(The Root) — Beyoncé Knowles made waves last week when she and husband Jay-Z visited the Cuban capital, reportedly to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. But if the king and queen of hip-hop headed south in search of peace and tranquillity, they had another thing coming. Crowds gathered in front of their hotel, surrounded them during a guided tour of Old Havana and shouted from the sidewalk below a well-known restaurant (La Guarida) where they were dining. While Cubans are aware of Jay-Z's music, Beyoncé's list of global hits made her the main attraction.
In some ways, the trip was a nonevent. No feature on the evening news, no article in the Cuban Communist Party newspaper, Granma. Only after the pair departed did state digital media respond briefly to the vitriol coming from some corners of Miami. Yet last Friday, in the working-class, run-down Central Havana neighborhood where I was living, young and old lined barricaded streets to watch the visitors' motorcade pass en route to San Cristobal, another privately run eatery, or paladar.
Outside the island, word that the two mega-celebrities were in Cuba led to immediate speculation about possible violations of U.S. travel restrictions. Officials now confirm that Beyoncé and Jay-Z used a license from the U.S. Treasury Department under "people-to-people" provisions restored to the Foreign Assets Control Regulations during Obama's first term. Indeed, the couple's itinerary — which included stops at Havana's principal art school and a contemporary dance studio, but not the beach — resembles trips sponsored by National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and other nonprofit U.S. organizations.
In Central Havana, though, most folks with whom I spoke saw nothing casual about the duo's three-day sojourn. Aided by radio bemba (literally "lip radio"), neighbors excitedly discussed the stars' public ties to the U.S. first family. The luxurious but hardly secluded Saratoga hotel seemed an odd pick for a couple allegedly in town for an anniversary retreat. "It is right in front of the Capitolio [Havana's old Capitol building]," said one friend, a reporter for state TV. "There are tourists in that area, but when you walk out of the hotel, you are in the street, with crowds of normal people."
In light of ongoing Cuban government efforts to slowly expand space for private enterprise, another acquaintance of mine viewed the couple's decision to eat in nonstate restaurants as a form of encouragement to ongoing reforms. Other friends interpreted Beyoncé and Jay-Z's attendance at a performance by La Colmenita — a children's musical-theater group that toured the U.S. in 2011 to promote the cause of the Cuban Five (five Cubans imprisoned in U.S. federal prisons for conspiracy to commit espionage and other charges Havana refutes) — as a possible nod of deference to the couple's island hosts.
Opposing voices on either side of the Florida straits can find something to critique about the visit. Miami Herald columnist Myriam Marquez implied that the Beyoncé hubbub helped Cuban officials distract global attention from the simultaneous U.S. tour of dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez. But in Havana, the buzz surrounding the couple overshadowed anniversary celebrations for the Union of Communist Youth and the one-month anniversary of Hugo Chávez's death. Several contacts and friends noted this coincidence, calling Beyoncé's arrival — half sarcastically, half seriously, and in clear reference to the late Venezuelan president's passing in March — the "biggest news to hit Havana this year."
It is hard to believe that Beyoncé would have boarded the plane without someone on her staff placing a courtesy call to the White House. Yet whether or not the trip involved sophisticated public diplomacy, Beyoncé's popular reception on the island shines a light on frequently overlooked aspects of contemporary Cuban life.
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.