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Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Me: Our Trips to Cuba

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I have just returned from two weeks in Cuba, and am now convinced that America's sanctions against Cuba (as governed by the Trading With the Enemy Act) are not only outdated and ineffective, they're exacerbating the difficulties faced by countless innocent Cubans -- Cubans who are not in any way "the Enemy."

The U.S. embargo against Cuba restricts trade, travel, and all interactions that involve American money ending up in Cuban hands. These regulations were issued in 1963, in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it's 2013 now. As U.S. Rep Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) said recently, upon returning from a fact-finding trip to Cuba:

"There are still very significant human rights challenges in Cuba. It is still, to many extents, a repressive regime that does not allow citizens to enjoy all of the human rights that we all enjoy. But after 50 years of an embargo and isolation that's proved that it hasn't worked, it's time to try something new and refresh our relationship."

During his first term in office, Obama made a few changes to the travel restrictions: He did away with a clause that prohibited Cuban Americans from visiting family in Cuba more than once every three years, and he expanded the categories of who can travel legally to Cuba. Now, in addition to the clauses that permit individuals such as journalists, students, and academics to travel legally to Cuba, there are also allowances for "people-to-people" trips, which are tours operated by American trip organizers that focus on fostering meaningful educational and cultural exchange between Cubans and Americans.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z are two of the biggest names to take part in a people-to-people trip to Cuba (they went on a four-day trip organized by Academic Arrangements Abroad, during which they visited with Cuban artists and performance groups), and the uproar that their trip has created highlights the warped logic of the hard-line pro-embargo Floridian Republicans and also provides a critical opportunity for a reexamination of not just the laws governing travel to Cuba but the whole embargo.

When word got out about Beyoncé and Jay-Z's trip, U.S. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Republicans from South Florida, immediately sent a letter demanding that the Treasury investigate the legality of their trip. In their letter, the representatives claimed, "Cuba's tourism industry is wholly state-controlled, therefore, U.S. dollars spent on Cuban tourism directly fund the machinery of oppression that brutally represses the Cuban people."

The Treasury responded that the music superstar couple had indeed traveled legally, as part of a people-to-people trip -- but this did little to appease the representatives' outrage.

Ros-Lehtinen went as far as calling into TMZ (yes, really) to complain. Senator Marco Rubio, another outspoken pro-embargo Floridian Republican, also jumped in to share his thoughts in a press release: "Since their inception, the Obama Administration's "people to people" cultural exchange programs have been abused by tourists who have no interest in the Cuban people's freedom and either don't realize or don't care that they're essentially funding the regime's systematic trampling of people's human rights."

Rep. Diaz-Balart responded by proposing that Obama do away with people-to-people licenses altogether. He wrote, "I urge President Obama to side with the Cuban people and halt any further channeling of U.S. tourism dollars to the their jailers."

I, too, urge Obama to side with the Cuban people -- but by loosening restrictions as opposed to tightening them.

It's true that many "people-to-people" trips offer a very limited experience of Cuba and don't allow Americans the opportunity to fully discover the complex, simultaneously harsh and inspiring realities of life in Cuba today. Visitors traveling on 'people-to-people' tours must follow strict itineraries -- itineraries that shuffle them from place to place to meet with prominent groups of people who are on their very best, most diplomatic behavior and doing their damnedest to impress. It does not allow travelers the freedom to meet "regular" Cubans, to get lost in the stream of everyday life. It also, to a certain extent, funnels money towards the government: Travelers on these people-to-people trips almost always stay in large hotels, nearly all of which are government-run, and they travel on big air-conditioned tour buses, which are also run by the government.

The irony is that U.S. policy, as it currently stands, helps channel money towards the government and makes it more difficult for well-intentioned American travelers to spend their dollars supporting Cubans.

But this can be fixed by loosening restrictions -- by allowing Americans to get off the air-conditioned tour buses and out of the government-run hotel chains and into the stream of everyday life, and by allowing them to travel independently and to hire private cars and stay in casas particulares, and to eat meals in private homes and small restaurants (paladares) as opposed to the almost uniformly awful (gastronomically as well as ethically) government run restaurant chains.

It is misleading and false to claim that spending money as a tourist in Cuba means funding the "machinery of oppression that brutally represses the Cuban people," as Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart contend in their letter to the Treasury. There are ways to travel ethically, to support small business owners trying to eke out a living, and to travel with humanitarian aims.

And Rubio, Diaz-Balart, and Ros-Lehtinen might realize this if they actually paid a visit to Cuba themselves. Rubio and Diaz-Balart have never been to Cuba, and Ros-Lehtinen has not been back since her family fled in 1960, when she was seven years old.

I would be more than happy to point them in the direction of some of my new Cuban acquaintances and friends whose livelihoods depend on tourist dollars and are not part of the repressive Communist regime. They are small business owners and entrepreneurs, cooks, house cleaners, and artisans, all trying to take advantage of the process of gradual economic reforms that Raul Castro has been implementing while simultaneously gazing longingly towards a more free and liberal future.

