WASHINGTON (JTA) – Alan Gross and his wife, Judy, will be guests of first lady Michelle Obama at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was released from a Cuban jail on Dec. 17 after spending five years imprisoned for crimes against the state stemming from his efforts to hook up the island’s small Jewish community to the Internet.
“That same day – with Alan’s unjust captivity resolved – the president announced to the world that the United States was changing its relationship with the people of Cuba,” the White House said Monday in announcing the 23 guests who will be seated in a special box when Obama addresses Congress on Tuesday night.
“In the most significant changes in policy in more than 50 years, the President directed that we would begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” it said.
The first ladies traditionally choose guests to whom their spouses can refer when announcing policy plans for the coming year. Gross’ presence signals Obama’s intention to press forward on changes with Cuba despite opposition in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Other guests named in the release suggest Obama will refer to his signature health care plan and concerns about police brutality and poverty, among other issues.
Another guest will be Scott Kelly, who will be the first American to live and work aboard the International Space Station for an entire year.
“Scientists will compare medical data from Scott and his twin brother, Astronaut Mark Kelly, to gain insight into how the human body responds to longer durations in space,” the White House said.
Mark Kelly is married to Gabrielle Giffords, the Jewish Democratic congresswoman who was shot in the head in 2011 by an assailant as she met with constituents at a strip mall in Tucson, Ariz. He retired as an astronaut that year to attend to Giffords, who left the Congress, and has since started a gun control advocacy group with her.