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In what could be the setting for a gripping thriller, Cuba and the U.S. are reportedly locked in a standoff this weekend, with the fate of an American contractor hanging in the balance. NBC’s Michael Isikoff reports.

Cuba pushes swap: its spies jailed in US for American contractor held in Havana

It seems straight out of a Cold War spy movie. A group of Cuban undercover agents sneak into the U.S. and set up a secret pro-Castro network in south Florida — receiving instructions in code through late night radio transmissions from handlers in Havana. But the FBI gets wind, tails the agents, intercepts their messages and busts them, sending the agents off to federal prison, their ringleader for life.

Today, the story of those spies — called La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network — rolled up by the feds 14 years ago is barely known in the United States. But its members, now  known as the Cuban Five, are national heroes in Cuba – the subjects of mass demonstrations, their pictures on billboards and  posters – and their petitions for freedom are championed around the world by Nobel Prize winners, celebrities like Danny Glover, and even former President Jimmy Carter.

And they may now prove key to the tense impasse between Havana and Washington over the fate of jailed American contractor Alan Gross, arrested three years ago Monday for distributing sophisticated satellite equipment to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community and later sentenced to 15 years in prison for “acts against the independence and/or territorial integrity of the state.” (Gross says he was only bringing Internet access to Cuba.)

While the U.S. is demanding that Cuba release Gross, who visitors say is angry and frail, having lost 110 pounds in prison, Cuban officials say they are willing to do so only if President Barack Obama will  release the Cuban agents.

Read the full story on NBCNews.com.

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