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Cuban musical group's visit to USF falls victim to politics

When University of South Florida professor James Lewis heard La Camerata Romeu perform their classical music on his visit to Cuba, he knew he wanted to share it with the university's faculty and staff.

So Lewis and other USF professors went through the tedious process of securing money for the trip and ensuring the government's permission for the eight musicians to travel.

But two weeks ago, USF Provost Thomas Tighe yanked the funding that would have provided airfare for the musicians, forcing the trip to be canceled.

Though Tighe would not comment Tuesday, USF officials said the provost made the decision because he didn't want to offend the local Cuban community.

"The reason behind this decision was that sensitivities are such that he will not permit a visit by a Cuban national group using public money," USF spokesman Todd Simmons said Tuesday.

However, many faculty members are unhappy with the decision and said university officials let a political feeling dictate the boundaries of free speech.

"Being an academician, I think it's a violation of my rights as a thinker," Lewis said. "I know it's a sticky political issue, but it's part of the reason we are here, to inform the world of what's going on."

In past years, the free exchange of ideas has come under fire at the university level.

In 1995, Cuban-American state legislators threatened to cut off the University of Florida's funding after the school invited two University of Havana professors to a symposium.

The year before, some local residents tried to stop a former anti-Castro militant, who now advocates peaceful negotiations with Cuba, from speaking at USF.

In response, university President Betty Castor has said it is not the university's role to take sides in political and international disputes. USF should be a place where all views can be expressed and rigorously examined, she said.

But USF seems to be tightening its reign on who can visit and who cannot.

"If you are going to change Cuba, you are not going to change Cuba by making it impossible for people to talk to each other," said Michael Canney, founding member of Cuba Vive, a group that supports an end to the embargo. "We are sacrificing too much for too little benefit."

Leaders in the local Cuban community said Tuesday they support Tighe's decision because in the end it is Cuban President Fidel Castro who determines who can visit the U.S. and who cannot, a privilege he should not have.

"Everyone in Cuba might not all have the same opportunities because they might not be in agreement with the state's line on certain issues," Cuban activist Emilio Vasquez Jr. said. "It's a very delicate issue."

"I think it's a good move the university made," said Ralph Fernandez, a local attorney who has defended Cuban organizations on various issues. "I don't want my tax dollars to fund any Nazi, KKK, militia or radical anti-American group. That is flat out."

La Camerata Romeu, an instrumental group composed of women, was scheduled to perform as part of a two-day symposium on Latin American music today and Thursday.

The $4,500 for airfare would have come from the education and general fund, Simmons said. Food and lodging had been donated. By law, the musicians could not receive payment for their visit.

After Tighe's decision was announced, the music department decided to cancel all of its events this week, USF professor Chris Doane said. Some events will be rescheduled for later in the month. Doane said faculty members hope to raise private funds and reschedule the group's trip in the fall.

"It's a setback, but as far as pursuing these opportunities in the future, we will continue to provide them," Doane said. "We will continue to persevere."