Quietly, FIU students and professors resume long-banned travel to Cuba

American students walk down stairs after a day of classes at the University of Havana, Cuba in 2006. With diplomatic with Cuba restored, Florida professors and students can now spend state money to travel to the island after a decade-long ban.
American students walk down stairs after a day of classes at the University of Havana, Cuba in 2006. With diplomatic with Cuba restored, Florida professors and students can now spend state money to travel to the island after a decade-long ban. AP

The trip to Cuba is called “A Revolutionary Perspective on Education.” It promises stunning museum collections, conversations with college professors and plenty of free time to wander the streets of Old Havana.

For seven days, Florida International University will help lead the tour for educators, even offering a small federal subsidy to help pay for the trip.

Until recently, such a trip would have been illegal.

For a decade, state law made it impossible for Florida colleges and universities to use public money or even private grants to travel to the island 90 miles south. That changed when the American flag was raised over the U.S. Embassy in Havana last summer, marking the restoration of diplomatic ties and with it, the evaporation of the last travel restrictions keeping Florida professors from visiting the island.

“I’m glad it looks like this will be over. We all have an interest in knowing what goes on in a country that can radically impact what happens here in Florida,” said Florida ACLU Executive Director Howard Simon, who helped lead a high-profile lawsuit against the restrictions.

Compared with the public battle waged when the ban was enacted, academic travel has resumed under the radar. Quietly, a trickle of professors and students from FIU have started academic exchanges and research with a country that had been essentially off-limits, despite being in their own back yard.

For Florida professors, it represents a major win for academic freedom. Now, universities can pay for trips to Cuba the same way they pay for trips to New York, said FIU sociology professor Guillermo Grenier, who conducts the university’s well-known Cuba Poll that measures Cuban-American attitudes.

“Public universities were shackled to this law,” Grenier said.

But for some exiles, publicly funded travel to Cuba represents a new wound as relations with the island become more and more routine.

Former FIU president Modesto “Mitch” Maidique, who spent 11 years as a student in Havana, said increased cultural exchanges could have a positive impact on the island. But he added, “we have to recognize these junkets for what they are — an attempt to indoctrinate through propaganda the visitors, and that is the main objective. What they will learn about education, only God knows.”

The road to full academic exchange will have to be traveled carefully. In a hint of the difficulties that may lay ahead, the Miami-Dade Public School system recently pulled its support of FIU’s latest trip. After originally advertising it to social studies teachers and offering certification credits to educators who sign up, the district quickly changed its mind.

At least one parent complained to school board members about the trip, and a local exile group wrote a letter of protest.

“We have a heightened sense of awareness as to the sensitivity regarding that region, particularly in this moment in time. So we just didn’t think it was appropriate,” said Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for Miami-Dade schools.

The school district has wrestled with Cuba controversies in the past. In the same year the travel restrictions passed, school board members yanked a book from library shelves called Vamos a Cuba. A parent complained it painted too rosy a picture of life under Fidel Castro. It became a national controversy complete with accusations of censorship and a court battle, and is often credited with contributing to the eventual ouster of then-Superintendent Rudy Crew.

Board member Marta Pérez-Wurtz sat on the school board then, and she still does now. She said the school district made the “right decision” last week in pulling its support of the FIU Cuba trip.

There was a time that FIU students and professors traveled freely and regularly between Miami and Cuba. Former FIU professor Lisandro Pérez launched the university’s Cuba Research Center in 1991, leading the way for cultural exchanges and creating one of the first academic fellowships for Cuban professors in the U.S., Pérez said. Most of it was grant-funded.

“We were known nationally as one of the most important centers for having exchanges with Cuba,” said Pérez, who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It’s a natural for FIU.”

It came to an abrupt halt in 2006. A state law championed by then-Rep. David Rivera, made it impossible for colleges and universities to use public or private money to travel to Cuba, or to any other country on the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism.

FIU’s faculty senate and dozens of other local professors fought the restrictions in a battle that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the court declined to hear the case and the law held.

Simon, the state ACLU executive director, said it was clear at the time that the ban was aimed at FIU. He called it a “bury your head in the sand” moment for Florida. While the rest of the country was free to conduct academic research, the most logical and perhaps relevant institutions were locked out.

“Sometimes we win lawsuits in court. Sometimes lawsuits get tangled up in court. And sometimes issues are won as a result of social change, cultural change, and — in this case — political change,” Simon said.

Change was slow to come. Even after President Barack Obama lifted Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the ban remained in place. The general counsel for the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s public universities, opined that public money couldn’t be used to travel to any countries where the U.S. lacked diplomatic relations.

Then, in July 2015, Obama announced the embassy in Havana would be reopened. That same week, FIU’s Office of Faculty and Global Affairs unceremoniously sent a memo to professors titled “Cuba travel.”

“The removal of the Florida travel restrictions means faculty members may engage with colleagues on the island, as well as plan research and educational programming, including study abroad trips, in line with our academic mission,” the five-sentence memo read.

Without much fanfare to mark the occasion professors has once fought so hard for, a decade-long restriction evaporated and FIU professors are now scrambling to catch up with institutions that have had unimpeded access to Miami’s own backyard.

“It’s the flavor of the month. People are trying to figure out how to do study abroad in Cuba,” said Grenier, the FIU sociology professor. “We are way behind.”

Grenier said FIU’s study of Cuba has been hampered by the state restrictions, forcing experts to move to other states.

“If you study Cuba, why come to Florida?” he asked. “We lost dozens of professors that would have made us the most important Cuba studies center in the country...In the future I don’t think we will be hampered.”

Miami Herald reporters Michael Vasquez and Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.