Demonizing Travel: the Beyoncé and Jay-Z Anniversary Edition

The reaction, more precisely, the overreaction was brutal.

Just for visiting Cuba, Beyoncé and Jay-Z were serially accused of violating the law, taking a vacation, enriching a dictatorship, even ignoring or subsidizing racism.

Vicious words, and a familiar tactic.  Slagging celebrities has long been part of the larger effort to demonize virtually anyone for visiting Cuba; because, as opponents of better relations with Cuba understand better than most, there is no greater threat to the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba than giving more Americans the undisturbed right to see the island and its people for themselves.

We have seen dramas like this before. The NY Times examined the Beyoncé and Jay-Z controversy and called it “predictable.”  But, as we watched this story, we think it concluded with a happy ending.

Yes, in the future, less celebrated visitors to Cuba are still likely to be vilified; but, this tactic of demonizing travelers to stop Americans from going to Cuba may have finally run its course.

Here’s what happened.

Scene 1:  Express outrage and call for an investigation

As soon as the news broke, travel opponents found the chance to express indignation ahead of the facts too rich to pass up.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said, “I’m absolutely uncomfortable with the way, and concerned about, not just Jay-Z and Beyoncé but some of the travel, the ‘people to people’ travel, that has been occurring in Cuba.”

Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Díaz-Balart quickly sent a letter to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury Department agency that regulates travel to Cuba, in which they concluded the trip was illegal tourism but called on the government to investigate nonetheless.

Critics probably should have kept their powder dry, as Professor Ted Henken had the good sense to suggest, “J+Z’s” harshest critics ought to check out what they did in “#Cuba b4 sounding off.”

Scene 2:  Uh oh, the trip was legal.

Treasury complied with the request, and the investigation commenced.  But, it quickly became apparent, as Talking Points Memo and others reported the outrage was at odds with the facts.

Just days after receiving their letter, U.S. Treasury’s Assistant Secretary of Legislative Affairs Alastair M. Fitzpayne, wrote Reps. Díaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, and said:

“It is our understanding that the travelers in question traveled to Cuba pursuant to an educational exchange trip organized by a group authorized by OFAC to sponsor and organize programs to promote people-to-people contact in Cuba.”

Scene 3: Blame the investigators

Even before the entertainers were “absolved by Treasury,” Senator Marco Rubio worried that if the couple hadn’t violated the rules, then the rules were being misunderstood or mal-administered.

“If,” he said, the trip was fully licensed, “the Obama Administration should explain exactly how trips like these comply with U.S. law and regulations governing travel to Cuba and it should disclose how many more of these trips they have licensed.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen agreed:  If the tourist activities undertaken by Beyoncé and Jay-Z in Cuba are classified as an educational exchange trip, then it is clear that the Obama administration is not serious about denying the Castro regime an economic lifeline that US tourism will extend to it.”

Scene 4: Just Keep Throwing Punches

Why didn’t the Treasury letter put this issue to rest?  Why are reporters and commentators still talking about it?  Celebrities + Attacks = News.

If you say Jay-Z and Beyoncé just went to Cuba for a good time; if you liken travel to Cuba to visiting a zoo, or taking a tropical vacation, or if you call Senators “snowbirds” seeking warmer climes, even when they’re in Cuba trying to free Alan Gross, you’re going to make news.

Further, if you make the baseless charge that Rep. Kathy Castor, who supports removing the embargo, is acting like a foreign agent for the Castro brothers rather than pursuing the U.S. national interest, that’s fair game.

If you start listing places that Beyoncé and Jay-Z should have visited, like Senator Rubio did, it’s unlikely that anyone will remind him that he’s never been there himself.

Denigrating travelers makes good copy; demonizing travel costs the critics nothing.

The Surprise Ending:  An Old Tactic May Be Running Its Course

This is changing.  We may have reached the day our friend Stephen Rivers dreamed of – when cultural figures who visit Cuba open political space in our country to reexamine its policy of punishing the Castros by denying Americans their constitutional rights to visit the island.

The scholar, Arturo López-Levy calls it the ‘Beyoncé Effect,’ the chance to “take a fresh look at the U.S. policy toward Cuba with the candidness of an adolescent. It is difficult to defend a policy that stomps on the same rights it preaches.”

Senator Jeff Flake agreed, commenting on Twitter:  “So, @Beyoncé and Jay-Z @S_C_ are in Cuba? Fine by me. Every American should have the right to travel there.”

Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, is feeling it.  He told the Atlantic, “The awareness level has been raised [and] the future for people-to-people travel has never been brighter.”

