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Shawn Carter could have been any American visitor strolling through the streets of a Caribbean town, dressed in standard-issue tourist fare of blue T-shirt and shorts, fedora on head and fat cigar in mouth. His wife, Mrs Carter, as she likes to be addressed, did that other classic tourist thing: she slung a large and ostentatiously expensive camera around her neck.
Despite what they presumably thought was their clever tourist disguise, the Carters caused quite a splash when they came to town last week, so much so that local police had to be called out to keep the adoring crowds at bay. As the blogger of the Cuban government, Yohandry Fontana, put it: “Beyoncé takes Havana by storm“.
It was partly who the visitors were: the undisputed First Couple of popular music. He a hip-hop star turned impresario and now sports agent, she about to embark on a world tour of The Mrs Carter Show.
The kerfuffle was also a product of the destination Beyoncé and Jay-Z selected for a short break to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. Havana is not quite as accustomed to dealing with mega-celebrity as, say, Beverly Hills or Monte Carlo.
It also happens to still be subject to a trade embargo imposed by the US government that has lasted substantially longer than the Bey-Jay marriage. Ten times as long in fact, being now in its 53nd year.
The embargo technically prohibits all US tourism to the island, which is inconvenient for Beyoncé and Jay-Z because as a result of the unexpected attention their visit attracted, the inevitable inquisition has followed. Two Republican representatives for south Florida, whose constituents include many enduringly embittered Cuban exiles, have raised the issue of the Carters’ visit with the Obama administration, denouncing it as having provided sustenance to the “murderous” Castro regime.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart have sent a joint letter to the Treasury Department official responsible for policing the embargo to demand to be told who approved the Carters’ travel and for what purpose. The letter points out that “tourist activities” are covered by the ban and complains that the trip was used by the Castro regime for propaganda purposes.
“The restrictions on tourism travel are common-sense measures meant to prevent US dollars from supporting a murderous regime that opposes US security interests at every turn and which ruthlessly suppresses the most basic liberties of speech, assembly and belief,” the politicians write.
To add to the heat, the anti-Castro lobby group Cuba Democracy Advocates, based in Washington, accused the couple of being “extremely insensitive”. “There are women getting beaten on a daily basis, people are fighting for their freedom,” the group’s director Mauricio Claver-Carone told celebrity news website TMZ.
The congressmembers’ letter doesn’t say it overtly, but there is an implicit accusatory tone to their complaint that suggests complicity between the Carters and the Obama administration. The music stars are close to Barack and Michelle Obama – Jay-Z was an opening act for the president at several of his campaign election last year, and Beyoncé famously lip-synched the national anthem at his second inauguration.
Obama has also loosened in recent years the noose tied around Cuba’s neck under the trade embargo. Under the revised terms, Americans can visit the island, though trips are still restricted to academic, religious or cultural exchanges in which participants must have a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba”.
By that standard, how does the Carter visit hold up? There was certainly a cultural aspect to it. There was that cigar, for starters, and the typical Cuban creole food – fish, chicken, black beans and rice – they ate at the renowned paladar, La Guarida. You don’t get that quality of island cooking every day in Brooklyn, the couple’s more familiar stomping ground.
You could also put into the “cultural” category the stroll through Old Havana, and the time the couple spent on Thursday night at El Gato Tuerto, a legendary Havana nightclub, followed by the Casa de la Musica where according to Reuters they danced to salsa until dawn.
As for spending one-on-one time with Cuban individuals, that is not so clear. The blogger Fontana said that Beyoncé had been booked to have lunch with “important figures of Cuban culture”, but the only certain interaction was with her mother, Tina, and Jay-Z’s mother, Gloria Carter, who tagged along for the ride.
All in all, bearing in mind the Rottweiler-like tenacity of the Cuban exile community, this wrangle has the potential to run for some time. It is unlikely, though, to be causing Mr and Mrs Carter much loss of sleep.
The worst that could befall them were they found to have broken the embargo is a fine, which for them would be as onerous as flinging a little loose change at a porter at the end of a particularly pleasant holiday.
Shortly before President John F Kennedy extended trade restrictions with Cuba into a near watertight embargo in February 1962, he asked his press secretary Pierre Salinger to nip out and buy for him 1,200 of his favourite brand of Petit H Upmann Cuban cigars. No need to suffer the deprivations personally.
Since first restrictions were imposed in October 1960 – in retaliation to the decision of the revolutionary Cuban government to nationalize the property of American citizens and companies –that same contradiction between official toughness and personal flexibility has endured. Now in its 53rd year, the law – dubbed el bloqueo or blockade by the Cuban regime – is frequently flouted, with Americans travelling to the island via third-party countries such as Canada or Mexico.
Politically, the US Congress and White House continue to pay lip service to the embargo, largely out of fear of the electoral repercussions were either main party to displease the Cuban exiles who continue to wield significant influence in the key swing state of Florida. But over the years the vice has been loosened.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter allowed the block on travel to Cuba to lapse, and though Ronald Reagan reimposed it the current prohibition is not on US citizens physically visiting the island but on them spending money as a tourist without a license.