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America’s flawed Cuba policy: Bey and Jay edition

America’s flawed Cuba policy: Bey and Jay edition

Last week, Beyonce and Jay-Z, the royal couple of American pop music, made a surprise visit to Cuba to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. Strolling through the streets of Havana, the celebrities were greeted by huge crowds, and Cuban authorities reportedly scrambled to have the necessary security in place for their visit. Setting aside the delicious irony that two of the wealthiest entertainers alive received a rapturous welcome from the citizens of one of the few remaining communist countries, the trip raises the question: Doesn’t the United States have an embargo in place against Cuba?

Officially, Americans remain barred from traveling to Cuba. But the myriad exceptions to that policy pave the way for determined travelers to visit the island nation. As my colleague Uri Friedman has explained, a prospective tourist only needs to find a government-approved "purpose" — the categories here include family ties, religious trips, non-commercial business activities, cultural activities, education, journalism, and diplomatic missions — in order to gain travel approval. With a little creativity, you can find a workaround to the travel ban.

Bey and Jay seem to have done exactly that. According to a Reuters report citing sources inside the Treasury Department (the agency responsible for approving Cuba visits), the couple’s trip was approved as a "people-to-people" cultural visit that included meetings with local artists and a stroll through Old Havana with one of the city’s foremost architects, Miguel Coyula. While in Cuba, the couple also visited an art school, dined at some of Havana’s top restaurants, and went to a couple clubs, some of which featured live music. Sounds like a great Caribbean vacation "cultural visit."

Republican members of Congress with ties to Florida’s hard-line Cuban-American  community are now howling about the visit. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said that she found it "very disconcerting that these two mega stars would go down to Cuba and vacation as if they were in a tropical paradise and not say one word about the brutality their hosts display against all pro democracy activists." And Sen. Marco Rubio weighed in to complain that the kinds of cultural-exchange programs under which the couple’s trip was allegedly sanctioned "have been abused by tourists."

And doesn’t Rubio have a point here? In 2011, the Obama administration announced a liberalization of the rules governing travel to Cuba, but the White House has taken no other meaningful action to reform the Cold War-era policies that govern U.S. relations with the island.

And yet when Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate and an initial opponent of the embargo, tried to exploit Obama’s opening toward Cuba by calling the policy "appeasement" of the Cuban regime, the Obama campaign fired back with a defensive statement. Obama, a campaign official told the New York Times, "has repeatedly renewed the trade embargo with Cuba, pressured the Castro regime to give its people more of a say in their own future, and supported democracy movements on the island." The result is a kind of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t rapprochement with the Cuban regime.

It all underscores the silliness of U.S. policy toward Cuba: The superstar who sang at Obama’s inauguration can gladly traipse down to Cuba for a "cultural visit." But God forbid the White House acknowledge or try to reform a failed policy.