Beyoncé, Jay-Z in Cuba: Views From the Ground

The trip -- and their reception -- offers clues to the subtle cultural changes on the island.

Jay-Z and Beyoncé in Cuba (STR/Getty Images)

More than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba remains a stubborn albeit evolving outpost of socialism in the Western Hemisphere. The island’s government highly prizes national sovereignty while fostering a media landscape celebrating national art, music and folkways. Still, Cuba is no more immune to global consumer and media culture than its Caribbean neighbors.

While Marxist dogma decries Western “commodity fetishism,” the bootlegging of foreign music, TV series, films and satellite connections is a veritable growth industry on the island these days, with increasingly sophisticated purveyors selling burned DVDs on street corners (with government-issued licenses to do so) or delivering digital paquetes (packages) on flash drives. Beyoncé’s wide Cuban fan base exists because of these informal networks, and her popular appeal far transcends her “Americanness.”

Critics of “people-to-people” travel to Cuba typically label such trips as glorified tourism, incapable of effecting dramatic political change on the island. In this case, they might be right — if, of course, one believes that Americans should only be ambassadors of reform and not be allowed to travel or vacation where they wish. Yet such lofty and often paternalistic expectations assume a static vision of Cuban society and politics that simply does not hold.

One of the few video clips of Beyoncé in Havana to be uploaded to YouTube shows the star dancing with Haila María Mompié, a popular Cuban performer and crossover star in her own right. If, in the 1990s, Haila’s vocal delivery for “Andar Andando” (“Keep on Walking”) helped make the song the “We Are the World” of the trying post-Soviet Cuban 1990s, lately the diva seems to be positioning herself for a wider, transnational audience. She has gone out on her own and on her latest record overlays bachata, reggaeton, pop and house beats onto her traditional Cuban timba repertoire.

At a private concert held in Beyoncé’s honor, Mompié belted out “Life Is a Carnival,” the uplifting anthem made popular by the late Celia Cruz, a hero in Miami and a taboo figure on the island for her long opposition to the Castro government. Such a gesture provides subtle clues into the complex cultural changes Cuban society has already experienced over the last 20 years, as well as changes to come. We need only the desire and wherewithal to look.

Michael J. Bustamante is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American history at Yale University. He formerly served as research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.