By triggering the debate, their trip performed a real service.  We were reminded that what Beyoncé and Jay-Z did is legal; that celebrated leaders of Cuba’s civil society and many others want U.S. restrictions on travel to end; and that engaging with Cuba and focusing on problems that matter – like the threat of a scary hurricane season – is more important than slagging celebrities.

This tactic truly is storm and fury signifying nothing.


Rep. Kathy Castor returns from Cuba, advocates for normalization of relations

Returning from a four-day fact-finding mission to Cuba, Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) told a press conference in her district that “it’s time to try something new” in U.S. policy toward Cuba, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

Rep. Castor reported that “there are new, privately owned small businesses – restaurants everywhere, hotels and motels. Reform is happening, and much of the money is not going to support the actual government.  It is going to those individuals, just like the remittances.”  Rep. Castor is only the second Florida politician to travel to Cuba since 1959.  Calling for a normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, especially an end to the embargo and travel restrictions, Rep. Castor said that Cuba has “embarked on economic reforms that the United States of America should promote.”

Rep. Castor also announced that she intends to request that Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama “open talks to lead to greater trade and travel opportunities” between the U.S. and Cuba.  The two countries have much to gain from engagement with one another, stated Rep. Castor, including cooperation in offshore oil drilling, cultural exchange, and the opening of new markets for manufacturers.

With a nod to her Tampa constituents, as well as the celebrity travelers who also made headlines last week, Rep. Castor stated, “Every American should be able to travel [to Cuba], including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and including the people in the Tampa Bay area — and they should fly out of Tampa.”

U.S. and Cuba cooperate in kidnapping case

A Florida couple who kidnapped their two sons, taking them to Cuba, have been returned to the United States, reports the New York Times.

The couple, Joshua and Sharyn Hakken, who had recently lost custody of their sons, took the children from their grandparents’ house and traveled to Cuba on a sailboat.  Cuban officials swiftly informed the U.S. State Department that the family had arrived in Havana, and cooperated to expedite their return on Wednesday, reports the Associated Press.  The Hakken parents are now jailed without bond in Tampa, reports CBS, while their two sons have been reunited with their grandparents, the Associated Press reports.  The case evoked contrasts with the case of Elián González.

The U.S. Interests Section in Cuba said in a written statement, “We would like to express our appreciation to the Cuban authorities for their extensive cooperation to resolve this dangerous situation quickly,” reports the Associated Press.

U.S. government denies Cuban academics visas for LASA conference

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana has denied the visa requests of a number of Cuban academics intending to travel to the U.S. to participate in the annual conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), reports Café Fuerte.

Convening hundreds of regional experts, the LASA conference will take place from May 29 through June 1 in Washington, D.C.  Like last year, the visa denials have already begun rolling in as the conference nears.  Among those Cubans denied their visas are journalist and Professor Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, Professor Carmen Castillo, as well as bloggers Isbel Díaz Torres and Dimitri Prieto Samsónov of the Red Observatorio Crítico.  In response to the denials, Ted Henken of Baruch College said, “To refuse visas of these three bloggers and young intellectuals is a lost opportunity for the U.S. to hear critical and authentic voices from inside Cuba.”

Miami-Cuba maritime shipping ends due to financial and technical problems

The first direct maritime shipping route from Miami to Havana, since the imposition of the embargo, has terminated service less than a year after its start last July, reports the Associated Press.  The effort was plagued by a ship with mechanical problems, finances in arrears, and slow service provided by Cuba’s package delivery company.

Conducted by International Port Corporation (IPC), the heavily-used shipping service allowed U.S. citizens to ship medicine, toiletries, food, construction supplies, washing machines, and refrigerators at lower prices than by airplane. The service also facilitated shipments of humanitarian goods to Cuba from authorized NGOs, charities, and religious groups.

According to the Associated Press, IPC encountered financial problems, apparently missing payment deadlines for docks, warehouses, and other facilities.  Along with mechanical problems with the Ana Cecilia, due to seawater entering the boat, IPC’s financial setbacks on the Miami side of the operation slowed the shipping service, nearly shuttering it in mid-December. Additionally, the popular service was slowed in Cuba, as the volume of goods shipped in the holiday season was too large for Cuban authorities to process quickly.  It is not clear when, if ever, the IPC will resume direct maritime shipments between Miami and Havana.

U.S. government requires conditions if René González returns to Cuba for father’s funeral

Before a federal judge approves the request by René González to visit Cuba for his father’s funeral, U.S. prosecutors have asked that specific conditions be placed on the member of the Cuban Five limiting his activities, reports the Associated Press.  González seeks permission to return temporarily to Cuba for his father’s funeral.  Candido González, age 82, succumbed to a stroke.

