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Among State of the Union Guests, Cuba Policy Divides


When President Barack Obama took the podium Tuesday night for his first State of the Union address since reestablishing a diplomatic dialogue with Havana, at least five people in the audience were listening intently to what he said about Cuba. And they were not U.S. lawmakers.

At the invitation of the White House, former detainee and government contractor Alan Gross and wife Judy were in attendance, one month after his release from a Cuban prison.

On the other side of the partisan divide were Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner's invitees, dissident Jorge Luis Garcia Perez and his wife Yris Perez Aguilera.

Garcia Perez spent nearly two decades as a political prisoner in Cuba and came to Washington with a message. "We feel cheated. We feel hurt - greatly betrayed - by the government that should have been our primary ally," he told reporters Tuesday.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also had a guest, Marlene Alejandre Triana, whose father, Armando Alejandre Jr., was killed when his plane was shot down by the Cuban military in 1996.

"What they've told us is that they want a hard line against the dictatorship, and not this gift of lifting the embargo and lifting sanctions," said Ros-Lehtinen, part of a core group of lawmakers who oppose the government of Fidel and Raul Castro, and who disagree with the U.S. president's new policy of diplomatic rapprochement that ended decades of isolationism toward the Communist-run country.

Although the decision to renew ties between Havana and Washington was unilateral, Obama needs congressional support to end a U.S. trade embargo on the island.

"Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere, removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba, stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people," President Obama said in his State of the Union address.

Despite support from Democrats and some Republicans on the decision, the fiercely anti-Castro isolationists spearheaded by Ros-Lehtinen have dug in their heels to oppose the president.

But Carl Meacham, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that partisan divide does not necessarily mean Congress will be at an impasse over the issue.

"I think we're going to see more change than what we think. I don't know if they are going to lift the embargo, but I think that there will be change insofar as how the Congress looks at this bilateral policy," Meacham told VOA's Latin America service.

Formal talks are set to begin between U.S. envoys and Cuban officials in Havana Wednesday.

Both governments need to listen to those affected by their diplomatic decisions, said Freedom House director for Latin America Carlos Ponce.

"The Cuban has been suspicious about the whole negotiation process," he told VOA. "The dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba needs to incorporate Cubans."

VOA's Latin America service contributed to this report.

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