So here’s the ugly truth about the flap over the recent trip to Cuba by Beyoncé and Jay-Z. The whining of three Cuban-American lawmakers who object to the couple’s recent visit to Havana has little to do with keeping American dollars out of the coffers of Cuba’s communist government and a lot to do with shameless politics.

Sure, the Florida Republicans who make up this troika — Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — claim they’re concerned that the popular music icons violated travel restrictions by going to Cuba as tourists to celebrate their wedding anniversary. A decades-old travel ban denies most Americans the freedom to go to the island nation, except for some limited religious, education and cultural purposes.

This travel restriction, ostensibly, is meant to keep Americans from spending dollars in Cuba, something the Cuban-American lawmakers contend would undermine this nation’s economic embargo of Cuba. But as Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz Balart know, the embargo has no chance of squeezing the economic life out of Cuba because it is ignored by the rest of the world – and undercut by many of their Cuban-American constituents.

Of the nearly 580,000 Americans who visited Cuba last year, 476,000 of them were Cuban Americans, according to the Havana Consulting Group, a Miami-based organization that tracks travel and economic exchanges with Cuba. That’s because the federal rules that limit the ability of Americans to visit Cuba and spend money on the island don’t apply to them. They can go to Cuba as often as they want and can take as much money there as they want. Also, there is no limit on the amount of money Cuban Americans can send to relatives in Cuba. As a result, Cuban Americans sent nearly $2.3 billion dollars to Cuba in 2011, the Havana Consulting Group reported.

So, it is Cuban Americans who are the major source of dollars for Cuba’s communist government, not the relatively small number of non-Cuban Americans who are allowed to visit the Caribbean island. This great imbalance mocks the outrage over the short trip Beyoncé and Jay-Z made to Cuba.

Even so, Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen said the music superstars were guilty of funding “the machinery of oppression that brutally represses the Cuban people” because they went to Cuba with the permission of the Department of Treasury, which regulates the travel of Americans to Cuba. That’s because their goal is only to stop non-Cuban Americans from going to Cuba.

Why? Because Cuba is the foil they use to boost their political standing in this country. And to justify the special immigration status that Cuban refugees – their core constituents – enjoy, they need the rest of us to see Cuba through their eyes, not our own.

Though the vast majority of Cubans leave Cuba for economic reasons, all Cubans who make it to the U.S. are placed on a fast track to green card status – even those who enter this country illegally. A 1995 law allows any Cuban who manages to make it to U.S. territory to stay in this country. Not surprisingly, half of this nation’s 1.9 million Cubans arrived here in 1990 or later. Because nearly 70 percent of Cuban Americans live in Florida, this unfettered immigration is a boon for Cuban-American politicians. This growth can continue only if Cuban-American leaders are unchallenged in their portrayal of Cuba as a brutal, murderous communist state.

And this warped view of Cuba (which is not supported by the State Department’s annual human rights report) can be perpetuated only if Cuban-American politicians succeed in keeping Beyoncé, Jay-Z and the rest of us from seeing Cuba for ourselves.

DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.


DeWayne Wickham

USA Today