State restrictions continue to inhibit Cuba-related research


In 2006, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill that prohibited Florida universities from funding travel to “terrorist” states, including Syria, Iran, Sudan and Cuba. 

But the politics behind that bill may be prohibiting academic research eight years later.

Frank Muller-Karger, a professor of biological oceanography, said the ban has posed obstacles for his research. 

Access to Cuban waters needs to be re-opened for the examination of biodiversity, he said. Marine life doesn’t acknowledge borders, and what happens in Cuban waters is often consequential to Floridian waters. 

“A lot of the resources that we use – in terms of lobsters, corals and fish – come drifting over from Cuba and we don’t necessarily understand how, when or why,” he said. 

Prior to 2006, Muller-Karger said he was able to use academic funding to study the interconnected system of American and Cuban waters. 

But after the bill, state funding for such research is prohibited. 

“I think that’s a gap in our knowledge and the only way to fill that gap is to work with people over there and sample and understand the resources better,” he said. 

The appeal to end the restriction isn’t motivated by politics, Muller-Karger said. It is motivated instead by the pursuit of knowledge regarding the nature of the world we all share. 

This isn’t the first time Florida’s terse relations with Cuba have created challenges for academics at USF, though.

In 2011, Noel Smith, curator of the USF Institute for Research in Art (IRA), was one of eight Florida faculty plaintiffs along with the American Civil Liberties Union who filed a lawsuit challenging Florida’s travel ban to Cuba, a ban that hindered the IRA’s ability to host Cuban artists or travel to Cuba to seek artists. 

At the time, Rachel May, director of the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean, said USF once offered a Cuban studies certificate for graduate students, but the program is no longer offered after a study abroad program could no longer be offered. 

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court stated they would not hear the case, leaving the ban in tact and many professors, such as Muller-Karger, still searching for solutions. 

Mark Amen, director of Graduate Political Science Studies, said Florida’s isolationist mindset against Cuba is rooted in beliefs from decades ago.

The U.S. placed a financial embargo on Cuba in 1960 to punish a communist regime, and further diplomatic and travel sanctions were placed in 1963 after the Cuban Missile Crisis – the climax of the Cold War.

“This has been a problem since the embargo,” Amen said. “It reinforces our boundaries with Cuba.”

Five decades later, Cuba is in the process of economic liberalization, political resentment in the U.S. has cooled and the practicality of the embargo is being discussed without fear of the communist label.

In recent years, U.S. President Barack Obama has loosened restrictions on travel and some universities in other states have pursued academic endeavors there. 

“I don’t see the value (of the ban),” Amen said. “It blocks all kinds of exchanges with humans that are meaningful.”  

Muller-Karger said while there are alternatives to the research he wishes to conduct, satellite imagery cannot really be a means of conducting his research.   

“Unless you go there and sample the water or the clay or the sand, you won’t be able to know (why the changes occur) just by looking at the colors from a satellite,” he said. “This is what we call ground proofing.” 

Muller-Karger said the standoff-ish attitude of the existing ban values pride over progress. 

“We’re wasting an opportunity to fill the knowledge gaps, which would benefit our state,” he said. “We lose the knowledge, while other people gain the knowledge…that’s a problem for Florida.”