Mediawise it was like the return of Elián González or an electronic Bay of Pigs. From editorial obscurity, Cuba had been hurled back onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers and newscasts by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, media’s royal couple. Even Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt could never have roiled the treacherous waters of U.S./Cuban relations like the pop stars did with their just concluded Fifth Anniversary visit this week.
The action/reaction/counter-reaction happened in real time. The video of their smiling, crowded, heavily-guarded tour of Old Havana was still in the news loop when prominent Cuban American leaders unleashed a no-holds barred condemnation that took the celebrity visit as seriously as if it had been a terrorist attack.
Cuba’s repressive government should fear visitors bringing in these liberating ideas, not the other way around.
- Geraldo Rivera
Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio was on fire. “Cuba’s not a zoo, where you pay an admission ticket and you get to go in and you get to watch people living in cages, to see how they’re suffering. Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly.” Whoa. With that intensity the young senator elevated the discussion. He portrayed the perhaps self-indulgent celebrity field trip as a crime against humanity. “You just went to Cuba, and to fulfill your curiosity, which I could have told you about, if you would come and see me for five minutes, you left thousands of dollars in the hands of a government that uses that money to control these people that you feel sorry for.”
Personally, I thought Senator Rubio was way over the top. Unless he thought to serve red meat for Tea Party Only, the rhetorical flourish was extreme. Haven’t hundreds of thousands of Americans, including journalists, educators and businesspeople visited since the good old days of the Batista dictatorship? Haven’t millions from nations like Canada, Britain and France visited over the decades? In fact, isn’t the U.S. the only nation maintaining this aged and outdated embargo? Was it appropriate for Senator Rubio to make the attack so severe when most of the world thinks it is no big deal; and that it is not human rights but ideology that prevents the U.S. and Cuba from treating each other with the same civility America deals with communist China and particularly Vietnam, with which we fought a ten-year bloody war?
The first time I went to Cuba in 1979 was to interview Fidel Castro about the legacy of Ernest Hemingway, my literary hero who made this Pearl of the Antilles and fishing and drinking rum at la Floridita Bar in downtown Havana so attractive. Aware that most Cubans longed for freedom, it never occurred to me that I was putting money “in the hands of government, that uses that money to control these people.” What I thought was that I was part of the process of Cuba opening to the modern world, a process that as with China, Russia, Eastern Europe and Vietnam would inevitably make Cuba a freer place.
The next time I visited, in 1986, I was sailing my old boat around Central America through the Panama Canal. During that trip we were met outside Havana by an armed gunboat that escorted us into Marina Hemingway. After that uncomfortable experience, on land we had a government minder watching our every move. Yet, I still believed that our mere presence among non-governmental Cubans was as good for them as it was for us.
This is how the modern freedom-fighting process has worked since the fall of the Iron Curtain. In a head-to-head confrontation, the idea of freedom is so powerful that it can’t lose. Cuba’s repressive government should fear visitors bringing in these liberating ideas, not the other way around. The few dollars spent by Beyoncé and Jay-Z was chump change compared to the whiff of America’s good life our ‘other’ First Couple brought to Cuba’s millions.
Another prominent Cuban-American, who like Senator Rubio was born in the United States, Florida Republican congressman Mario Diaz-Balart was equally firm, though not as over the top. “I know some people might think that it’s not a big deal like, it’s not a big deal to have (Dennis) Rodman meeting with the North Korean dictator,” he told me during an interview that airs on my Fox News show this Saturday at 10pm ET. “But, in the case of Cuba, here’s your problem: that there’s a law. And we have to follow the law. I don’t care Geraldo, how famous you are, how wealthy you are, we’re a country of laws, and nobody should be or can be above the law.”
The law prohibiting tourism referenced by the congressman is the Cuban Democracy Act, the latest version of the embargo that has frozen U.S./Cuban relations in a time machine set on 1960. But why not go with the flow, I ask the congressman. We did it with the Chinese and the Vietnamese?
“Here’s the difference, we’re dealing with a state sponsoring terrorism. This is not Vietnam, this is more like Iran. This is more like Assad’s Syria, if we knew that one of the big funding sources for the Iran regime was U.S. travel, I think we would all be outraged, and say 'let’s not do that, that’s funding state sponsored terrorism.' Every case is different, I would probably argue that we should not be doing things that are funding communist China, but at least it’s not a state-sponsored terrorism,” Congressman Diaz-Balart added strongly.
But to those critics, Jay-Z had a powerful retort; a quickly crafted song called ‘Open Letter’:
“I done turned Havana to Atlanta
Guayabera shirts and bandanas
Every time you think they got me I switch the planna
Bulletproof this, radio scanners
Ballin' 'til they ban us
You gettin' too much bread, they try to jam you
Boy from the hood but got White House clearance…”
White House clearance? "It's a song," Jay Carney said Thursday denying the lyric’s literal accuracy. "The president did not communicate with Jay-Z over this trip…I am absolutely saying that the White House, from the president on down, had nothing to do with anybody's personal — anybody's travel to Cuba. That is something that Treasury handles."
When pressed, Carney offered a defense of Jay-Z allegation of White House complicity suggesting the music mogul couldn’t find a rhyme for ‘Treasury’.
Cuba is not Iran. It is 90 miles away, and its 11 million are related to our million and more. I’m sure most were as pleased to see Beyoncé and Jay-Z go to Cuba as they were to see the Cuban people. Tourism is not terrorism. It is the beginning of freedom.
Geraldo Rivera is currently host of "Geraldo at Large" on Fox News Channel (FNC), which is also nationally syndicated by Twentieth Television. Rivera recently celebrated 40 years in journalism.