HAVANA — The Obama administration's plans to bring U.S.-Cuba relations out of the Cold War era have been tripped up twice this month by a naggingly familiar Cold War issue: espionage.
First came the June 4 arrests of Gwendolyn Myers and Walter Kendall Myers, charged by the FBI with spying for Havana from inside the highest levels of the State Department for three decades. The arrests prompted several Cuban-American lawmakers to call for Obama to freeze engagement efforts with the Castro government.
Then this week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of five convicted Cuban agents, known as "The Cuban Five," who are serving long sentences in U.S. prisons. The men were sent to south Florida by the Cuban government in the 1990s to allegedly infiltrate anti-Castro militant groups, arrested in a 1998 FBI sting, and accused of operating as unregistered agents of the Cuban government.
Since then, the Cuban government has waged a massive public relations campaign on the men's behalf, plastering their likenesses across the country on billboards and posters while hailing them as national heroes.
Cuba has long held that the men gained no sensitive U.S. security information, and were sent to protect the country against attacks by anti-Castro groups. Their placement in maximum security isolation cells and the denial of U.S. visas for some of the agents' wives and other family members have compounded Cuba's ire.
In response to the court's decision, issued without written explanation, the president of Cuba's National Assembly lashed out at the White House.
“The judges chose to do what the Obama administration requested them to do: refuse to review the case of the Five,” said Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada, calling the Supreme Court decision “a day of shame and anger.”
Alarcon challenged Obama to release the agents if he truly represents "change," an indication that the Cuban government may push for a presidential pardon of the men in its talks with Washington. (Alarcon told the Associated Press late Wednesday that the court's decision would not hurt upcoming talks with the U.S. on immigration issues.)
Had the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, Obama administration officials might have been able to deflect Cuba's demands for the agents to be released, citing a need not to interfere with the legal process.
Instead, the campaign will now be directed squarely at Obama.
"The American president can and should withdraw the charges against the Five. They could be home tomorrow if Obama wanted," Alarcon said.
A statement from Cuba's National Assembly denounced the U.S. judicial system as "corrupt" and "hypocritical," and vowed to redouble efforts to free the "Five Heroes," as they're referred to in Cuba's state-run media.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has not commented on the court's decision. Castro, 83, writes frequently on a government website in a feature called "The Commander's Reflections," but hasn't been seen in public in three years. He has recently praised Obama in several written entries.
The legal history of the Cuban Five is as complicated and contentious as anything in the last 50 years of U.S.-Cuban hostilities.
The men were convicted in Miami in 2001 of operating as unregistered foreign agents, and Gerardo Hernandez, the group's alleged ringleader, was found guilty of murder conspiracy charges. Hernandez, along with two others, was given a life sentence, having allegedly passed along information that helped the Cuban Air Force shoot down two planes of an exile group that had violated Cuban air space, killing four.
Hernandez issued a statement following the court's decision, calling it evidence that “our case has been, from the beginning, a political case.”
Since the convictions, thousands of supporters from around the world have lobbied the U.S. government on the agents' behalf, including 10 former Nobel prize winners. A United Nations human rights body has urged U.S. authorities to review the case.
In 2005, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the men retried with a change of venue, siding with defense lawyers who argued that a politically charged atmosphere in Miami prevented a fair trial. But that decision was later reversed by the court's full panel of justices, and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.
Cuban authorities now insist they will continue to press their advocacy campaign. President Raul Castro has said he would be discuss a prisoner swap with Obama that would send Cuban political prisoners to the U.S. in exchange for the return of the agents.
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