Schools face ban on trips to Cuba
A South Florida legislator's proposal would restrict state-run universities from travel to Cuba and other 'terrorist states,' but some academics have dismissed it as a grab for political attention.
BY OSCAR CORRAL AND NOAH BIERMAN
State Rep. David Rivera wants to make it impossible for state-run colleges and universities to sponsor or promote trips to Cuba, even for legitimate research -- a move slammed by several professors as an attack on academic freedom.
Rivera said the recent arrests of Florida International University professor Carlos M. Alvarez and his wife, Elsa, an FIU counselor -- both accused of being agents for Cuba for more than two decades -- compelled the Cuban-American legislator to draft the bill. Carlos Alvarez mostly traveled to Cuba as a facilitator for a group not affiliated with FIU.
''The FIU spy case vividly demonstrates the security risks associated with state employees traveling to terrorist countries,'' Rivera said. ``The integrity of the university and the entire university community is undermined by this activity. My bill simply seeks to protect higher education from the threat of espionage activities.''
FIU professor Lisandro Perez, who has traveled to Cuba often for research, called Rivera's bill ``political demagoguery.''
''He [Rivera] wants to build a career using the Cuba topic, which you can always count on here locally to grab people's emotions,'' Perez said. ``This is just a blatant effort on his part to get some political limelight.''
The bill would specifically prohibit colleges and universities from using any state funds, as well as private donations and grants, to ``implement, organize, direct, coordinate, or administer activities related to or involving travel to a terrorist state.''
The proposal uses the U.S. State Department list to define terrorist states, including Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Since 1988, FIU has prohibited using state money for Cuba travel, said the school's interim provost, Ronald Berkman. Instead, professors use grants. ''I think when people travel for bona fide research activity that they are not undermining the integrity of the university,'' Berkman said.
University administrators and professors said the proposal has a chilling effect that injects politics into research and attacks academic freedom. ''It's a bad idea for politicians to get involved in areas of research and free inquiry. There are plenty of laws on the books against subversive activity,'' said James J. Sheehan, a Stanford University history professor and former president of the American Historical Association. ``Visiting a place, studying a place, speaking freely about a place -- these are things that are really essential for a democracy to work.''
PRESSURE ON ACADEMIA
Professors who study in politically sensitive areas such as the Middle East have been under increasing pressure after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Sheehan said. Such restrictions, while intended to harm totalitarian regimes, can undermine democratic values, said Sheehan, not speaking for the association.
Professors who have traveled to Cuba for research also criticized the bill.
University of Florida Professor Terry McCoy, an expert in Latin American Studies, who traveled to Cuba in 1996 to research the marine environment, said the bill is counterproductive.
''The post-Castro era is getting closer,'' McCoy said. ``It's going to happen probably within the next five and certainly within the next ten years. And that's going to be an unstable time. It would be in [America's] interest to have institutional academic relationships in place.''
Further curtailing academic travel to Cuba could lead to a vacuum in knowledge, and therefore bad decision-making, said Loyola Marymount Professor Fernando Guerra, a Mexican-American professor in Los Angeles who has traveled to Cuba to research its housing. Guerra concluded Havana had the poorest housing stock of eight cities he researched in the hemisphere, a result of bad governmental policy.
''This is not about how to do good research or inform people, this is about symbolic politics,'' Guerra said of Rivera's bill. ``People say they are against the Castro regime and would like to punish it, but there are many other ways of doing that. I think something like this helps make people more sympathetic to Castro.''
Academics say federal restrictions on Cuba travel are already hard to overcome.
''If the aim of the sponsors of the legislation is principally Cuba, it's hard to see what there is about the federal legislation which is not sufficient for the folks in Florida,'' said Jonathan Knight, director of the American Association of University Professors' program in academic freedom and tenure.
Rivera proposed a similar bill two years ago, but it died in the Senate. House speaker-elect Marco Rubio said he supports more restrictions.