April 10, 2013 at 11:12 AM ET
When the Treasury Department approved a cultural trip to Cuba last week, it had no idea that those traveling included American pop superstar Beyonce and her rapper husband Jay-Z, according to people familiar with the four-day visit.
The trip was handled according to a standard licensing procedure for federally approved "people-to-people" cultural tours to the island, and the power couple received no special treatment, said Academic Arrangements Abroad, the New York-based group that organized the trip.
The visit caused a stir because of the high profile of Beyonce and Jay-Z. A longstanding U.S. trade embargo against communist-led Cuba bars most Americans from traveling there without a license from the U.S. government, and specifically prohibits tourism.
Three Cuban-American members of Congress, all Republicans from Florida and supporters of a firm stance on Cuba, asked the Treasury Department to look into the licensing of the trip, prompting officials to seek a full accounting of the itinerary and travel documents from the organizers, according to Academic Arrangements Abroad.
Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart said the trip was being used for Cuban government propaganda, while Senator Marco Rubio complained that the travel programs "have been abused by tourists."
The Treasury Department confirmed late on Tuesday that Beyonce and Jay-Z's Cuba trip was organized by a federally authorized group.
In a letter responding to the lawmakers, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, a senior Treasury Department official said it does not request the identities of the travelers on each trip.
The letter did not say if Treasury officials were looking into the trip, but said the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which administers the embargo as well as granting of licenses for travel to Cuba, "has a history of taking appropriate enforcement action" when violations occur.
It added that OFAC looks carefully at the itinerary of trips before approving them, requiring "a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that result in meaningful interaction between the U.S. travelers and individuals in Cuba."
Ros-Lehtinen responded to the Treasury Department letter by calling Beyonce and Jay-Z's trip a "scam endeavor."
"That was a wedding anniversary vacation that was not even disguised as a cultural program," she said in a statement.
Diaz-Balart said he was "outraged" by the letter and called for the people-to-people category of travel to be eliminated.
Beyonce and Jay-Z, who celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in Havana, are the highest-profile American celebrities to visit the island in recent years. So far they have not spoken to the media about the trip and publicists for the couple did not return emails or phone calls seeking comment.
The Cuba travel regulations were updated last year after a battle in Congress led by Rubio, who successfully sought to include more stringent language to deter tourist circumvention of the law.
'TYPICAL OF WHAT WE DO'
U.S. officials became aware of the names of the 12 people traveling in Beyonce and Jay-Z's group, including their mothers and two private security guards, only when the group showed up at Miami International Airport last Wednesday for the flight to Havana.
Academic Arrangements Abroad has organized numerous trips to Cuba for U.S. organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brookings Institution think tank, as well as Princeton, Dartmouth and Rice universities.
All 12 participants of last week's trip carried letters from the licensed people-to-people sponsor of the trip, and the requisite affidavits declaring that they would stick to the approved itinerary, according to Marazul, the Miami-based charter company that operated their Cuba flight.
Their trip was no different from hundreds of similar tours that take place every year under Treasury Department licenses, say Cuba travel experts.
OFAC also administers general licenses for individual travel by Cuban Americans, and for educational and religious reasons.
Academic Arrangements Abroad said Beyonce and Jay-Z's trip involved no meetings with Cuban officials, or typical tourist activities such as beach trips. There were visits with Cuban artists, musicians, and dancers, as well as to nightclubs with live music and to a children's theater group.
"That all looks very typical of what we do," said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, a division of Cross Cultural Solutions a nonprofit international volunteer organization on the outskirts of New York.
Insight Cuba organizes about 150 tours to Cuba a year, including music and arts-focused visits similar to Beyonce and Jay-Z's trip. Beach-going is never included, to comply with regulations. Other U.S. firms sponsor people-to-people trips.
The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba has shot up in the last two years, topping 500,000 in 2011, the Cuban Tourism Ministry says. Most were Cuban Americans visiting relatives, but about 90,000 were other Americans mostly traveling on licensed visits, Cuban officials say.
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, separated by the 90-mile (140-kilometer) Florida Strait and more than half a century of ideological differences.
Copyright 2014 Thomson Reuters.