TALLAHASSEE — Academics around the country hailed the move last week by President Barack Obama's administration to loosen travel restrictions to Cuba. But there was no celebrating by scholars at Florida's public universities.
A 2006 state law prohibits them from using state money or tapping into their budgets for travel to countries considered "terrorist states" by the federal government, Cuba being one. (The others are Iran, Sudan and Syria.)
The rule applies both to state funding and non-state funds administered by public universities.
Margaret Miller, director of the University of South Florida Institute for Research in Art, calls the law an embarrassment.
"Florida academics or state employees, with the current restrictions, you can't use money coming from the state or money you have raised privately or use your university time to travel to Cuba," Miller said. "What Obama was hoping is that there would be academic exchange, but we're prohibited from doing that. This puts Florida in a really compromised position relative to the rest of the country."
Bill Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida, said the law means the university has lost graduate students who want to study Cuba and grant funding for studies that require travel to the island.
"Forty-nine states in the union have academic programs that just benefited from the loosening of travel restrictions, and Florida, which has the most at stake in respect to what goes in Cuba, is locked out," Messina said.
State lawmakers don't appear inclined to change the law.
Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, suggested revisiting it because the policy has changed on a national level.
"I can understand trade restrictions because having an economic impact is a useful tool," he said. "But I would want educators to share information. I wouldn't put that in the same category as economic-related embargoes. Would I have problems with USF professors traveling to Cuba and meeting with colleagues, there? I wouldn't."
But Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who sponsored the bill in 2006 and is a 2012 U.S. Senate candidate, stands by it.
"There should be three conditions before we change anything," he said. "That is the liberation of all political prisoners, No. 2 the legalization of all political parties and an independent press, and third, of course, the scheduling of free, internationally supervised elections."
Hard-line positions against Cuba make for good politics in Miami-Dade County where 72 percent of registered Republican voters are Hispanic, mostly Cuban.
Florida Rep. Esteban Bovo, a Republican from Hialeah, wants the law to stay in place. The United States needs to be as tough on Cuba as it was on South Africa in the 1980s when pressing to end apartheid, he said.
"For a long time, there has been an emphasis in the U.S. doing something that would promote some sort of open dialogue or freedom in Cuba. The reality is that nothing that Cuba does seems to open that dialogue. That has always been a point of frustration for me personally," he said. "This fantasy that by promoting travel to Cuba, somehow Cuba is going to change over night, is just that. A fantasy."
Florida's law is facing a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union and faculty at the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and Florida International University.
An appeals court upheld the statute in August, forcing cancelation of an art exhibit organized by USF at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana that would have featured works by such internationally recognized artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, James Rosenquist and Chuck Close.
The program was to be paid for using privately raised foundation money.
The ACLU plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
"The con that the Legislature fell prey to was the notion that an outside foundation grant was suddenly transformed into, quote, state funds, because it ends up in an account by a department of political science or the Cuban Research Institute of Florida International University," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "Our whole lawsuit really is about the ability of academics to use outside foundation grants to engage in research in Cuba and other countries."
Messina, the UF agricultural economist, offered no opinion on Cuban trade restrictions, saying that's up to government leaders. But he does believe it's important for Florida's farmers to understand Cuban agriculture.
"Our research has shown that an opening of trade relations with Cuba will have a more significant impact on agriculture than any other single event in our state's history," he said, noting it will increase competition and create economic opportunities.
"Florida growers want to know what's going on there, and we're trying to provide information."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.