Demonizing Travel: the Beyoncé and Jay-Z Anniversary Edition

April 12, 2013

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.

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When Spring Comes to Washington

April 5, 2013

Tourists, from the U.S. and around the world, flock to Washington at spring time.  They come to hear echoes of this nation’s past, learn about its founding principles, and think about their relevance today.

Visitors to the monuments along the Tidal Basin often stop at the Jefferson Memorial.  Modeled after the Roman Parthenon, it speaks loudly to those who can appreciate his vital and open mind.  One panel reads:

“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and institutions,” quoting a letter he wrote after his presidency, “But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”  Otherwise, he concluded, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy…”

Is there a better metaphor for U.S.-Cuba policy, buttoned so uncomfortably into the straitjacket fitted for it by Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton?  You might have read about their Helms-Burton law using Netscape Navigator to “surf” the web when it passed in 1996.

Seventeen years later, the conditions that existed on the ground then – in Havana and Miami, where its passage was demanded – have changed as much as the technology we use to learn about them.

No, Cuba is not marching toward a multiparty democracy.  But, it’s economic system is being revamped, government payrolls are being down-sized, cooperatives and private businesses are on the rise.  State-owned media carry complaints about the slow pace of reform.  Houses and cars are being sold on the open market.  Cubans with cellphones pass in and out of hotels.  Most Cubans, including Cuban dissidents, are free to travel, even tweet their opposition to government policy, and return.  These changes are real, and a Vice President whose last name is Díaz-Canel, not Castro, is in place to carry them forward.

Yes, Florida too, once ground zero for policies like Helms-Burton, has a different look and feel.  President Obama’s travel reforms are speeding the reconciliation of the Cuban family and helping Cuban-Americans support relatives taking advantage of Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  Miami Cubans, including Carlos Saladrigas, who once led thousands to stop believers from visiting Cuba to witness Pope John Paul II celebrate mass in the Plaza of the Revolution, embraced the chance to see Pope Benedict XVI worship with the island’s faithful.

The last election saw President Obama split the Cuban American vote with his opponent; Miami elected a pro-family travel Democrat to a Congressional seat; and Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) is in Cuba right now pursuing the business interests of her district and the foreign policy interests of the United States.  Today, it is the hardliners who are increasingly marginalized, while Mr. Saladrigas and his Cuba Study Group join the ranks of those who have long called for Helms-Burton’s repeal.

These are big changes.  What might Jefferson have thought about them?  History teaches us that our Third President wanted to purchase or annex Cuba for reasons he expressed in his time, which might seem eerily familiar to us in our time.

And yet, spring has come to Jefferson’s capital.  It is easy to imagine that he would find the changes happening in Havana and Miami to be self-evident; that as evidence of what he called “discoveries,” and we might call, “new thinking,” were made, he’d want the policy to be more enlightened; that he’d have us slip from the confining coat of Helms-Burton, and beckon his successor in the White House (with apologies to Chance the Gardener) to turn over a new leaf as well.

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