Five sessions ago, the Florida Legislature passed a bill banning state university professors and students from traveling to Communist Cuba, and other nations considered “terrorist states” using public or private funds.
But some scholars in Florida, including Joseph Jones, interim assistant vice president of the Office of International Education and Development at Florida A&M thinks the law should be reexamined.
The 2006 law came about after the George W. Bush administration placed further restrictions on family, and educational exchange travel to Cuba in March 2003. In 2004, yet again, the administration implemented further checks on most forms of travel to Cuba.
Despite the restraints that prolonged the diplomatic cold shoulder Cuba has received from the United States for 50 years, a new regime-of-sorts in the White House is ordering “change” in U.S.-Cuba relations.
The current administration is evoking a climate change in America’s Cuban foreign policy, warming up to the idea of loosened travel and economic restrictions to the small island nation, just 93 miles from Florida’s southernmost point.
In the executive order Reaching out to the Cuban People, President Obama called for changes in regulation and policy on purposeful travel in purporting the widely shared goal of Cuban independence.
But the purposeful travel to Cuba by professors and students in Florida’s colleges and universities is still being stifled by the stiff measures taken by the legislature in 2006.
A Judas in our ranks
After the Bush administration continued the precedent of travel, and economic restrictions on Cuba, then-Florida International University professor admitted he and his wife had been spies for Cuba for nearly 30 years. Carlos Alvarez, and his wife Elsa were sentenced in 2007 to five years in prison, three years probation and three years, and one-year probation respectively.
The case would spawn the drafting, and passage of Senate Bill 2434, otherwise known as the Florida Travel Act.
Like the federal regulations before it, the act tacitly prohibited the use of public or private funds by a private college or university being used to “implement, organize, direct, coordinate, or administer activities related to, or involving, travel to the nations identified as terrorist states by the U.S. Department of State. Other states passed similar laws.”
But now that the Obama administration has retailored America’s once-rigid foreign policy against Cuba, some believe the Florida law may be outdated; especially as 49 states have benefited from changes to the restrictions.
In our own backyard
Jones believes the law no longer has a place.
“Recent actions by President Obama to loosen the restrictions for educational and religious travel to Cuba are encouraging steps in the right direction in supporting the Cuban people. These actions should help to improve relationships among both countries,” said Jones.
Jones, like many other Florida university administrators and faculty, believes the dissolution of the law would have positive socio-economic impacts for both countries that far exceeds the politics of Florida-Cuba relations.
“There are many problems common to Cuba that have implications for the U.S., Caribbean and Latin America, such as: invasive species pest control, green house gases, poverty and freedom of speech,” said Jones, who recalls being able to see Cuba from Key West on a trip.
Scholars were one of few groups granted legal travel to Cuba under certain conditions with the tightened federal measures in 2005. In general, they were to demonstrate plans to stay in the country for 10 weeks or more to acquire a travel license from the US government, a requirement which eliminated Cuba study abroad programs at a number of universities.
Obama’s Jan. 14 executive order would allow Florida institutions to implement credit-bearing study abroad programs under a general license, given the law is changed by lawmakers, or struck down by a court.
A Nov. 2010 survey conducted by NAFSA: Association of International Educators, 1,000 Americans were asked their views on the importance of international education. Fifty-seven percent said international education is essential to the educational experience. Nearly 75 percent believe U.S. higher education institutions must do a better job of teaching students about the world if they are to be prepared for the global economy. Forty percent of respondents advocate the allowance of foreign scholars to come to the U.S. to work and live.
“There are many brilliant Cuban students and scholars who could benefit from the technological resources available in the U.S.,” said Jones.
“A recent Cuba scholar to the US engaging in entomology study and species documentation had a very productive working relationship with faculty from FAMU and UF. These experiences advance scientific and cultural understanding among nations.”
Victor Johnson, senior adviser for public policy NAFSA, believes it is necessary to change the long-standing policy amid shifts in Cuban society.
“Cuba is engaged in a historic political transition, and as that transition proceeds, it is essential to strengthen links between American, and Cuban society,” Johnson told the International Educator.
A Tradition of Hypocrisy
Abel Iraola, political and economic chair of the Cuban American Student Association at Florida State, deems the Florida law and any restrictive federal measures ‘hypocritical,’ save outdated.
“In recent years, Floridians tend to elect highly-conservative Cuban-Americans to the legislature, and these representatives have made their way to the highest echelons of state government U.S. Senator Marco Rubio was Speaker of the House. And with so many conservative Cuban-Republicans in power, their clout and sway has grown, and they have influenced their non-Hispanic counterparts to support anti-Cuba legislation which is billed as anti-Castro in order to pander to a relatively small base of people in Florida politics,” said Iraola, who added that his opinion does not reflect the views of all CASA members.
He, however, is not alone.
In 2006, the Florida American Civil Liberties Union filed suite against the state and in 2008 a south Florida U.S. District Court ruled the law unconstitutional. A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision.
The American Civil Liberties Union, along with faculty at FIU has since asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the law.
“We’re asking the Court to act because this law allows Florida to be the only state in the country with its own foreign policy which runs over, above and contrary to the foreign policy of the United States,” said Howard Simon executive director of ACLU Florida.
While the current administration reestablishes the government’s Cuba policy, Florida lawmakers are standing in the way of promoting political change in the small island nation by some accounts.
“The way to end these sorts of regimes and human rights abuses is to allow Americans to go abroad and be exposed to them- to learn from cultures, and bring it back, and spread the knowledge so that the world will take action. It is my opinion that the United States is getting in the way of what it seemingly seeks to accomplish, and that at this point the goal is no longer to end Castro’s regime in Cuba, but a game of ‘Who Can Be More Stubborn’,” said Iraola.
It is not clear whether a bill that counters the 2006 Florida Travel Act will be introduced in wake of easing federal policy, but to date Florida scholars can only hope that travel to open travel to Cuba will be realized.
“The law limits the free movement of people and information,” said Jones.
“The best way to change a society is to expose it to another way of thinking and being.”