MIAMI – Dueling narratives of the United States’s Cuba policy will be quietly on display during President Obama’s sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night, as guests of first lady Michelle Obama and members of Congress represent sharply differing views on America’s recent warming of relations with the island nation.
Representing the merits of engaging with the country: Alan Gross, the American contractor recently freed from a Cuban prison after five years as part of the deal to open diplomatic relations, will sit in the first lady’s box. Gross has expressed public support for normalizing relations with Cuba. On a call with reporters, a senior administration official called the invitation “certainly a way to highlight the change in policy after all this time.”
And Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Florida, will bring local businessman and Cuban American Jose Valiente, an advocate for closer ties with Cuba, as her guest.
Prominent Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and possible 2016 presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio are bringing guests whom they believe represent a rebuke to Obama’s policy. Boehner’s guest, dissident activist Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as Antunez, spent 17 years in a Cuban jail. The idea is to spotlight “victims of the continuing tyranny on Cuba,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Rubio, Republican of Florida, announced that his guest at the State of the Union would be Rosa Maria Paya Acevedo. Her father, Oswaldo Paya, was a well-known Cuban dissident who died in a car accident his family and fellow advocates believe was no accident.
“The Cuban government refuses to allow an investigation and has not given even a copy of the autopsy report to my family,” Paya Acevedo wrote in The Washington Post in an open letter to Obama in December. She urged the president to not only support an independent investigation but also to “support the implementation of a plebiscite for free and pluralistic elections in Cuba.”
Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is bringing Marlene Alejandre-Triana, the daughter of a pilot who was flying for an exile organization when Cuban forces shot down his plane, killing him and three others. One of the prisoners released in the Cuba deal was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the incident, and Alejandre-Triana said in a news conference after the deal was announced, “For the only person that we had responsible for what happened to be let go — it’s a slap in the face to my dad.”
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Florida, will bring local businessman and Cuban American Jose Valiente, an advocate for closer ties with Cuba, as her guest.
Reaction to the policy change doesn’t always fall along partisan lines. The office of Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who also opposed Obama’s opening of diplomatic relations with the country, did not immediately respond to a request about the senator’s choice of guest.
And this week, the State Department circulated a letter in support of the policy that was signed, among others, by former Republican officials such as former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz.
Talks between the country on the normalization of relations are expected to begin Friday.