June 19, 2006 – Despite the objections of students, professors and university administrators throughout Florida, the state has banned public funding for educational travel to five countries that the US State Department deems "state sponsors of terrorism" â€“ most notably Cuba.
The academic community in Florida says the loss of Cuba as an educational partner will be devastating, and dozens of researchers have filed a lawsuit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming that the restrictions imposed by the law are unconstitutional.
The funding ban follows similar but unsuccessful proposals by Miami-area State Representative David Rivera (R), who for two years sought to restrict the few legal avenues for Americans to legally travel to Cuba, admittedly in an effort to please the Cuban exiles opposed to Cuban President Fidel Castro in his district.
This year, after two Florida International University employees who had traveled to Cuba on academic exchange were indicted on espionage changes, Rivera found support for the ban from the Republican-controlled state legislature.
Neither of the accused â€“ Carlos and Elsa Alvarez â€“ has been found guilty.
Governor Jeb Bush signed Riveraâ€™s bill into law on May 30.
The other four countries to which public university funding for travel will be banned are Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. Libya is also on the list, but on May 15, President Bush restored diplomatic ties with the country and requested the removal of its terrorism-sponsor designation.
The academic community in Florida says the loss of Cuba as an educational partner will be devastating.
Florida has ten state universities, one state-funded college and 28 community colleges that will be affected by the restrictions.
The nine plaintiffs in the suit include Florida International Universityâ€™s faculty senate and professors, the University of Florida, University of South Florida, University of Central Florida, as well as two graduate students who are planning to do further research in Cuba. Another plaintiff, University of Central Florida Associate Professor Houman Sadri, has joined the suit claiming it will prevent him from continuing his research in Iran.
In an interview with The NewStandard, Rivera said the law will "protect the integrity of the universities themselves, from being possibly manipulated or utilized by terrorist regimes." He added, "Floridians donâ€™t want their taxpayer dollars being used to subsidize or sponsor terrorist regimes or terrorist nations, particularly in a moment when America is fighting a â€˜war on terror.â€™"
In national security circles, the notion of Cuba actually sponsoring terrorism is highly controversial, with very little evidence that the island nation has any terrorism ties.
Having been on the US State Department's terror-sponsors list since 1982 for then backing communist guerilla forces, no recent connection has been shown to justify the label, which critics note is convenient for other reasons. Indeed, in 1998, a US intelligence review determined that Cuba does not pose a threat to US national security, implying that it no longer sponsors terrorism.
â€œThe primary effect of this legislation is to deny Americans information about other parts of the world.â€
But the ACLU said fighting terrorism was not Riveraâ€™s true intention. "The primary effect of this legislation is to deny Americans information about other parts of the world," said Florida ACLU Executive Director Howard Simon, in a press release announcing the legal action.
The ACLUâ€™s lawsuit claims that the Florida law interferes with and threatens to supersede federal laws on relations, commerce and travel with other countries. According to the ACLU, the travel ban is "an attempt by Florida to conduct foreign policy at the state level."
"The interference by the Florida legislature in the prerogative of the federal government makes it unconstitutional," said Randall Marshall, legal director of the Florida ACLU.
Marshall pointed out that the federal government does not prohibit academic travel to any of the countries on the list. In fact, the US Treasury Departmentâ€™s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has an extensive set of regulations which dictate the limited circumstances under which academics and other Americans are permitted to travel to Cuba. Processes are already in place that require a special application to OFAC by individuals or academic institutions.
The suit also argues that the ban violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments protecting speech, association and equal protection under the law, by "interfering with academic freedom, public expression and free speech by students and university employees," and "by singling out specific areas of study... while continuing to fund study and research in other areas."
â€œYou may as well close the door on the University, as far as Iâ€™m concerned, if you are going to blockade scholarly exchanges and education about a particular country...â€
"You cannot have a legitimate Latin American [or] Caribbean studies program if you donâ€™t include Cuba," argued Maura Barrios, a Cuban-American who traveled to Cuba three times as assistant director of the University of South Floridaâ€™s Latin American and Caribbean Studies. "You may as well close the door on the University, as far as Iâ€™m concerned, if you are going to blockade scholarly exchanges and education about a particular country, any country â€“ and in this case one that happens to be a part of our local history."
Tampa, often described as the cradle of Cuban liberty, was the planning ground and launch pad for the Cuban war of independence led by Jose Marti in 1895. Florida has the highest population of Cubans in the United States, and the historical relationship has been well documented, in large part by Floridaâ€™s academic community.
Rivera argues: "People can still conduct research on Cuba if they want to; people can write on Cuba. But if theyâ€™re going to want to travel to Cuba, they canâ€™t be using taxpayer dollars or taxpayer resources."
Rivera is himself Cuban-American, and his district contains a large concentration of anti-Castro Cuban exiles, including many who favor a complete economic and cultural embargo of Cuba by the United States.
Rather than dispute the criticism that he was catering to his exile base, Rivera embraced that notion, contending, "I think every elected official in the country should be responsive to the wishes of their electorate... And the fact that I pursue policies that my electorate supports, I believe makes me a better representative."
During the legislative session this past spring, the state university system chancellor came out against the bill, as did the American Association of University Professors, which stated in a letter to Governor Bush that the ban would also deter prospective faculty members from accepting appointments to Florida institutions, on the belief that "the constraints on academic freedom are too great a price to pay for the opportunity to teach and carry out research at Florida institutions of higher learning."
Rivera told TNS he believes that "any legitimate research activities related to terrorist nations, if they are indeed legitimate, will find private funding." He added that researchers should instead seek funding directly from private sponsors rather than rely on public universities as liaisons.
But Noel Smith, curator of Latin American and Caribbean art at the Institute for Research and Art at USF and a plaintiff in the suit, doubts private funds are accessible to academics without university support.
Smith has traveled to Cuba to research art and attend exhibitions since 1999; each time she has used private funding, but it had to be funneled through the University. She said that she and other researchers typically rely on funding through academic institutions and under the ban, "will be completely ineligible to use those funds."
The ACLU says the academics have judicial precedent on their side. In 2000, a federal district court struck down a Miami-Dade County ordinance that prevented anybody who did business with Cuba from using county facilities. In another case, the Supreme Court ruled that a ban by several municipalities in Massachusetts against doing business with Burma interfered with the federal governmentâ€™s ability to regulate international relations.