The idiosyncratic geopolitics of Jay-Z and Beyonce’s perfectly legal trip to Cuba

April 10, 2013

Beyonce and Jay-Z promote some cross-cultural exchange in Havana. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

After American music stars Jay-Z and Beyonce took a vacation to Cuba, which has been under a near-total U.S. embargo that prohibits most trade and tourism since 1962, a few members of Congress from Florida expressed concern that they may have broken the law. South Florida, after all, is home to a number of Cuban Americans living in exile from the Fidel Castro regime that had expelled them, a serious human rights abuse that is part of the rationale for the half-century of embargo.

But it turns out that the trip was legitimate, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which is officially tasked with overseeing regimes under sanctions. Treasury's assistant secretary for legislative affairs sent a letter to the lawmakers, which it shared with Tim Fernholz of Quartz, explaining that the trip had been pre-approved under an embargo exemption allowing "people-to-people educational exchange trips under specified conditions."

The letter explained that such trips must meet a threshold of "a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities" but that travelers "may engage in non-educational activities off-hours." This doesn't mean that the Treasury department scrutinizes the daily itineraries of every single American who visits Havana. In execution, they authorize certain tour groups that have demonstrated that their trips meet the "educational exchange" requirements. Jay-Z and Beyonce traveled with one such group, of which Fernholz says there are 220.

The intent of the exemption certainly sounds like it was originally about allowing some leakage in the economic embargo to foster greater mutual understanding between Cuban and American citizens. The idea is typically that this serves a political end: It makes Americans and Cubans less suspicious of one another and helps Cubans especially to see how prosperous and free and friendly those neighboring Americans are.

Such trips were common in, for example, 1990s China, before President Bill Clinton normalized trade relations with the country in 2000. I went on one of these trips, and it did not really feel like a vacation: Every hour was tightly managed, and we did little other than attend "cultural exchange" meals and shows. Down time was mostly spent at state-run stores full of fake jade and at the hotel bar.

That educational exemption makes a lot of sense in the context of the embargo on Cuba, but American citizens and policymakers seem to be less and less convinced of the logic of the embargo itself. A majority of Americans support normalizing relations, and the Obama administration has been easing travel restrictions, mostly for people with family ties to Cuba.

Some in the United States, particularly anti-Castro hawks, might be reasonably skeptical about whether these two American celebrities were really filling their days with rigorous educational activities and restricted their lounging to "off-hours," although the rule's wording is loose enough that generic tourism might meet most definitions of educational. With 220 licensed "educational" tour groups, it would not be crazy to suspect that their trips might be a little more on the tourism side, and little less about first-and-foremost promoting inter-cultural educational exchange.

Still, the frequency of these trips and their growing if unspoken normality – would there have been any fuss over the vacation if it hadn't been two celebrities and personal friends of the Obamas? – show the degree to which the economics are overtaking the politics on U.S.-Cuba relations. Cuban Americans want to send back remittances, and Americans want to stroll in Havana. Both violate the original spirit of the near-total 1962 sanctions, if not the increasingly tolerant letter. People and markets want normalized trade, and they're making it happen. The original spirit of the embargo is fading away.

Perhaps more importantly, the Cuban-American community is changing. It's long been dominated by political exiles and their families, who tend to oppose normalization with Cuba. But more Cuban Americans are economic migrants; people who moved to the United States for work but still have ties to Cuba and would like to be able to visit family there. Obama's loosened travel restrictions are meant to appeal to those Cuban Americans. In time, they'll likely outnumber the political exiles. And that's the day that political support for the embargo may well collapse.

At that point, the politics of the embargo may finally catch up to what looks more and more like the economic reality. Whether or not Jay-Z and Beyonce had violated the embargo by visiting Cuba (they hadn't), what's maybe more significant is how normal it now feels to see even famous American celebrities hanging out in a country that was once perceived as a significant military and ideological enemy. It's not exactly the Bahamas – the Castro regime is still a dictatorship with an ugly human rights record – but the U.S.-Cuba relationship has clearly eased considerably, whether our legislation reflects that or not.

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Caitlin Dewey | April 9, 2013