White House dodges questions on Beyoncé, Jay-Z trip to Cuba

The White House on Monday distanced itself from the Cuban vacation taken by two of President Obama's most high-profile supporters — entertainment superstars Beyoncé and Jay-Z. 

The two Obama supporters traveled to the communist country ostensibly to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary and tour the city of Havana, but their trip has sparked criticism by some Republicans and speculation that it might have violated U.S. law.

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Simple tourist trips to Cuba are illegal under U.S. law, which sets out specific guidelines for travel that are enforced by the Treasury Department. 

White House press secretary Jay Carney deferred questions on Monday about the Beyoncé trip to Treasury.

"That's not a White House matter. That's a Treasury matter," Carney said. "And I would refer you to Treasury."

Treasury, for its part, refused to answer questions about the trip. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces the law, typically does not comment on individual licensing decisions, and declined to comment when asked by The Hill. The office also declined to comment on whether it is investigating the trip. 


A key question is whether the trip taken by Beyoncé and Jay-Z was licensed by the government. Reuters reported that the "cultural trip" was "fully licensed" by OFAC, but under U.S. law, there are no "cultural licenses" allowed for U.S. travelers that would permit self-directed tourism of the island.

The closest thing to a "cultural" license would be a people-to-people license, which allows travel to Cuba as long as the trip is structured and filled with meaningful full-time educational activities with Cubans. If Beyoncé and Jay-Z did have a people-to-people license, they would be in noncompliance with the law if they failed to adhere to the strict terms of that license.

Another allowable license would be for a public performance, but those licenses also carry conditions — for example, they must be open to the public. Other license categories include journalism and academic research.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) has called for an investigation of the trip by OFAC. Last week, she wrote to Director Adam Szubin to ask what license Beyoncé and Jay-Z were given for the trip, and who had approved it.

She also emphasized that people-to-people licenses are only to be handed out to groups that have a "full-time schedule of educational exchange activities" booked while on the island.

"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," she wrote.

Ros-Lehtinen and other supporters of the travel restrictions against Cuba argue that tourism makes it easier for the Cuban government to access U.S. dollars, which they say the government then uses to oppress its people.

But not all Republicans favor the strict travel rules. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was one of several Republicans who made a push for more open trade and travel with Cuba a decade ago, and he supported Beyoncé and Jay-Z's weekend visit. 

"So, Beyonce and Jay-Z ... are in Cuba? Fine by me," he wrote. "Every American should have the right to travel there."

Still, the idea of Beyoncé and Jay-Z visiting the island for their honeymoon is likely to spark a debate over whether they will face any penalties, regardless of whether they traveled without a license or violated the terms of their license.

Celebrities like Mike Tyson, Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner have visited the island, but one expert with knowledge of the issue of Cuba travel licenses said it's hard to recall anyone with that level of celebrity status getting in trouble for the visit.

If OFAC fails to investigate the trip, or if Beyoncé and Jay-Z are not subjected to any penalties, that result will likely draw criticism that the administration is going soft on people who happen to be close to the Obamas. Beyoncé sang at Obama's inauguration this year, and both have held fundraisers for the president in the past.

One way a penalty could be imposed is if the couple traveled under the authority of a license already granted to an institution. While OFAC is not known for assessing penalties against individual travelers, it has come down hard on groups who lend or even sell access to their Cuba travel license.