The defrosting of U.S.-Cuba relations is set to occupy a central role in Tuesday’s State of the Union address – though not necessarily within President Barack Obama’s speech, which will focus on the economy.
Rather it’s in the boxes and galleries – where the White House and lawmakers seat their invited guests – that this year reflect the vast differences in opinion on Obama’s new policy toward the Cuba.
Sitting in the first lady Michelle Obama’s box – typically a pedestal for guests the White House wants to illustrate their policies – will be Alan Gross, the American contractor who, until December, was sitting in a Cuban prison.
His release last month heralded a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations, one that could eventually see an American embassy erected in Havana and unrestricted travel to the island.
That would require Congress to lift the longstanding embargo on trade with Cuba – a move Obama has advocated for, saying he’s gone as far as he can by himself to normalize relations between the two countries.
An official said Obama would reiterate that point during his State of the Union address.
A few seats away from Gross, in a separate section, will be Cuban dissidents invited by Republican lawmakers. The message, according to GOP aides, is that all is not well on in the communist nation.
House Speaker John Boehner invited two freedom and human rights activists from Cuba: Jorge Luis García Pérez, who spent 17 years in prison for denouncing the Castro regime, and his wife, Yris Tamara Pérez Aguilera.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who’s been highly critical of the White House Cuba plans, said he was inviting Rosa María Payá, the daughter of a Cuban activist whose death some allege was at the hands of the Cuban regime.
“I hope the administration takes the opportunity to demand reforms and changes in Cuban behavior before relations are normalized,” Rubio write in a statement when he announced his guest. “At the very least, President Obama and his administration should push the Cuban regime to allow an impartial, third party investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Oswaldo and Harold.”