In Trinidad de Cuba, there's Javier, who rents out a room in his house and also has established a national organization of casas, independent taxi drivers, and other professionals in the tourist sector, as well as Hugo, who lives alone right across the street and has been renting a bedroom in his house for twenty years (he has proudly saved the time-worn thank you note that his first guest wrote to him, back in 1993). In Havana, there's Jenny, who is refusing to let cancer and chemotherapy stop her from running and developing her casa particular in the leafy neighborhood of Vedado. And in Havana Vieja, there's Yudelkis, who, in addition to Spanish, speaks English, Italian, and Dutch, is teaching himself Russian, and has just designed a website to promote his casa particular.

These are Cubans who are succeeding as best they can, in spite of the many obstacles they face. Countless other Cubans are struggling even more.

Which brings me to my next point: It's not enough to just loosen travel restrictions. The U.S. must repeal the rest of the embargo, as well.

As Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez writes in her book Havana Real, describing the effect of devastating food shortages:

"These are times to jerk yourself awake, look away from the table, tell the kids not to ask questions, and put aside all work, the blog, friends, life, to devote yourself entirely to the pursuit of a piece of bread and a glass of milk. Time to drag yourself through the dust of shortages and lines. Because to break this contemptible cycle, to be able to fly, we need -- more than wings -- food."

In order to help Cubans obtain freedom from their oppressive and restrictive government, we must end the embargo immediately. It's near to impossible to fight for abstract principles like free markets and freedom of speech if your thoughts are wholly occupied by more basic, concrete longings: dreams of nutritious food and soap and Tylenol and toilet paper and tampons and clothes and shoes and computers and cars made in the 21st century. We must make it easier to get these items onto Cuban shelves and into Cuban homes.

Not one to be left out of the discussion, Jay-Z just dropped a new track called "Open Letter" (produced by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz) in which he discusses his recent trip to Cuba. He raps: "I'm in Cuba, I love Cubans/ This talk about Communism is so confusing."

I feel ya, Jay-Z.

Last month, when I was in Cuba, I met and made friends with a 25-year-old woman named Diana, who had traveled with her family for a day trip to the beach at Playa Ancon, which is on the southern coast of the island. I spent the afternoon teaching Diana's 10-year-old sister, Viviana, to swim, and chatting with Diana, who waded in the shallow water with her four-year-old daughter, Isabella, clinging to her chest.

After a while, I broached the topic of politics. "Are you... would you describe yourself as a Communist?" I asked.

She shook her head no. "I am a Cuban," she said.

It's different.

Cubans today, younger Cubans especially, are not content with the divisive political vocabulary we have inherited from the legacy of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a post called "Montagues and Capulets," Yoani Sanchez muses:

"What was the origin of the feud between Romeo and Juliet's families? I remember the scaling of the balcony, the promises to return, the banishment to Mantua, but I can't remember the spark that set off the confrontation between the two clans. Many young Cubans, like Shakespeare's lovers, have been born into a conflict they barely understand. They grew up in the shadow of the feud between the Cuban and US governments, nursed on resentments of their parents and grandparents. Today, those under thirty look ahead, and it seems normal that some day Montagues and Capulets will mix blood in a common offspring, overcoming swords and poisons. We won't be able to prevent them from loving each other; let us, then, prevent them from simulating a hatred they don't feel, and especially from feigning suicide to please their elders."

Or, as Jay-Z puts it, a little less poetically, but just as passionately, "Where the fuck have you been/The world's under new management/The new role model, fuck this Zoolander shit."

Cuba is changing. In recent years, Raul Castro has begun a series of cautious economic reforms. Cubans are now allowed to buy and sell property, and the rules governing the ownership and operation of casas particulares and paladares have been eased. Foreigners are now allowed to buy and develop property on the island. Raul Castro has already announced that he's stepping down in 2018, and his brother, Fidel, announced to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore." Cuba is ready for its next generation of leaders. And, if bold Cuban bloggers such as Yoani Sanchez as well as the multitudes of passionate, smart, and caring Cubans I met during my time there in March are any indication, they will be a force to be reckoned with -- and in a good way.

But first, they need armor: they need food and soap and shoes and technology and support. And then they will be ready -- ready for a revolution. And I, along with the multitudes of people who have expressed their love for and allegiance to the Cuban people and their struggles -- a list that now includes Jay-Z and Beyoncé -- will be there to support their efforts.

Instead of throwing a hissy fit about Jay-Z and Beyoncé's trip, perhaps Rubio, Diaz-Balart, and Ros-Lehtinen should spend their time listening to the words of Yoani Sanchez, who last week, in a speech to a largely Cuban-American crowd at Miami's Freedom Tower, issued a call for support: "We are going to need you for a future Cuba and we need you for the Cuba of the present... We need to rebuild our nation. We can't do it alone."

Let's give Cubans the support they need -- and now.