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A remnant of the Cold War

Espionage cases could complicate Obama's Cuba strategy.

"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.

More on Cuba:

The future of Cuba

Cuba libre

US rapprochement with Cuba