From The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Karin Fischer
When the United States and Cuba officially re-establish diplomatic relations this month, Florida colleges would seem well positioned to take advantage of the shift.
Cuba, after all, is located less than 100 miles from the south Florida coast. The state’s universities count large numbers of Cuban-Americans as students and boast prominent scholars of Cuba on their faculties.
But that edge may be more hollow than it seems. Even as colleges around the country have taken advantage of an earlier relaxing of restrictions on academic travel to Cuba to begin to build ties, Florida’s public institutions have remained hamstrung by a decade-old state law that forbids them to use any money, public or private, for faculty or student travel to the Communist nation.
The measure, put in place by staunchly anti-Castro lawmakers, has blocked historians and anthropologists, marine scientists and economists from visiting the island, and has frozen previously robust research partnerships. It has been, in the words of one scholar, an “intellectual embargo.”
“Our work,” says Frank E. Muller-Karger, a biological oceanographer at the University of South Florida, “has essentially ground to a halt.”
Technically, the law, passed in 2006, prohibits Florida’s public universities and community colleges from using state funds, private donations, or grants for travel to any nation identified as a terrorist state by the U.S. Department of State, a list that also includes Iran, Sudan, and Syria. The target, however, was clear: Months before the law was enacted, a Florida International University professor and his wife, also a university employee, were charged with spying for Cuba, inflaming an already hot-button issue. (The pair later pleaded guilty to somewhat lesser charges.)
The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law on behalf of Florida International’s Faculty Senate, along with other academics, arguing that the state was violating faculty members’ First Amendment rights and effectively making foreign policy, which is the purview of the federal government. While the courts ultimately ruled Florida could not restrict students and professors at private colleges in the state from traveling to Cuba, the courts largely upheld the rest of the law.
Outside of court challenges, opponents of the law realized that the only way to overturn the prohibition would be for the State Department to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This spring President Obama did just that, part of a broader push to normalize relations between Washington and Havana.
Rather than giving colleges the go-ahead for travel to Cuba, the Florida Board of Governors in April issued an advisory opinion to the state’s 11 public universities, telling them that the educational-travel ban would not be fully lifted until the United States renewed formal diplomatic ties with Cuba. The higher-education board cited a second law, passed in 1996, barring any entity receiving state funds from traveling to or doing business with “any country located in the Western Hemisphere which lacks diplomatic relations with the United States.”
The panel’s ruling surprised Florida academics, who say they were able to travel to Cuba before the 2006 law was enacted.
In a written statement, Brittany A. Davis, a spokeswoman for the governing board, said: “Once diplomatic relations are restored, any requests to conduct scholarly activities located in Cuba will follow the normal processes for university approval.” She added that no further action by the board would be necessary for travel to Cuba to begin once formal ties were established.
‘Moving the Goal Post’
Still, the unexpected move has spooked some people in Florida, who worry public officials could enact new laws or regulations to hinder work with Cuban universities. “They’ll keep moving the goal post,” Albert A. Fox Jr., president of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, says of lawmakers.
Even if the restrictions are loosened, some academics fear that Florida institutions have lost much of their traditional advantage. This fall the Institute of International Education plans to take a delegation of 10 American colleges to Cuba as part of an effort to build partnerships with Cuban universities.
Watching other institutions take such steps can be difficult for Florida academics. “No other state in the union has more common interests” with Cuba, says Donald C. Behringer, an associate professor of marine ecology and diseases at the University of Florida.
Mr. Muller-Karger, who studies marine ecosystems in the Caribbean, says Cuba has been a “black hole” in his research over the last decade, as the travel ban has blocked him from visiting the island or from sponsoring Cuban researchers to come to Florida. Poor Internet connections make exchanging large files of data or otherwise collaborating by email nearly impossible, he says.
Noel Smith, curator of Latin American and Caribbean art at the University of South Florida’s Institute for Research in Art, has traveled to Cuba to work with artists there, but she has had to pay her own way or use outside funds not deposited in university accounts in order to circumvent the law. Likewise, Mr. Behringer this spring led an 11-day study-abroad trip to Cuba, the University of Florida’s first. Students couldn’t use state scholarships or other public money to cover the $3,000-per-person cost of the trip.
‘Cuba Is in Our DNA’
Florida International University, home of the well-regarded Cuban Research Institute, lost several faculty members following passage of the 2006 law, says Meredith A. Newman, vice provost for faculty and global affairs. Other scholars of Cuba opted not to accept positions at the Miami university.
Florida International, though, is poised to move forward. Two years ago, the university hired a consultant to prepare an institutional analysis of how it might work in Cuba once all restrictions are removed. The recommendations include conducting joint research, hosting Cuban students and scholars, and offering training in fields like tourism and hospitality, engineering, and business. Eventually, Florida International hopes to open at least one campus in Cuba, Ms. Newman says.
“It’s not like we are starting from scratch,” she says. “Cuba is in our DNA.”
Still, even if all constraints on collaboration are lifted, working in Cuba is likely to be challenging, for Florida colleges and others. Infrastructure is poor, and universities are underfunded. Mistrust, built up over decades, won’t disappear overnight.
And Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, points out that Cuba remains an authoritarian country, where the government “maintains a tight grip” on universities, and academic freedom and free expression aren’t safeguarded. Mr. Padrón, who fled Cuba as a teenager, believes that academic engagement is important to heal the rift between the two countries. Yet he’s still hesitant about striking partnerships with Cuban institutions unless academic and personal freedoms can assured.
“I will not submit my faculty and students,” he says, “to any situation where their rights aren’t guaranteed.”