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Florida universities still behind in relations with Cuba

The streets of Havana, Cuba. PHOTO SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Next week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to hoist the American flag above a reopened U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, according to a press conference given by President Barack Obama on July 1.

This will mark the first operation of an American embassy in the island nation since the previous embassy’s closure more than 50 years ago, and it is another step in Obama’s initiative to normalize relations with Cuba since last December.

These recent developments are a stark contrast to the political atmosphere previously surrounding the U.S. and Cuba, and public universities in Florida are still feeling the effects of past legislation.

USF College of Marine Science professor and biological oceanographer Frank Muller-Karger said he first began working with Cuban oceanographers in 1991.

He said USF researchers and Cuban researchers from the Institute of Oceanology in Havana embarked on a series of collaborations in which up to three Cuban researchers traveled to USF for several months at a time.

Muller-Karger said the oceanographers developed the first studies of the waters around Cuba using satellite data. These studies led to new discoveries in the field, including how El Nino storm patterns affect ocean productivity and how the waters around Cuba, Mexico and Florida are connected by ocean currents, causing a biological transport of marine species between the three.

He said Cuban researchers also sailed to Tampa Bay in 1998 for an oceanographic expedition to Mexico, Cuba and Florida. He said this was the first time a Cuban research vessel came to U.S. waters in about 40 years.

“We were able to do things that were quite unique,” Muller-Karger said. “We have literally tens of thousands of satellite images of the waters around Cuba which we were analyzing together with (Cuban researchers).”

Then, Florida legislators passed SB 2434 or “Travel to Terrorist States” into law in 2006. This bill barred state institutions, including public universities and their faculty, from using state funds, or even non-state funds like personal salaries, to finance any activities related to travel involving any country on the U.S. Department of State’s list of nations sponsoring terrorism.

This list included Cuba at the time the bill was passed.

“All of a sudden, everything stopped because we ended up in a politically difficult situation in the 2000s, and we’re still there,” Muller-Karger said. “(Researchers) are not allowed to study the factors that affect our own waters.”

SB2434 was recently nullified after the Obama Administration removed Cuba from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism on May 29. However, an earlier Florida statute enacted in 1996 may still legally prevent any state agency employees, including professors at public universities, from traveling to countries with which the U.S. does not have full diplomatic relations.

Muller-Karger said the Florida Board of Governors has specifically told USF faculty members that they are not allowed to engage in any work with Cuba.

“The state of Florida put an embargo on knowledge,” Muller-Karger said. “The tragic part is that the rest of the country is engaging with Cuba for academic exchanges and student exchanges and education … while the State University System in Florida is paralyzed.”

Noel Smith, curator of Latin American and Caribbean Art at the Institute for Research in Art at USF, said she has not been able to receive the support of USF to conduct her research in Cuba because of these laws. She said she had to personally fund her trip to a large Cuban international art gathering in May.

“It’s absolutely essential for anyone who is involved in Latin American art in general to attend that,” she said. “I had to take vacation time, and I had to pay for the trip myself.”

Smith said the laws hamper the Institute for Research in Art from bringing artists from Cuba to USF, and the institute can only collaborate with Cuban artists who already live in the U.S. or another country. She said she has not been able to take USF students to Cuba since 2004.

“Why would you want to come to Florida to do Cuban studies if your graduate students can’t be funded, if your faculty can’t be funded or if you can’t take students to study abroad to Cuba?” Smith asked.

These laws have no effect on private universities and colleges, however, and Eckerd College associate marine science and biology professor William Szelistowski and 10 Eckerd College students recently returned from a two-week marine science expedition to Cuba.

Szelistowski said they met with five students from the University of Havana to work with them on existing research projects at the university and he plans on setting up more joint research projects in the future with the university.

“It never would’ve gone off the ground … if we didn’t have access to Cuba,” he said.

Szelistowski said the team encountered few barriers during the trip, and he said it was much more straightforward and simple than he thought it would be. He said the biggest problems were paying for expenses without the use of American credit cards and leaving behind certain electronics that could not be brought through Cuban customs.

While the Obama administration significantly loosened travel and trade restrictions under the existing embargo between the U.S. and Cuba in January, the embargo as a whole remains untouched and is still in effect.

Szelistowski said if he were unable to travel to Cuba, this joint research venture, as well as similar research projects requiring travel to Cuba, wouldn’t be possible. However, he said he imagines researchers working for state institutions could embark on a research trip to Cuba through some other organization or obtain grants from private institutions.

“If we had a project we wanted to do in Cuba and couldn’t get to Cuba, we wouldn’t do it,” he said. “What other alternatives would there be?”

Harry Vanden, a USF professor in the department of government and international affairs and author of more than a dozen books on Latin American politics, said it is a necessity to travel to Cuba for conducting academic research on the island nation.

“You can’t do research on a country’s conditions without going to the country. You can’t study the flora and fauna unless you go to the country to see it,” he said. “Because of very politicized policies, (these laws) put Floridians in the university (system), including professors and students, at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in private universities and state universities outside of Florida.”

Vanden said the re-establishment of the U.S. embassy in Cuba should make the 1996 Florida statute restricting state worker travel void, however, and he said he does not expect the state to pass further legislation limiting Florida’s relations with Cuba.

“Unless Florida passes any additional legislation … there are no (state) restrictions on Florida state employees, Florida university personnel or Florida students within public universities,” he said. “(The 1996 law) is a self-defeating policy and flies in the face of intelligent diplomatic relations.”

Despite this, Vanden said he is not as confident that USF will create any study abroad or research projects involving Cuba soon after the restrictions are lifted. He said the university has not been able to develop any programs, as the quickly disappearing state restrictions are still in effect.

“USF, I’m afraid, has not been at the forefront of establishing better (academic) relations with Cuba … Hopefully that will change,” he said. “Some (faculty members) wanted to (develop programs) and were basically told that we can’t and shouldn’t. They went to the Office of General Council who basically said that was illegal.”

In an email to the Tampa Tribune, USF spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez said the university will consider the potential development of new programs when the law permits.

“While there has long been scholarly interest in Cuba from faculty and students across various disciplines at USF, the university has, and will continue to comply with federal and state law,” she said. “Should any applicable laws change, the university will evaluate opportunities for research or education abroad at that time.”