A visit by American pop star Beyonce and rapper husband Jay-Z to Havana last week was a cultural trip that was fully licensed by the US Treasury Department, a source familiar with the itinerary said on Monday.
The longstanding US trade embargo against Cuba prevents most Americans from travelling to the communist-led island without a license granted by the US government.
Two Cuban American members of Congress, both Republicans representing south Florida and supporters of a firm stance on Cuba, had asked the Treasury Department for information on what type of license the couple obtained for their trip.
Beyonce and Jay-Z celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in Havana and were greeted by big crowds as they strolled through the Cuban capital. The music industry power couple were instantly recognized as celebrities despite the past half-century of ideological conflict that separates the two countries.
The source told Reuters that the trip included visits with Cuban artists and musicians, as well as several nightclubs where live music was performed, and some of the city’s best privately run restaurants, known as “paladares.”
The visit was planned as a “people-to-people” cultural visit and involved no meetings with Cuban officials, or typical tourist activity such as trips to the beach, the source said. Even a walk around the Old City of Havana, mobbed by crowds of excited Cuban spectators, was led by Miguel Coyula, one of the city’s leading architects.
Publicists for the couple did not return emails or phone calls seeking comment.
Beyonce and Jay-Z were the latest American stars joining actors Bill Murray, Sean Penn and James Caan who have also visited the Caribbean island in the past few years. But the pair were the first to cause such a stir everywhere they went.
The couple arrived in Havana unannounced for a four-day visit on Wednesday on a flight from Miami. But word of their presence spread like wildfire.
Beyonce, who sang at Obama’s inauguration for his second term in January, was instantly recognized when she and Jay-Z, and their mothers, dined at La Guarida, the city’s top privately run restaurant on their first night.
The next day a crowd of several thousand people swarmed around them in the main square of Old Havana, which prompted their security team to curtail the walk-about.
They also visited a children’s theater group and several clubs where they heard live music, and occasionally took to the dance floor. On Friday, they toured Cuba’s art school and met with some young artists, including Yoan Capote, before ending the evening at another nightclub.
US Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart questioned the authorization for the couple’s trip arguing that isolating Cuba is the best way to force it to change its one-party political system.
Ros-Lehtinen, long a fierce critic of the Cuban government, said it was “very disconcerting that these two mega stars would go down to Cuba and vacation as if they were in a tropical paradise and not say one word about the brutality their hosts display against all pro democracy activists.”
The Cuban government was unaware of the participants on the trip until shortly before they departed for Cuba, the source told Reuters, adding that the Cuban media made no official mention of the pair while they were in Havana.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which handles licenses for travel to Cuba, said it does not comment on individual cases.
Ofac provides licenses to visit Cuba on a case-by-case basis for educational exchanges, and for programs to promote “people-to-people contact” and “contribute to the development of civil society in Cuba,” according to Treasury Department guidelines. Tourism is specifically prohibited by the guidelines, it states.
“It’s hard to imagine a more people-to-people contact visit than the scenes witnessed last week on the streets of Havana with two of the United States biggest music stars wading through crowds of fans they never knew they had,” said John McAuliff, executive director for the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, an organization working to normalise US relations with Cuba.
He described the couple’s program as “characteristic of licensed trips undertaken by thousands of Americans every year.”
While it has kept the embargo in place, President Barack Obama’s administration has eased restrictions on travel to Cuba for academic, religious or cultural programs.
“People-to-people” visits, first promoted under president Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but reined in under George W Bush, have been revived by the Obama administration to encourage more contact between Americans and Cubans, separated by just 145 km of ocean, but over half a century ideological differences.
A number of US firms are sponsoring Cuba trips, ranging from National Geographic to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the American Automobile Association, which has resulted in a steadily growing stream of Americans to the island.
Only licensed travellers and Cuban Americans visiting relatives on the island are allowed to board special charter planes from Miami for the 50-minute flight to Cuba.
Some U.S. citizens dodge those requirements by traveling to Cuba via third countries. Cuba does not stamp the passports of Americans who visit Cuba making it easy to avoid detection.
Criminal penalties for violating OFAC regulations range up to 10 years in prison and US$250,000 in individual fines.