The close friendship of Beyonce and Jay-Z with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama is well documented. Years of fundraisers, private engagements, and even the quick handling of a high-profile Inauguration lip-syncing scandal would lead one to believe that their creative duo’s music and business savvy is also matched with a fair amount of political sense.
But last week, somewhere between the White House, the Treasury Department, Manhattan and Havana something went wrong. The celebrity couple decided to celebrate their five-year anniversary with a trip to Cuba – and instead ended up inadvertently re-opening the debate over the US’s relationship with the communist island, a debate the Obama Administration has tried to push aside for years.
Many policy experts believe that if there were ever a time to make a move on Cuban relations it would be now. The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has left the island nation without its biggest ally – not to mention its primary financial backer and energy provider. At the same time, Raul Castro’s announcement in February that he would step down in 2018 is at least a rhetorical demonstration that he is interested in reform.
Back in Washington, President Obama is at the most powerful point of his presidency. He has no more elections in his future to temper his policy goals and he is still riding the wave of his major election victory, only six months old. An election, it should be noted, where he won half of the Cuban-American vote – a full fifteen points more than he did in 2008. If the administration did want to make a move on this issue, the right window would have been after the current round of domestic politics around gun control played out.
Unfortunately, getting things done in Washington require a rare combination of the right policy, the right politics, and the right timing. Pictures of Obama’s musical allies vacationing in Cuba have brought the issue to the national stage prematurely, before the administration could do the soft-touch politicking required for such change. Already, the conservative pro-embargo crowd has gone on the attack, calling for stricter oversight by the Department of Treasury. Senator Marco Rubio has described the visit as an “abuse” and Representative Ros-Lehtinen issued a statement saying that trip demonstrates that “the Obama administration is not serious about denying the Castro regime an economic lifeline that US tourism will extend to it.”
The Treasury Department licenses tour agencies to grant “people to people” licenses for cultural exchanges between the US and Cuba. The idea is to promote US culture without providing any material or political support to the Cuban regime.
People-to-people cultural trips to Cuba were first promoted under President Bill Clinton in 2000 but were halted by President George W. Bush in 2003. They were revived by the Obama administration to encourage more contact between Americans and Cubans in a move widely thought to be an opening for reestablishing more formalized relations between the two countries.
In 2013, with global access to information at an all time high and a slew of social networks connecting camera phones and arm-chair commentators around the world it stands to reason that no one – especially a high profile couple at the peak of their international popularity – can sneak away to a forbidden island, especially one so close to the US and so controversial for our foreign policy. It is unfortunate that such significant diplomatic issues can be driven off course by celebrities, but this is not the first time it has happened and probably won’t be the last. Supporters of a closer relationship between the US and Cuba should use this publicity to foster a real debate around Cuban issues, and hopefully lay the groundwork for a more substantive conversation in the future.