The conditions proposed by U.S. federal prosecutors include the submission of a detailed itinerary prior to González’s departure to Cuba, that González not have contact with Cuban intelligence officials, and that González maintain regular contact with his probation officer in the U.S. throughout his stay on the island.

Over 31,000 Cubans became U.S. citizens last year

Cubans constituted the sixth largest nationality to become U.S. citizens in 2012, reports Café Fuerte.  According to a report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 31,000 Cubans became citizens, while 32,000 obtained permanent resident status in 2012.  This past year saw the second highest number of Cubans receive U.S. citizenship in the past 12 years.  In 2008, over 39,000 Cubans became U.S. citizens.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. are allowed to remain in the country and can request residency a year after their arrival.  Following this period, they qualify for the right — denied most U.S. citizens — to visit Cuba under the rights restored by President Obama for unlimited family travel. It is not yet clear whether the Cuban Adjustment Act will see any changes under the U.S.’s imminent immigration reform.


Fidel Castro founds educational complex

Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro has founded an educational complex in Havana, and attended Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony marking the completion of its construction, reports EFE.  Located in the Playa municipality of Havana, the complex will serve 140 children from preschool to sixth grade, and also houses a houses a library and a computer lab, reports state newspaper Granma.  The new educational complex was constructed over a period of 11 months and is named after current President Raúl Castro’s late wife Vilma Espín.  The former leader of Cuba spoke with local children, teachers, construction workers, and residents at the inauguration ceremony for nearly two hours, Havana Times reports.

Rising sea levels threaten coastal homes and ecosystems in Cuba

Tomás Escobar, director of Cuba’s National Environment Agency, said this week that rising sea levels around Cuba place the island’s coastal homes and ecosystems at risk, reports AFP.  Speaking at a panel held in Cuba Thursday regarding the country’s environmental policy, Escobar warned that at the current annual rate of increase in sea level, Cuba could lose up to 9,000 coastal homes and 2,700 square kilometers of coastal land by 2050.  Under President Raúl Castro, Cuba’s environmental policy has focused on hurricane preparedness and monitoring the rising sea levels.

Cuba creates regulations for Internet domain name usage

Cuba’s Ministry of Communications set new regulations this week for Internet domain names on the island, reports EFE.  The new regulations aim to create a “distributed, hierarchical, and scalable service with decentralized control,” according to the ministry’s announcement in the Gaceta Oficial.  As Internet usage expands on the island, the Ministry of Communications has begun work to set a regulatory framework for Internet services in Cuba.

Roberto Zurbano removed from Casa de las Américas editor position following NYT op-ed on racism in Cuba

Roberto Zurbano was removed from his position this week as an editor for the publishing house Casa de las Américas, reports the Associated Press.  Zurbano’s op-ed article about racism on the island ignited criticism and debate from other intellectuals in Cuba (listed here by blogger Sandra Álvarez).  Zurbano expressed frustration toward the New York Times, claiming that they mistitled his article, and cited the error as an “ethical violation.”  A spokesperson for the Times responded that the newspaper had worked with Zurbano over various drafts of the article, and that the newspaper will stand by its translation.  Despite the title’s possible mistranslation, Zurbano does not wish to retract anything in the body of his article, and has told reporters that he continues “to think the same ideas. There is still much to discuss about racism.”


Foreign journalists visit Cuba’s prisons on official tours

Journalists from the Associated Press and other international media outlets toured four of Cuba’s prisons early this week, reports the Associated Press. The first of their kind in nearly a decade, the tours were conducted in advance of the UN Human Rights Council’s periodic review of prisons on the island, a mandatory practice for member-nations, Havana Times reports.  During their tour of Cuba’s largest maximum-security prison, Combinado del Este, journalists observed workshops in which prisoners complete tasks including disassembling cars, repairing motors, and making shoes, reports the AP.  Roelis Osorio, director of Combinado del Este, told journalists that 27% of prisoners there work voluntarily and receive compensation, while 37% of prisoners take classes in the penitentiary.  Cuba’s 200 penitentiaries currently house a total of 56,000 prisoners across the island.

