly told the undercover agent that he was still, at this point, dedicated to the Cuban cause.

INSKEEP: I want to understand this - a right-wing person, but also bragging about what he'd done for Cuba, meaning that in public he was, like, anti-Cuba, anti-communist. But privately he was bragging about what he's doing. Is that what you're saying?

LUCAS: That's correct. Yes.

INSKEEP: So when do we learn more about what he allegedly did?

LUCAS: Well, he was in court yesterday. Prosecutors suggested in court that they are going to bring more charges in this case. A detention hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, so there may be more to learn in the days and weeks to come.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Next, we'll try to understand why the war between Israel and Hamas has spread to the waters of the Red Sea.

MARTIN: That's where commercial ships have come under fire and where the U.S. Navy says it has fired back. In the most recent incident, the Houthi rebels, who control much of Yemen, allegedly opened fire. The Iranian-backed group has said that, quote, "all Israeli ships or those associated with Israelis," unquote, may become targets.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joe Hernandez is covering the story. Joe, good morning.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, I understand that the Houthis, like a lot of groups connected with Iran, are supporting Hamas and consider Israel their enemy. But why would they be attacking ships in the Red Sea?

HERNANDEZ: Well, the Houthis say they're attacking ships with links to Israel. But one expert I spoke to about this also says the Houthis feel emboldened right now to carry out these kinds of attacks. The group overthrew Yemen's government in 2014 and in the years since then has managed to withstand this outside military intervention led by Saudi Arabia, which, of course, is a rival to Iran. So the Houthis now feel like they're in a position to grow from a domestic power to a regional one. Thomas Juneau is a professor at the University of Ottawa. He studies the Middle East. And here's how he put it to me.

THOMAS JUNEAU: When the Gaza war started in early October, to me, it was a matter of time before the Houthis would become involved militarily.

HERNANDEZ: Juneau says there are a couple other reasons for these attacks from the Houthis. One is they send a message of support to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and the other is that it helps them gain favor at home in Yemen, where he says there's wide support for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel.

INSKEEP: OK. So what happened in this most recent incident?

HERNANDEZ: Well, the U.S. Central Command reported that the Houthis attacked three vessels over several hours on Sunday, apparently using both ballistic missiles and drones. The naval destroyer, the USS Carney, was on patrol in the area at the time and responded to several of the attacks, in some cases shooting down several Houthi drones. In a statement, CentCom said the attacks were, quote, "fully enabled by Iran" and that the U.S. would consider, quote, "all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners." And a Houthi military spokesman did take credit for attacking two of the ships, according to the Associated Press.

INSKEEP: OK, you said all appropriate responses. Other than shooting down incoming projectiles, what can the United States do about this?

HERNANDEZ: Well, it's unclear. It's not the first time the Houthis have targeted ships in the Red Sea, nor is it the first time they've targeted U.S. naval vessels. In 2016, missiles were fired from coastal Yemen toward a U.S. Navy destroyer twice in four days, and the U.S. responded at that time by firing missiles of its own at three radar installations in Houthi territory, and that stopped the Houthis from targeting American ships for several years. But Thomas Juneau says it's unclear if a similar U.S. response today would have the same effect.

JUNEAU: Can the U.S. reestablish a form of mutual deterrence in the Red Sea with the Houthis? It will be much more difficult to do that today than in 2016, because the Houthis are far more powerful now than they were before, and they feel much more emboldened.

HERNANDEZ: So what he says does seem clear is that the U.S. and Iran don't want any direct escalations with each other. And I should add that other Iran-backed militant groups have carried out some attacks on U.S. forces, but they've mostly been on a smaller scale, and the U.S. has responded with limited airstrikes.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joe Hernandez, thanks so much.

HERNANDEZ: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected president, looms over his country's history.

MARTIN: When he died on this day 10 years ago at the age of 95, he was known to the world as a visionary leader, and at home in South Africa, he was often called by his clan name, Madiba, as a gesture of affection and respect. But the legacy of the man who helped pull the nation out from under the shadow of apartheid is still being debated.

INSKEEP: Kate Bartlett is following that debate from Johannesburg. Welcome.

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so this happens in the United States. Historical figures look different to different generations. We look at different aspects of their lives. So what is happening with Nelson Mandela's legacy?

BARTLETT: By most people, I'd say he's still generally revered. But there is a small vocal group, mainly people on university campuses, young people, who call him a sellout - hard to believe after he spent 27 years of his life in jail for a cause, Black liberation, and achieved that cause. But they say he should have done more after the end of apartheid to increase Black economic clout in South Africa and say he was too concerned with being conciliatory. Of course, his supporters point out that he did this to avoid a civil war. Most of the people I spoke to while reporting this story are grateful Mandela bought them freedom but angry at how politicians then wasted the opportunities they had to make their lives better. They're angry at the huge unemployment rates, a power crisis that sees almost daily blackouts, constant news stories about government graft.

INSKEEP: Oh, they're thinking about what came after liberation. And is some of the blame going to Mandela's party, the African National Congress?

BARTLETT: Absolutely. I would say his once-storied ANC is definitely in trouble. The ANC, as you know, has been in power since the end of apartheid, enjoying huge popularity as the liberation party. But now analysts are actually predicting it will be punished at the polls next year. And many blame former President Jacob Zuma, who was one of Mandela's successors, for that, because under his watch, extensive corruption occurred. There was a huge surge of hope when the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was elected. He promised to clean things up. But he's been a disappointment to many in being slow to act and putting party before country. Of course, the ANC still trades on Mandela's legacy for their own electoral benefit, as does...

INSKEEP: Sure.

BARTLETT: ...Pretty much every other political party in South Africa, all asking what would Mandela do? Justice Malala, a South African author of the book "The Plot To Save South Africa" - in his view, the ANC is now seen as a party of, as he puts it, dishonesty and corruption.

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JUSTICE MALALA: Many in South Africa regard the ANC as the antithesis of Mandela. No matter how much the party attempts to burnish its name using Mandela's image, the public just isn't buying it anymore.

BARTLETT: The real test will be at general elections next year. It will be 30 years since the first democratic vote, and numerous polls are predicting the ANC will lose its majority for the first time and have to enter a coalition government.

INSKEEP: Is daily life better 30 years after the end of apartheid?

BARTLETT: Well, it's a nuanced question. Many South Africans still live in dire poverty. Money lost to corruption could have bettered the lives of millions. But ultimately, all adult South Africans now have the vote and can vote out their government, and they're equal under the law, regardless of race. So in that sense, yes, it's a resounding yes.

INSKEEP: Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg, thanks so much.

BARTLETT: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.