U.S. says Beyoncé, Jay-Z trip to Havana was legal

The much challenged trip to Cuba last week by music royalty Beyoncé and Jay-Z was legally licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department as “educational travel,” according to the letter by a top department official.

“It is our understanding that the travelers in question travelled to Cuba pursuant to an educational exchange trip organized by a group” licensed by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the department said in a letter dated Tuesday.

The letter was directed to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who had asked OFAC, which enforces Cuba sanctions, if the couple had a proper license for their four-day stay in Havana with their mothers plus several aides and bodyguards.

U.S. embargo laws and regulations forbid tourist trips to Cuba but allow some categories such as religious, humanitarian and educational travel — also known as people-to-people travel and perhaps the most controversial of the categories.

President George W. Bush shut down the category during his term in the White House amid complaints that it was being abused for thinly veiled tourist trips. President Barack Obama restored it as a way of increasing contacts between the two nations.

OFAC requires participants in people-to-people trips to engage in “a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that result in meaningful interaction between the U.S. travelers and individuals in Cuba,” noted the letter, obtained by El Nuevo Herald.

But participants also “may engage in non educational activities off hours,” added the letter, signed by Assistant Treasury Secretary for Legislative Affairs Alastair M. Fitzpayne.

Beyoncé and her husband visited the Superior Institute of the Arts and watched performances by the Modern Dance Troupe and a children’s theater group. But they also strolled around Old Havana’s iconic tourist attractions and celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary with a three-hour dinner at one of the city’s best-known restaurants.

The letter noted, however, that OFAC has the authority to investigate possible violations of its regulations and “can take, and has a history of taking appropriate enforcement actions” against violators.

The group that arranged the couple’s trip to Cuba was required to submit to OFAC a detailed itinerary before the visit took place. OFAC can check the schedule against what Beyoncé and Jay Z and their retinue actually did.

Travel industry officials estimate that from 40,000 to 60,000 U.S. citizens and residents visited Cuba last year under people-to-people licenses. Cuban-Americans can travel to the island at will under a family reunification category.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a Cuban American activist who has long criticized the people-to-people category as opening the door to disguised tourism, said the report that the two entertainers were in Havana under that category trip proved his point.

“This just makes it easier to show that these trips are abused,” said Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida republican who also criticized the Beyoncé trip and asked OFAC if it was legal, 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,” she said.

“That was a wedding anniversary vacation that was not even disguised as a cultural program,” she added in a statement.

The Reuters news agency, meanwhile, reported that the trip was organized by Academic Arrangements Abroad, a New York non-profit that has put together numerous trips to Cuba for U.S. organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its Web pages shows that it also offers educational trips to other countries, such as Greece.

One person familiar with Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s itinerary said it involved no meetings with Cuban officials or typical tourist activities, such as beach trips, Reuters added.

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