Mariel Port Special Development Zone soon to be operational

The Special Development Zone currently under construction in Cuba’s Port of Mariel will begin partial operations within the next several weeks, reports Havana Times.  Built to take over shipping operations from Havana Bay, the zone will feature tax exemptions for exports completed at the zone and export fee refunds for companies that bring benefits to Cuba’s economy.  Brazilian multinational Odebrecht will handle the project’s infrastructure, while Brazil’s government will provide $640 million of the total $900 million needed for the project.  Full-scale operations are projected to begin within the next two years, and are expected to attract foreign capital.

Around the Region

Presidential campaigns finish in Venezuela; election to be held Sunday

Venezuelans will return to the polls on Sunday to elect the country’s next president in a special election following the death of President Hugo Chávez in March, reports Havana Times.  The two candidates, interim President Nicolás Maduro and opposition coalition leader Henrique Capriles, concluded their brief campaigns this week amidst a flurry of international media coverage.  As in Venezuela’s October 2012 presidential election, the Carter Center will send a small delegation to accompany the process, reports WOLA’s Venezuela Human Rights and Politics blog.  Although Maduro is widely expected to win the election, Capriles has apparently refused to sign a National Election Council document pledging to recognize the results of Sunday’s election.

The Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) will be live-blogging Sunday’s election via The Americas Blog.

Full court ruling on Salvadoran General Vides Casanova’s deportation is released

Although immigration Judge James Grim’s ruling in favor of the deportation of Salvadoran ex-General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova had been known since February 2012, the U.S. Justice Department has just recently released the full ruling, including reasoning and documentation, reports the New York Times.  Gen. Vides Casanova is implicated in serious human rights abuses during El Salvador’s civil war, and played a role in the 1980 rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen.  He is now appealing his deportation order.

After holding the decision secret in order to protect Gen. Vides Casanova’s privacy, the Justice Department acceded to a request by the New York Times, that it be released, due to the potentially precedent-setting nature of the case combined with deep public interest in its outcome.

Trial of Ríos Montt: Defense presents military experts, prosecution presents forensic experts, Matt Eisenbrandt, Open Society Justice Initiative

Matt Eisenbrandt of the Open Society Justice Initiative reports on the progress of the trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt, the first former head of state to stand trial for genocide in his home country.  Ríos Montt’s defense team presented its first witnesses Thursday, as the prosecution responded with forensic evidence from massacres, and testimony from an international law expert continuing through Friday.

Also on Friday, Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina visited the Ixil region of the country just six days after a prosecution witness implicated him as a leader of state counterinsurgency forces that carried out massacres in the region.  President Molina arrived in the Ixil Triangle to distribute 10,000 bags of food aid and visit social programs, according to Prensa Libre, while at the same time denying the visit had anything to do with the Ríos Montt trial.

Recommended Reading

Special Feature: Along the Malecón: Rags and riches on Cuba money trail

Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton examines current funding to USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion partner-organizations. The lack of transparency and accountability in the use of these funds continues to leave journalists and Cuba policy hardliners questioning whether U.S. taxpayer dollars are being used effectively.

Rapprochement with Cuba, Josh Clement, Center for International Policy

Josh Clement of the Center for International Policy (CIP) outlines the proceedings of a conference it hosted on March 23, titled Rapprochement with Cuba: Good for Tampa, Good for Florida, Good for America.  The conference featured Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) and other speakers, and sought to encourage engagement between the U.S. and Cuba through a dialogue based on cooperation and respect. Panelists encouraged the American public to write to their state representatives to request that they make engaging with Cuba a priority.

Miguel Díaz-Canel: The man tipped to lead Cuba, Sarah Rainsford, BBC News

Sarah Rainsford takes a look at Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel from the perspective of his home town, Santa Clara. Díaz-Canel’s practical management style came to light while he was the head of the Communist Party in Santa Clara, during the economic crisis of the 1990s. Described by townspeople as an honest leader with a personal touch, he brings the promise of a more socially open Cuba, as he allowed for the flourishing of Cuba’s most prominent gay club, El Mejunje, under his watch.

The Cuba Lobby, William LeoGrande, Foreign Policy Magazine

William LeoGrande examines the ways in which U.S. policy toward Cuba has been influenced by the Cuba Lobby over the past 50 years.  He writes: “When a courageous U.S. president finally decides to defy the Cuba Lobby with a stroke as bold as Nixon’s trip to China, she or he will discover that so too the Cuba Lobby no longer has the political clout it once had.”

Recommended Viewing

The gang legacy of Central America’s wars, David Gonzalez, New York Times

David González of the New York Times reports on photojournalist Donna De Cesare’s newest book, titled Unsettled/Desasosiego. The book contains photographs highlighting the effects of violence, both political and gang-related, that has gripped Central America and immigrants from the region over the last 30 years.

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