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Cuba Policy Debate Reflected In State Of the Union Guest List

President Barack Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba took center stage at the State of the Union Address.
Classic American cars used as collective taxis drive along a street in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. Desmond Boylan / AP

Miami, FL -- President Barack Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba took center stage at the State of the Union Address as guests invited by the White House and lawmakers reflected the different positions over the historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Alan Gross, the American contractor who was released last month after 5 years in a Cuban prison was the guest of First Lady Michelle Obama. His release was part of Obama’s move to normalize relations with the island.

In response, Republican legislators who have opposed easing trade and travel with the communist island invited activists and others who have been fighting against the Cuban government. Moreover, the Republican Spanish-language response to Obama's speech was given by freshman Cuban-American congressman Carlos Curbelo, who has opposed Obama's policy changes toward Cuba.

Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who opposes the Obama administration's overtures to Cuba, invited Rosa Maria Paya, daughter of late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya who died in a 2012 car crash. Paya has traveled through Europe and the U.S. to push for an investigation into the death of her father. She and many others have long said the death was not accidental, but rather arranged by the Cuban government to stop his activism with the Christian Liberation Movement he founded in 1987.

“The policy of the U.S. has changed but the government of Cuba has not changed towards the Cuban people," Paya told NBC News after landing in Washington DC to attend Obama’s address.

Those opposing the thaw in relations have pointed out that some of the political prisoners that the Cuban government released as part of the deal with Washington are back in prison.

“The Cuban government is not legitimate. This needs to be on the negotiation table with Cuba,” said Paya, who advocates for more transparency in the negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba. She hopes Washington asks Havana about the crash where her father and activist Harold Cepero died.

House Speaker John Boehner’s guests are political activist Jorge Luis Garcia Perez also known as “Antunez” and his wife Yris Perez Aguilera. Garcia Perez was a political prisoner for over 17 years and has been referred to as the “black diamond” and the Nelson Mandela of Cuba. Perez wrote a book about prison conditions while he was behind bars. Human rights groups considered him a prisoner of conscience and Pope John Paul II asked Fidel Castro to free him. His wife founded the Rosa Parks Feminine Civic Rights Movement to fight against human rights violations on the island.

Following Tuesday's State of the Union address, the couple spoke to MSNBC's José Diaz-Balart on Wednesday.

"As my wife said, these relations, what they do is strengthen the regime in detriment of the resistance. In a way that the government gets stronger, the opposition gets weaker. And last night in the speech, we saw something, which we think is ignorance and lack of respect to our agreements in the island," said Jorge Luis Garcia Perez. "President Obama mentioned Cuba—never mentioned opposition, never mentioned human rights, never mentioned political prisoners—only talked about the embargo as if what Cuba needs is only is money. As I said Cuba is hungry—we’re hungry, we’re hungry for freedom, for justice and for respect of human rights," he said.

Florida Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who also opposes the administration's change in Cuba policy invited Marlene Alejandre-Triana, whose father Armando Alejandre Jr., was one of the pilots killed in 1996 when his plane was shot down by the Cuban military. He was volunteering for Brothers to the Rescue, a anti-Castro Miami organization that helped Cuban rafters attempting to cross the Florida straits. The three Cuban spies released by the U.S. provided information that some believe lead to the death of the pilots. When the spies were released, Alejandre-Triana said it felt like a “slap in the face.”

Florida International University professor Eduardo Gamarra said establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba is the right thing to do.

“At the same time, you have to understand what those people standing up there are going through. Paya’s father was killed in a tragic car accident that may have not been an accident,” said Gamarra, speaking of Rosa Maria Paya.

“I find there is insensitivity by professors and others in the country who regard Cubans as being right-wing lunatics,” Gamarra said.

As policy changes, there has to be a minimum respect for those who experienced atrocities, whose relatives were executed by execution squad, according to Gamarra. “It’s just a humanly decent thing to do,” Gamarra said adding he understands where Cuban-Americans like Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio are coming from.

Sylvia Manzano, principal at the polling firm Latino Decisions, said that while Cuba is an important topic for Cuban American legislators, it’s not clear how much a dividing line it will be for the GOP in the future. “I’m not sure it’s a priority for the rest of the party in terms of what Obama issues they want to block,” she said.

An NBC/WSJ poll found 60 percent of Americans approve of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Nevertheless, for Republican Latino legislators, the issue is a clear demarcation line with President Obama.

“What they [Republican Latino lawmakers] are doing is representing their voters, their constituents, and that’s what good legislators do,” Manzano said.