Thousands of American musicians and music industry personnel have visited Cuba over recent decades. In 1999, more than thirty artists, including Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight, and Me’Shell NdegeOcello landed in Havana for the “Music Bridges” project, where they wrote songs and performed with Cuban musicians at the Karl Marx Theater. Jay-Z was invited to participate, but on that occasion he did not make the trip.
Back in 2005, Audioslave gave a free outdoor concert attended by a reported crowd of 70,000. Cuban fan favorites Kool and the Gang played a show there in 2009. Major jazz players including Wynton Marsalis have appeared at the annual Havana jazz festival. Dead Prez once headlined the Habana Hip Hop festival.
Many others have made less public visits to the island, including Ry Cooder, whose hit Buena Vista Social Club recording brought the sound of classic Cuban music back in style.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s three-day hop to Havana from Miami last week was the most widely talked about music celebrity visit since the U.S. Trade Embargo first restricted travel to Cuba in the early 1960s.
Where the pair ate, what they wore — one Cuban publication describing Jay-Z’s look as “golfer on holiday” — and where they stayed (Old Havana’s spectacularly-renovated luxury hotel, the Hotel Saratoga) was reported in real time by international press and bloggers.
The publication of photos of Hov and Bey posing with school children wearing “revolutionary” red scarves, dancing to the Cuban clave beat and being followed by crowds of everyday Cubans was swiftly followed by statements from outraged Florida Republicans suggesting that the couple had broken the law.
“…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,” Sen. Marco Rubio said, accusing the Cuban government of using the trip for their own “propaganda purposes.” Rubio’s remarks followed a much-publicized letter to the Treasury Department from Miami-based Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, frequent vocal opponents to any crack in the door of the six-decade-old bloqueo.
If Rubio’s remarks seemed more provocative than totally coherent — he would only need to look to the Treasury Departnment Website for the basics on Cuba travel — the senator was not the only one confused about the stars’ travel preparations.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana said that the entity representing the U.S. in Cuba had no knowledge of the Carters’ trip until their arrival in the country. Officials at the Cuban Music Institute, which typically plans an itinerary for important visiting musicians, told Billboard.com that they had not communicated with Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s camp. The Treasury Department had no comment about whether they had been granted the type of license that individual artists habitually request for Cuba travel.
It soon emerged in newspaper reports, confirmed by Billboard, that the Carters’ travel had been legally set up by Academic Arrangements Abroad, a New York-based educational company that offers group travel to Cuba. They had discreetly designed their trip not as working musicians or celebrities on a VIP tour, but as part of a group of twelve travelers, which also included their mothers and members of their entourage.
They went to Cuba simply as Americans, under what the State Department calls “people to people” travel. This strategy was supported by the Clinton Administration but cut off during the Bush years post-9/11. It’s designed to create mutual understanding — and encourage democratic ideals — through personal contact between citizens of both countries rather than by top level government diplomacy.
It’s a kumbaya notion, that, at least where music is concerned, has been arguably effective.
“We came to Cuba for love. We have overcome fear to be with you and we hope that you too can overcome it,” the Koolaid-drunk Juanes, the Latin rock star, said onstage at his 2009 “Peace without Borders” concert in Havana. “All the young people in the region, from Miami in the United States and in all the cities … should understand the importance of turning hate into love.” Prior to the concert, Juanes had received death threats from Cuban exiles while at home in Miami.
Travel to Cuba has had its bumps under President Obama’s administration. But the number of visitors from the U.S. has been increasing — more than 63,000 non-Cuban Americans visited Cuba in 2010, according to published Cuban estimates.
Dozens of agencies and organizations are currently licensed to offer travel to Cuba for Americans. Participants on these guided trips may focus on music, architecture, or sustainable agriculture, and they “must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba,” according to U.S. Treasury Department guidelines. Travelers sign an affidavit stating that they will stick to the planned educational itinerary.
While in Havana, Beyoncé and Jay-Z took in private performances by the children’s theater group La Colmenita, Cuba’s contemporary dance company, popular singer Haila Mompié and the group La Charanga Habanera, who play the urban Cuban dance music called timba. They toured Old Havana with the city’s official architecture historian. They got close, at least physically, to Cubans. At a club show, Beyoncé kissed the hand of Juana Bacallao, a cabaret diva in her nineties.
“Their activities mirror verbatim the types of activities authorized under people to people licenses for many organizations,” says Bill Martinez, a San Francisco attorney who frequently deals with the paperwork for artists traveling to Cuba. “They went to schools, they talked to students, everything that is in the requirements for people to people travel.”
While bringing back a couple bottles of rum or some cigars in a suitcase is allowed, travel regulations state that travelers to Cuba must not spend more than a stipulated per diem in the country. It will be up to the State Department to decide whether the cost of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s room at the upscale Hotel Saratoga was within those rules. The government does impose fines for skirting Cuba travel regulations — just ask Ry Cooder, who was fined a reported $25,000 for recording Buena Vista in Havana without the proper license.
The Miami Herald wondered if the couple’s trip would impact ticket sales for their respective concert dates in South Florida this summer (Beyoncé on July 10, Jay-Z on Aug. 16).
Not likely, but could the notoriety surrounding their trip have an impact on U.S. policy? On April 30, Secretary of State John Kerry will decide whether to take Cuba off the list of countries classified as State Sponsors of Terrorism, a move opposed by Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart.
“Unwittingly Beyoncé and Jay-Z are making a statement with the confluence of their trip and the April 30 deadline for Kerry,” said attorney Bill Martinez, who supports lifting the embargo. “Or maybe they knew what was happening and said we’re going to go to Cuba and take this on.”