Labor Day Weekend “No Apologies” Edition

August 29, 2014

Dear Friends:

Thank you for welcoming us back.

While we were on holiday last week, the Associated Press reported, “The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general has determined Jay-Z and Beyonce’s fifth-anniversary trip to Cuba last year was legal under rules allowing educational travel to the island.”

Did the AP get this story wrong? After all, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart reached his own conclusion more than one year ago without going through the “formality” of an investigation: “It has become obvious that, in this case, the line into tourism was crossed. The Beyoncé and Jay-Z trip is a high profile example of why the ‘people-to-people’ category of travel should be eliminated. It amounts to tourism.”

Yet, after the Inspector General issued a report saying,we believe OFAC’s determination that there was no apparent violation of U.S. sanctions with respect to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba was reasonable (emphasis added),” we visited the Congressman’s Media Center and found no evidence that he’d retracted his statement.

As Stephen Colbert is fond of saying, we accept your apology.

Time and again, we’ve seen this “never explain, never apologize, never retract” strategy used by hardline defenders of U.S. sanctions over the years.

Remember when Cuba’s government scrapped the exit visa requirement established five decades ago that made it impossible for nearly all of Cuba’s citizens to travel abroad? At that time, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the reform as propaganda. She said, “These so-called reforms are nothing more than Raúl Castro’s desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing, but anyone who knows anything about the communist 53-year old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene.”

On behalf of the 185,000 plus Cubans who traveled abroad last year, including 66,000 to the U.S., and on behalf of Cuban dissidents –Guillermo Fariñas who received his Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought after he traveled to Europe last year, and Yoani Sánchez, welcomed from Miami to the White House – we accept her apology, too.

Remember when it seemed like every poll conducted in Florida and nationally supported rolling back the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba? When Florida International University’s 2014 survey showed that Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargo, ending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – by the widest majority the survey has ever recorded?

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who supports increasing sanctions on Cuba, told readers of his blog to dismiss the findings of this highly regarded poll, saying “FIU has gone from having its polls sponsored by ideological non-profit organizations to ideological, for-profit lobbyists.” As a lobbyist himself immersed in partisan and ideological causes, this was hardly a strong argument against FIU’s data, confirmed by so many others.

Not to be outdone, when a reporter with the New York Times said to Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, “Regardless of just the Cuban-American community, the American public, clearly a majority supports a change in policy in Cuba,” he responded, “That is an absolute lie.”

Gentlemen, you may start your apologies.

We could talk about the deceptive defenses of USAID’s Cuba programs, when Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, was fast to his fax machine to issue his statement,“There is nothing new here.” We could also talk about their attacks on Cuba’s economic reforms, which have already enabled about 500,000 Cubans to find meaningful work, better pay, and greater autonomy in the private sector, and much more.

But, we don’t expect to hear apologies or anybody saying “I am sorry,” during this Labor Day weekend. We expect, instead, they’re out traveling like everyone else.

But, after Senator Marco Rubio compared coming to Cuba to visiting a zoo; after he scolded Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for going to Cuba, because “the U.S. should not make it easier for the Castro regime to enrich itself and fund its repression with American dollars”; after Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cited the Smithsonian for engaging in legal travel to the island, saying “It is deeply disappointing that the Smithsonian [Institution], primarily funded by American taxpayers, is facilitating access to U.S. dollars, which enables the Castro regime to make a hefty profit,” it would be nice if they were called to account for what they have said about travel, and spent at least one weekend feasting on their own words and at their own expense.

Then, perhaps Jay-Z and Beyonce could tell them, “apology accepted.”

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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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