It was the trip that inspired both a congressional inquiry and a rap song.
When pop star Beyonce and husband, the rapper Jay-Z, traveled to Cuba last week, their getaway ignited a storm of news coverage and questions — because of the couple's celebrity status, but also because of the five-decade-old political stalemate between Washington and the Communist island nation.
Under the United States' longstanding trade embargo, Americans are prohibited from traveling to Cuba for simple tourism. In most cases, they need a license from the U.S. government permitting visits for educational, research, journalistic or missionary work. As reports trickled out of the stars salsa dancing till dawn, two Florida congressional members fired off a letter to President Barack Obama's administration, blasting the trip and invoking the Castro regime's oppression of Cuban people.
We decided to explore the labyrinthine rules on Cuban travel.
• • •
Numerous media outlets, including Reuters, POLITICO and the New York Times, reported that Beyonce and Jay-Z traveled to Cuba on a "people-to-people" educational tour. The trip marked their fifth wedding anniversary.
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, defines these as "educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program that take place under the auspices of an organization that sponsors and organizes programs to promote people-to-people contact."
"People-to-people cultural trips to Cuba were first promoted under President Bill Clinton in 2000 and were halted by President George W. Bush in 2003. They were revived by the Obama administration to encourage more contact between Americans and Cubans," Reuters reported.
Applicants must provide a sample itinerary, list examples of activities and describe how the educational and people-to-people exchanges they plan "would enhance contact with the Cuban people, and/or support civil society in Cuba, and/or help promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities," according to the travel application guidelines. Licensees who fail to meet the requirements may have their licenses revoked or be issued a civil penalty, which can range up to $65,000 per violation.
• • •
Television images show Beyonce in a colorful dress with her hair piled on her head in coppery coils. Jay-Z wore a straw hat and smoked a cigar. Crowds surged all around them.
The couple "ate at some of the city's best restaurants, danced to Cuban music, walked through historic Old Havana and posed for pictures with admiring Cubans," Reuters wrote.
A source told a Reuters reporter in Havana that the couple went to El Gato Tuerto, a famous nightclub, then to the Casa de la Musica in the Miramar district where the source said they "danced until dawn" to salsa and other music by Havana D'Primera.
What about cultural exchange?
The Havana Times reported that Beyonce visited with the Danza Contemporanea Troupe, singer Haila, La Colmenita children's theater group and students and teachers at the Superior Art Institute.
• • •
It didn't take long for anti-Castro politicians to start making noise.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio invoked a Jay-Z lyric when he tweeted, "If interested in what life really like in #Cuba @S_C_ should have visited persecuted rapper #AngelYunierRemon #99problems&dictatorsareone."
Two South Florida Republicans, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, sent a letter to the Treasury Department demanding more details about the trip.
"Despite the clear prohibition against tourism in Cuba, numerous press reports described the couple's trip as tourism, and the Castro regime touted it as such in its propaganda," they wrote.
Treasury officials have said that the trip was approved, but that they didn't know the identities of the people traveling, which apparently is typical.
We asked Mauricio Claver-Carone, author of the blog Capital Hill Cubans, whether this was celebrity tourism or legitimate cultural exchange.
"It's tough to look at the pictures of their trip and to not conclude it was tourism-focused," he told PolitiFact in an email. "However, this is not Beyonce and Jay-Z's fault. Treasury should have not approved the license of the sponsoring 'educational group' that took them based on the activities we saw. Now, if the 'educational group' lied in the application regarding their activities, they should have their license pulled."
Claver-Carone also noted the Obama administration policy that authorized travel should "promote the independence of the Cuban people from authorities.
"It's tough to argue that this trip, where the celebrities were being escorted around by Cuban government 'tour guides' and taken only to officially sanctioned locations and events, promoted such independence from the Cuban authorities."
Beyonce and Jay-Z didn't speak to the media in Cuba, and their representatives in the United States have not responded to reporters' calls. But on Thursday, Jay-Z answered — in a rap.
"I done turned Havana into Atlanta ... Boy from the hood, I got White House clearance… Politicians never did s - - - for me except lie to me, distort history … They wanna give me jail time and a fine. Fine, let me commit a real crime," he said in the track titled Open Letter.
The White House's response to that: "I am absolutely saying that the White House and president on down has not had anything to do with anyone's travel to Cuba, that is something Treasury handles," spokesman Jay Carney said.
"I guess nothing rhymes with Treasury."