MEXICO CITY — To anyone passing through Havana's international airport, or by the U.S. Interests Section on the Cuban capital's seaside boulevard, the images of the Five are persistently familiar.
On billboards and wall-size posters, they are honored as heroes in Cuba. In the U.S., they are little-known convicted spies and saboteurs.
If one person's freedom fighter is another's terrorist, the case of the Cuban Five illustrates the chasm that remains between Havana and Washington, despite recent overtures that are gradually easing tensions left over from the Cold War.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear what may be the final appeal for the five Cuban intelligence agents, who were convicted in 2001 of spying in the United States on behalf of the government of then-President Fidel Castro.
Defense attorneys had argued it was impossible for the men to receive fair trials in Miami, heart of a Cuban exile community where anti-Castro sentiment runs high, and that the convictions should be overturned because of a biased jury pool. (Even nearby Fort Lauderdale would have been a better venue, they had argued.)
But the court, without comment, declined to review the case, letting stand a 2008 appellate decision that said the men had failed to prove they received an unfair trial.
"Based on the experience we've had, I'm not surprised by the decision," one of the defendants, Gerardo Hernandez, said, according to the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina. "I have no confidence in the U.S. justice system. . . . Ours has been a political case from the start."
Ricardo Alarcon, head of the Cuban parliament, branded the decision "shameful," and the government body he leads decried the United States' "corrupt and hypocritical" system dedicated to "brutal and cruel treatment of our brothers."
Cuban exile groups in Miami praised the court's action, which came despite the pleas of 10 Nobel laureates and a number of international jurists to review the case.
The men were arrested in Miami by the FBI in 1998 and convicted three years later by a federal jury on charges of acting as illegal foreign agents and conspiring to obtain military secrets from U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Miami.
Hernandez, the group's leader, who came to the U.S. as an immigrant, was also found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of four pilots from a Miami-based exile organization who were shot down by Cuban fighter jets in 1996. The organization, Brothers to the Rescue, worked to help people flee Cuba; the Cuban government said the planes violated the country's airspace.
Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison, and the other men received lesser terms.
Cuba has maintained that the agents were gathering information on "terrorist" exile groups plotting to harm the island nation and were not spying on the U.S. military.
In an interview in Havana this year, the brother of defendant Rene Gonzalez argued that trying the men in "hostile" Miami was absurd. He and others suggested the best way for the U.S. to improve its dealings with Cuba would be to free them. "It would be good for there to be better relations," Roberto Gonzalez said. "But I think that is almost impossible without resolving the case of the Five."
Cuban officials have indicated that they will continue to press the case of the Five and raise the issue in any talks that might be held with U.S. envoys. But the U.S. government considers the case closed, that the men were fairly convicted, and that the issue is not a priority.
The sharply opposing views are an indication of the nations' different perspectives fed by half a century of estrangement. U.S. officials continue to insist, for example, that Cuba release jailed dissidents and other political prisoners.
President Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother last year, reacted recently to the demand this way:
"A gesture for a gesture. We will send those prisoners" to freedom in the U.S., he said.
"But give us back our five heroes."