If lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott are looking for an easy way to make Florida more attractive to academic research and business, they can start by repealing the state's limits on travel to Cuba. In a pique of political pandering to Florida's most extreme anti-Castro elements, the Legislature in 2006 passed a law barring academics at Florida's public colleges and universities from going to the island nation, even if they use private funds. At the time, the new law didn't have a huge impact because of strict Bush-era travel limits. Now that the Obama administration has loosened those restrictions, Florida's travel ban will have a direct negative impact on jobs, talent and funds. It will limit academic grant opportunities and discourage top professors and graduate students in fields as diverse as economics, marine science, art and world history from coming here to work and study.
The law prohibits the use of state money for travel to countries designated by the U.S. State Department as states that sponsor terror. These include Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. The rules apply to state money, as well as any funds administered by a public institution of higher learning. That means the state's colleges and universities cannot use federal grant money, foundation funds or private donations to underwrite programs of study or scholarship that involve trips to Cuba.
A lawsuit challenging the law by the ACLU of Florida and faculty members at the University of South Florida, the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida and Florida International University has been unsuccessful so far. But rather than leaving it to the courts to provide relief, the Legislature should repeal the ban. For the past 50 years, the strategy for dealing with Cuba has been embargoes and travel strictures. That has not resulted in a flowering of democracy or the spontaneous overthrow of the Castro brothers. President Barack Obama is right to pursue a different strategy. Encouraging people-to-people contact and the free flow of information between Cuba and the United States may help give Cubans the resources to promote their own independence.
If Florida law doesn't change, the Tampa Bay area has a lot to lose. As a region with one of the largest concentrations of Cuban-Americans in the country and long historical ties to Cuba, it is a natural place to house academic programs that include regular Cuba study. Tampa International Airport expects to qualify for direct flights to Cuba. Undoubtedly, part of that travel business would be generated by USF.
It is not just academics who lose out. Limits on state travel mean that Florida's agricultural and economic development officials cannot meet their counterparts in Cuba to position Florida for the day when trade between the nations is freer.
Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who sponsored the 2006 travel ban, is not inclined to revisit the issue. As a 2012 U.S. Senate candidate, he is holding a hard-line that was once popular with Miami-Dade Cubans. But what Haridopolos might perceive as good politics for a Senate run isn't good for Florida's economy or the standing of its universities. Those considerations should take priority.