Dueling positions on Cuba on display at Obama's State of the Union

Speaker John Boehner: Jorge Luis García Pérez and Yris Pérez Aguilera 'fight every day for freedom and human rights for the Cuban people'

WASHINGTON, D.C. - With President Barack Obama's diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba, Republicans plan to use his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night to show their disdain over his administration's move to defy a strategic embargo meant to promote a democratic change on the socialist island.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner has criticized the recent deal that prompted Raul Castro to free Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor sentenced to 15 years for crimes against the state. The 65-year-old -- who was held for five years in Cuba -- said he was part of a program meant to help the island's Jewish community to connect to the Internet.

Gross accepted an invitation to sit with first lady Michelle Obama during the address, which follows a midterm election that granted Republicans control of Congress.  Obama is expected to roll out his agenda for the seventh year of his presidency with strategies on how to help the middle class, as unemployment is down to 5.6 percent and gasoline prices are low.

"Over the last six years, we have been weighed down by the legacy of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," Obama said on a White House preview YouTube video to his 9 p.m. State of the Union address. "Now that we have fought our way through the crisis, how do we make sure that everybody in this country, how do we make sure that they are sharing in this growing economy?"


A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey showed his approval ratings have gone up. His recent proposals to help the middle class include tuition-free community college, improvements on paid family leave and raising taxes on the rich. Republicans contend that his strategy will be costly for businesses.

Obama's "proposals are so out of touch, you have to ask if there is any point to the speech," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said on Twitter.

On foreign policy, Republicans continue to criticize his position on Cuba as immoral and ineffective. A recent Wall Street Journal and NBC poll reported the majority of Americans back Obama on Cuba. New Iowa freshman Sen. Joni Ernst will be delivering the Republican rebuttal and Rep. Carlos Curbelo will be delivering the Spanish-language translation of Ernst's address.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Tuesday Ernst was a rising star. She also tweeted that she strongly approved of Boehner's guests to the State of the Union address --- which include Jorge Luis García Pérez, an anti-Castro regime activist. He is better known as "Antunez" and has been referred to as "the black diamond" and the Nelson Mandela of Cuba.


Pérez spent 17 years and 34 days in a Cuban prison for his dissent. Some of the  crimes he was accused of included setting fire to sugar cane fields to sabotage the regime, spreading enemy propaganda by saying in public that communism was a dystopia, and refusing to participate in "communist re-education."

While he was behind bars, Pérez wrote a book on prison conditions titled "Boitel Lives." International rights groups considered him a prisoner of conscience. Pope John Paul II asked Fidel Castro to free him. The political prisoners list keeps growing. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart has complained of reports that five of the 53 political prisoners released in the Obama deal have been re-arrested, which he says is a sign of the failure of the new approach.

"The stronger the regime becomes economically because of investment, the weaker the resistance becomes," García Pérez said in an interview with the Washington Examiner.


Yris Pérez Aguilera, who is married to Pérez, is also Boehner's guest Tuesday. She was also part of the Cuban democracy movement, she said has cost some activists their lives. She co-founded the Rosa Parks Feminist Movement for Civil Rights in Cuba and participated on several protests including a hunger strike. 

García Pérez and Pérez Aguilera "fight every day for freedom and human rights for the Cuban people," Boehner said on Twitter Tuesday morning.

Sen. Marco Rubio's guest is Rosa Maria Paya Acevedo, whose father Oswaldo Paya died in a 2012 car crash in Bayamo, Cuba. She believes the crash was arranged to stop his political activism with the Christian Liberation Movement, a group he founded in 1987.


"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," Rubio told Politico.

When the U.S. freed three Cuban spies who provided information that some believe lead to the death of Brothers to the Rescue pilots, Marlene Alejandre Triana said the decision felt like a "slap in the face."


Alejandre Triana will be Ros-Lehtinen's guest. Her dad, Armando Alejandre Jr., was one of the pilots who died while volunteering Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami organization that aimed to help Cubans attempting a treacherous journey in rafts to South Florida.

Rep. Kathy Castor's guest is Jose Valiente, a Cuba-American businessman in support of Obama's reforms. On Monday, the Americas society and Council of the Americas released an open letter commending Obama and expressing their "support for a new course on Cuba." Several businessmen signed it, including Gustavo Cisneros, of Cisneros Group of Companies and Mike Fernandez, of MBF Healthcare Partners.

"We applaud your guarantees that the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture and the International Red Cross will travel to the island," the letter said. It added a request that Obama "work with Congress to update the legislative framework with regard to Cuba so that it, too, reflects 21st century realities."

Ros-Lehtinen will be hosting a press conference with Diaz-Balart and Curbelo at 4:30 p.m., in her Washington office, 2206 Rayburn House Office Building.         

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