Beyonce and Jay-Z in Cuba more controversial than past star visits; Rubio raises concerns

April 8, 2013
U.S. singer Beyonce and her husband, rapper Jay-Z, tour Old Havana, Cuba, Thursday, April 4, 2013. R&B's power couple is in Havana on their fifth wedding anniversary. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Beyonce and Jay-Z tour Old Havana, Cuba last Thursday, during their fifth anniversary trip. (Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo)

Updated 9:30 p.m. with Rubio comment

When Sean Penn went to Cuba to interview Raul Castro in 2008 the world shrugged: Of course Sean Penn went to Cuba! Danny Glover, it seems, goes there all the time with little fuss. Jim Belushi even served as guest of honor at a cigar industry event in Havana last year.

But Jim Belushi, it goes without saying, is no Beyoncé or Jay-Z, whose fifth-anniversary trip last week is slowly becoming an international incident.

Reuters and the New York Daily News reported late Monday that the stars were cleared for the trip by the U.S. government under a cultural license. But there has been no official confirmation of this from either the Carter family or the feds. (UPDATE, 4/10: Feds authorized trip as “educational”) On Monday night, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) added his voice to the concerns earlier raised by two vigilantly anti-Castro members of Congress.

“The Obama Administration should explain exactly how trips like these comply with U.S. law and regulations governing travel to Cuba,” Rubio said in a statement to Florida newspapers, “and it should disclose how many more of these trips they have licensed.” Rubio added that cultural-exchange waivers “have been abused by tourists who have no interest in the Cuban people’s freedom.”

Cuba's singer Omara Portuondo, third from right, embraces U.S. actor Danny Glover, second from right, during a gala dinner marking the end of the 15th annual Cigar Festival in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, March 2, 2013. The festival is a six-day bash that brings together hundreds of cigar sophisticates from around the world, and culminates with a gala and auction of humidors worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Cuban singer Omara Portuondo hugs Danny Glover at a cigar festival in Havana last month. (Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo)

Fact is, it’s not even that hard for non-celebrities to travel to Cuba these days.

“I was there this New Year’s to visit cousins,” Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, told us Monday. He’s also been authorized to go on “cultural” exchanges, one of the eight approved purposes allowed by the Treasury Department, which enforces the 53-year-old travel embargo. The Obama administration has also loosened up “people-to-people” exchanges to promote democracy.

But pure tourism — though pretty easy if you fly through a third country — is still a no-no for Americans and subject to substantial fines. The pictures of Beyoncé and Jay-Z dining out and strolling through Old Havana chafed Cuban-Americans. So far, the Treasury Department hasn’t mustered a response to Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart on whether it authorized the trip. “The Office of Foreign Assets Control has received the letter and is working on a response right now,” a Treasury spokesman told us.

In this Oct. 25, 2009 photo made available Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009, US actor Sean Penn walks outside the Heroes del Baire General Hospital in Nueva Gerona on the Isla de la Juventud in Cuba. Penn is in Cuba reporting for Vanity Fair magazine. (AP Photo/Mayangdi Inzaulgarat, Cubadebate)
Sean Penn in Cuba in 2009. (Mayangdi Inzaulgarat, Cubadebate/AP Photo)

(It’s not the first time a celebrity visit has ruffled feathers: Jack Nicholson’s 1998 get-together with Fidel Castro in Havana was denounced by Diaz-Balart’s predecessor on the House floor.)

A rep for the couple did not return calls for comment, nor did the lawmakers.

Earlier: Beyonce and Jay-Z trip to Cuba under congressional scrutiny4/7/13

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