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A remnant of the Cold War

Espionage cases could complicate Obama's Cuba strategy.

A motorcyclist drives by a mural which refers to five Cuban agents held in prison in the U.S., in Havana, June 16, 2009. The words on the mural read: "Five Heroes, Five voices." (Desmond Boylan/Reuters)

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.