Ban on travel to Cuba faces challenge

Campaign News | Friday, 11 January 2008

Civil rights activists and university officials argue that the law is unconstitutional.

TAMPA - Noel Smith used to count on traveling to Havana twice a year to develop the University of South Florida's ties with Cuban artists and art institutions.

A curator at USF's Institute for Research in Art, her work was part of long-standing exchanges between Florida's state universities and academics in Cuba.

Those ties were broken in 2006 when the Florida Legislature passed a law banning the use of state resources for academic travel to the communist island.

"It's been very destructive of our program here," said Smith.

But the Travel to Terrorist States Act is now facing a mounting legal challenge from civil rights activists and state university officials and faculty who argue it is unconstitutional.

"Our academic freedom is being hurt," said Damian Fernandez, vice provost at Florida International University in Miami-Dade County.

The act, signed into law by then Gov. Jeb Bush on May 30, 2006, prohibits professors, students and researchers from using money administered by a public university or college - be it federal or state funds and even private foundation grants - to travel to any country listed as a terrorist state by the U.S. State Department. Besides Cuba, the list includes Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

The case began when the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida sued the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's 11 public universities, and the state attorney general intervened on the board's behalf.

Miami District Judge Adalberto Jordan rejected the lawsuit last year. But his decision is being appealed by the ACLU. A ruling is expected next week.

But the Board of Governors, which has begun to assert its autonomy in battles with the Legislature over tuition, transformed itself from defendant to plaintiff. Earlier this month, the Board of Governors filed its own suit, arguing that privately funded academic travel should be permitted.

"The Board of Governors believes the Travel Act's prohibition on the use of non-state funds violates established First Amendment protections," the motion states, while conceding, "The Travel Act, as it relates to the use of state funds, is a proper exercise of Florida's spending power."

It's hard to predict how the judge will rule, according to Bill Kaplan, a lecturer on education and constitutional law at Stetson University College of Law. But the case is potentially precedent-setting because it deals with issues like the boundary between federal and state authority and academic freedom in the face of international terrorism.

"As we're facing these terrorism threats, and as we're becoming increasingly globalized in everything, these kinds of issues are increasingly important," he said.

Strong international study programs are key to a state such as Florida, which has a large foreign-born population and depends on global trade and tourism, faculty members say. FIU's Cuban Research Institute is considered one of the country's top centers for the study of Cuban history, culture and politics, with 40 faculty associates.

"We cannot have a state that is so inserted in the global arena and not have faculty engaging in research in key areas," said Fernandez, who heads FIU's Cuban Research Institute.

Cuba's proximity and historical ties with Florida and U.S. foreign policy make it especially deserving of close academic study. In any political conflict it makes strategic sense to "know your enemy," said Fernandez. "We need to know and have the freedom to find out what is going on."

Rep. David Rivera, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami, defends the law he co-wrote, noting that it was passed unanimously by the Legislature. "Florida taxpayers do not want their money or their publicly funded resources to be utilized for travel to terrorist nations," he said.

University faculty members point out that Cuba-related programs in the state are almost exclusively funded with private money, to avoid controversy.

Riveramakes no distinction between public and private funds "because all of the funds are co-mingled, utilizing infrastructure of the public university system," he said, including secretarial staff, as well as university computers and e-mails.

He insists that the law does not ban professors from traveling to Cuba. Private foundations could directly fund professors, bypassing the universities, he said.

Rivera also suggested university professors could pay for trips to Cuba out of their own pockets.

That is nonsense, says Howard Simon, the ACLU's executive director, noting that major foundations only give money to well-established tax-deductible institutions, not individuals. Simon says the Legislature was "conned" by Rivera's argument that private funds were not affected.

"Now it's up to the federal court to undo the mistake by the Legislature," he said.

Rivera discredits the value of the travel. "A lot of this research is bogus," he said, arguing that Cuba controls who can visit, who they talk to and what information is made available.

University faculty members beg to differ. Research into Cuban agriculture at the University of Florida dating back to 1994 provided highly useful data and information on crops in Cuba until funding stopped, said William Messina, coordinator of economic analysis at the Food and Resource Economics Department. The program won three grants totaling $200,000 from the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

"You can't understand what's going on down there if you don't visit the island," added Messina, noting that UF's Cuba researchers have been invited to testify before Congress. "We are the eyes and ears of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)," he said.

Fast facts

Who can go

U.S. travel to Cuba is mostly limited to humanitarian and educational groups, journalists and Cuban-Americans. People must be licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department to engage in travel to, from and within Cuba. Tourists cannot receive a license. This restriction includes tourist travel to Cuba from or through a third country such as Mexico or Canada, though this is a popular route for Americans. Specific licenses are granted on a case-by-case basis to religious groups, athletes and people conducting authorized trade.

Sources: Times files, U.S. State Department


| top | back | home |
Share on FacebookTweet this