Washington (AFP) – Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor released from prison in Cuba last month, will be among 23 guests of First Lady Michelle Obama as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, the White House said Monday.
Others invited to watch the annual presidential speech to Congress from the First Lady’s box Tuesday night include an astronaut, a 13-year-old boy from the South Side of Chicago and an army veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan.
The White House traditionally invites special guests the president can single out for mention during his speech, putting faces to his policies.
Highlighting Obama’s surprise agreement to begin normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba after 50 years as adversaries will be Gross and his wife Judy.
Gross, who was freed December 17 as part of the deal, spent five years in Cuban jails for distributing laptops and communications equipment to the island’s small Jewish community as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“For five years, from thousands of miles away, Judy fought every day for Alan’s release and never gave up hope,” the White House said.
Others on the list are ordinary Americans who exemplify aspects of the administration’s programs — a community college student, an auto worker, a woman who trained to be a construction worker, a small business owner, a college student brought to the United States as a child by her undocumented parents.
Many first came to the attention of the White House because of letters written to Obama, but 13-year-old Malik Bryant of Chicago got notice with a letter to Santa: “All I ask for is for safety I just wanna be safe,” he wrote. A non-profit forwarded the letter to the White House.
Jason Gibson met Obama while recovering from war wounds at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington — an ordeal that involved 21 surgeries.
“Despite losing both legs and being unable to use prosthetics, he took up surfing and skiing, completed multiple marathons on a hand cycle, and even obtained his pilot’s license,” the White House said.
Also on the guest list is astronaut Scott Kelly, who will launch in March to the International Space Station, on a mission to become the first American to spend a year living and working on the orbiting platform.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, meanwhile, said he had invited Rosa Maria Paya, the daughter of a Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya who was killed in a 2012 car crash in Cuba to be his guest at the speech.
“While I disagree with the president’s new Cuba policy, I hope Rosa Maria Paya’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,” Rubio said.
Cuban authorities ruled that the driver, a Spanish activist Angel Carromero, was speeding and lost control of the car.
But Paya’s daughter and Carromero have charged that the accident was deliberately caused by another vehicle that rammed the car from behind.
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb