02:28 - Source: CNN
American freed after five years in Cuba
Washington CNN  — 

Alan Gross, the American contractor whose release from prison in Cuba last month heralded a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations, will sit alongside First Lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

Gross and his wife Judy were listed among the two-dozen or so guests who were invited to the First Lady’s box, a high-profile seating assignment designated for Americans who the White House believes illustrate their policies at work.

At the time of his release in December, Gross was five years into a 15-year prison sentence for allegedly working on behalf of America to undermine Havana’s government.

Pols, business leaders back Obama’s Cuba push

On the day of his release, President Barack Obama announced the United States would renew diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in decades, loosening travel and trade restrictions and beginning the process of opening an embassy in Havana.

A new era in U.S.-Cuba relations

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), a staunch opponent of the U.S. rapprochement with Cuba, will counter Obama’s message on Cuba with a guest of his own, his office announced Monday.

Rubio will host Cuban activist Rosa María Payá as his official guest during Tuesday’s address. Paya is the daughter of prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who was killed in 2012 in a car crash that his relatives and fellow activists allege was a government assassination.

“In his remarks, I expect the president will bring up his new Cuba policy,” Rubio said in a statement. “While I disagree with the president’s new Cuba policy, I hope Rosa María Payá’s presence on Tuesday night will at least remind him that her father’s murderers have not been brought to justice, and that the U.S. is now, in fact, sitting at the table with them.”

Paya penned an open letter to Obama published last month in the Washington Post, criticizing Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba as the wrong step to foster democracy and a respect for human rights.

Cuba politics front-and-center during State of the Union

Others on the President’s State of the Union guest list include eight people who have written letters to President Obama, some of whom he’s met with during trips around the country over the past year.

The invitees also include middle-class Americans who the White House hopes will demonstrate their policies at work, including students who would benefit from an Obama administration proposal offering two free years of community college to qualified applicants.

Larry J. Merlo, the chief executive of CVS pharmacies, is also invited. His chain of drugstores became the first to stop selling tobacco products in 2014.

U.S. Congressional delegation travels to Cuba this weekend

CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.