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Jay-Z and Beyonce's Cuba trip may be legal, but they still might face sanction trouble

From El Nuevo Herald's Juan Tamayo:

Superstar couple Beyoncé and Jay Z will likely claim that they had a legal permit for their controversial trip to Cuba, but they and their retinue might still face trouble with the complex U.S. sanctions on the island. U.S. government and travel industry officials say.

Their visit to the communist-ruled island last week led two Cuban-Americans in Congress to ask the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces sanctions on Cuba, if the couple had an OFAC license for the trip.

Cuba’s official media reported the couple was on a tourist visit, which would be illegal under the half-century-old U.S. embargo. They celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in Havana and took along their respective mothers and at least one bodyguard.

But while U.S. laws and regulations allow Cuban-Americans to make unlimited trips to the island for “family reunification” visits, U.S. residents and citizens who are not Cuban American face a tangled web of OFAC restrictions.

They can travel under “specific licenses” obtained in advance from OFAC, for instance for educational trips known as “people to people travel.” Or they can go under “general licenses” for purposes such as journalism or cultural research, which do not require prior approval but can be challenged and punished by OFAC afterward.

Beyoncé and Jay Z did not obtain advance OFAC approval for their trip under any of the “specific license” categories, according to one person in Washington. He asked to remain anonymous to protect the source of his information.

The power couple likely will assert that their trip was under the general license category, for “non commercial academic or cultural research,” added another person in Washington knowledgeable about the trip.

The performers went to Cuba “on a cultural trip that was fully licensed by the United States Treasury, according to a source familiar with the trip,” the Reuters news agency reported Monday.

OFAC can require people who return from such general license trips to provide proof of their purpose and activities to ensure they were not primarily tourist visits. Violators can be fined from $1,000 up to $25,000.

Beyoncé and her husband visited the Superior Institute of the Arts and watched performances by the Modern Dance Troupe and a children’s theater group in Havana between their arrival Wednesday and their departure Friday.

Less clear is what licenses could be claimed by their respective mothers, bodyguards and other members of their retinue, and what each person spent during their stay in Havana, added one Cuba travel industry official.
Although OFAC regulations cap spending in Cuba at $140 per day, the official noted, the group stayed at the Saratoga Hotel in Old Havana, where the cheapest room goes for $148 per night and the most expensive suite costs $324.

Also unclear is how the group travelled to Cuba. Any private planes flying between the United States and the island must have a special permit from the U.S. Commerce Department. The fine for violating that requirement can run up to $250,000.

Beyoncé is not new to political controversies, and in 2009 was paid $2 million by a son of Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi to perform at a New Years Eve bash in the British-run Caribbean island of St. Barts. She later donated the money to Haiti earthquake relief.

OFAC spokesman John Sullivan said he could not comment on any individual cases such as Beyoncé and Jay Z. The U.S. Department referred all questions to OFAC. And Beyoncé publicist Yvette Noel-Schure did not reply to El Nuevo Herald requests for comment.

Dozens of famous U.S. entertainers have visited the island in the past under OFAC general and specific licenses, including Robert Redford, Will Smith, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Spacey, Jodie Foster and Danny Glover.

Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Miami Republicans and Cuban Americans, asked OFAC last week for what kind of license Beyoncé and her retinue had used for the trip to Havana, if any.

The state-controlled CubaDebate Web page shot back Monday with a column repeating that Beyoncé and Jay Z were “tourists” and accusing the two Congress members of persecuting the couple “in the style of McCarthy from the dark decade of the ‘50s.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone, an anti-Castro lobbyist in Washington who has denounced the couple’s visit to Cuba, said he only wants the singers to hear the arguments of people such as Berta Soler, leader of the dissident Ladies in White.

“The point is not to get them fined or reprimanded,” he said. “I just hope they can take five minutes to meet with someone like Berta Soler and hear their side, and I will be a happy camper.”