Some Florida Republicans demanded to know why superstar couple Jay-Z and Beyonce were allowed to visit Cuba last week despite a U.S. travel ban between the two nations. Now they have their answer.
According to the Treasury Department, which wrote a letter responding to the inquisitive lawmakers, the federal government approved the visit as part of a cultural program intended to foster stronger ties between the U.S. and Cuba.
"It is our understanding that the travelers in question traveled to Cuba pursuant to an educational exchange trip organized by a group authorized by OFAC to sponsor and organize programs to promote people-to-people contact in Cuba," the letter read, according to CNN, which first reported its contents.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, is the division of the Treasury that enforces economic sanctions.
Americans are barred by law from visiting Cuba for tourism purposes, the theory being that tourism enriches Cuba and thus, indirectly, its government. But the Treasury grants exemptions in the form of "people-to-people" licenses in certain instances, such as family visits, or in this case, a cultural mission.
Last week, the power couple was spotted strolling and dining in Cuba — coincidentally, on the eve of their fifth wedding anniversary. That irked two Florida Republicans, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, who sent a joint letter to the head of OFAC asking for answers.
"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. "We represent a community of many who have been deeply and personally harmed by the Castro regime's atrocities, including former political prisoners and the families of murdered innocents."
The backlash over the mystery trip intensified Monday when Reuters confirmed through sources that the Treasury had licensed the trip for an as-yet-unspecified reason. In response, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) demanded to know "exactly how trips like these comply with U.S. law."
According to Reuters' David Adams, the trip was "no different from hundreds of similar tours that take place every year under Treasury Department licenses." The musicians were among 12 people on an approved trip led by Academic Arrangements Abroad, a tour group that has arranged similar trips in the past.
Jay-Z and Beyonce did meet with dancers, art teachers, and a children's theater troupe while in Cuba, according to the Havana Times and others. And as ABC's Luis Martinez notes, travelers on such trips are permitted to have some downtime to themselves, which seems to be the case here.
"Licensed groups must provide itineraries of trip schedules to OFAC showing 'a full-time schedule of education exchange activities' for such meaningful interactions. But that doesn't mean American visitors can't have some fun in Cuba, according to the letter 'travelers pursuing a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities may engage in non-educational activities off-hours.'" [ABC]
Ros-Lehtinen still isn't satisfied.
"If the tourist activities undertaken by Beyonce 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 U.S. tourism will extend to it," she said in a statement.