Every once in a while, something happens to remind us just how far U.S.-Cuba relations have deviated from what they should be. In the first week of April, superstars Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z strolled through Havana, engulfed in a sea of people. The couple went to Cuba to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary but could not pass through unnoticed like they may have wished. They are at the peak of their artistic careers; my adolescent niece Sophia, to whom I have tried to explain the poetry of Bob Dylan, cannot believe that I don’t know any Beyonce songs.
Perhaps as part of the cultural exchanges promoted by the Obama administration, Beyonce and Jay Z went to Habana Vieja, a World Heritage Site, and visited with young Cubans at schools of art and dance. The couple dined at La Guarida, a privately owned restaurant where the famous 1990s movie Strawberry and Chocolate, with its clear anti-homophobic message, was filmed. The privately owned restaurant represents a new era in single-party Cuba, with its growing non-state economic sector and its increasing social and religious tolerance.
Reactions in the U.S. were immediate and indignant. What should have been merely a trip abroad, a right protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has become a political kerfuffle. Mauricio Claver-Carone, the chief pro-embargo lobbyist in Washington, lashed out against the trip, accusing Beyonce of being a tool of “Castro propaganda” because her trip to Cuba “stole” the spotlight from opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez, who is on tour in the United States. As he commonly does, speaking about a Cuba he has never visited, Claver-Carone wrongly declared that the restaurants in which the couple ate were all owned by Cuban government officials. Can he tell us which high government position Enrique, the owner of La Guarida for the last 15 years, holds?
Miami Herald columnist Myriam Marquez, who hosted Yoani Sanchez’s visit to the Freedom Tower, similarly denounced the Cuban government for what he called its “calibrated juxtaposition of BeJay’s arrival in La Habana late last week with Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez’s departure from Little Havana.” As Cuban-American blogger Alejandro Barreras satirically writes: “so the Cuban regime, in all their devilish cunning, planned five years ago for Beyonce and Jay Z to marry on a certain date, so that their fifth anniversary would coincide with a visit to the United States of an opposition blogger who was just starting to obtain international acclaim, thanks to travel reforms that nobody back then could have seen coming. (Don’t laugh, it is called quinquennial planning).”
Not to be left out, Cuban-American U.S. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart requested information about the trip from the Treasury Department, suggesting a possible violation of the U.S. policy to isolate Cuba. How have the policies of a great democratic power like the United States fallen into the hands of such a paranoid and intolerant bunch?
Meanwhile adolescents ask their parents where Cuba is and why can’t they go to this country with such good music and beautiful people and beaches if it’s only 90 miles away. If the United States is not a communist country, why does it restrict the rights of its citizens to travel? Americans should be shocked by the irrationality of U.S. policy toward Cuba, anchored in the Cold War and tied up in increasingly archaic domestic political calculations.
The Beyonce effect is a call to take a fresh look at 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. Since the migratory reforms made by Cuba in January, which eliminated most of the restrictions on travel from the totalitarian period, Cubans have fewer legal impediments to visiting the United States than U.S. citizens have to visiting Cuba.
It is time to align our policies with our principles. As President Kennedy said before the Brandenburg Gate at the apex of the Cold War, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” And as his brother Bobby wrote in a memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on December 12, 1963, urging an end to the travel ban, the freedom to travel “is more consistent with our views as a free society and would contrast with such things as the Berlin Wall and communist controls on such travel.”
If Beyonce and Jay-Z visit President Obama in the future, they should remind him that he himself called the embargo an irrational policy that “only hurts the innocent people of Cuba.” At the very least, Obama should listen to a growing group of members of Congress, led by Representative Sam Farr (D-CA), asking him to allow all categories of non-tourist travel to be carried out under a general license. This would remove bureaucratic obstacles that currently prevent many Americans, who are interested in people-to-people engagement, from visiting the island. Interacting with Cuba should not be a privilege exclusive to celebrities.
So thank you, Beyonce and Jay-Z. Welcome to the club of those anathematized and cursed by the McCarthyist embargo supporters. Thank you for your unintended clarion call to the conscience of your fellow citizens about a policy that is irrational, self-defeating, and un-American.