By JACK STRIPLING | Gainesville Sun
Important research in Cuba will be crippled by a bill that passed the Legislature unanimously this week, according to some University of Florida professors who study the communist country.
The bill, which is on its way to being Florida law, bans the use of university money for travel to Cuba or any country labeled as a “terrorist” nation by the U.S. State Department.
“It basically helps to ensure that the state that should be the best informed on Cuba is going to be the worst informed on Cuba, particularly from an agricultural standpoint,” said Bill Messina, an agricultural economist at UF who has studied in Cuba with faculty from the University of Havana.
Rep. David Rivera, the Miami Republican who spearheaded the legislation, has little sympathy for faculty like Messina. He says it’s unconscionable to send taxpayer dollars to Cuba, “particularly when we’re in the middle of a war on terror.”
“Legislators don’t pay too much attention to professors,” he said. “Most legislators think they are the liberal, left-wing academic establishment . . . The best thing they ever did for this bill was to oppose it. In fact, the more they opposed it, the further the bill moved along.”
The bill would ban the use of money from universities or community colleges for travel to Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Iran and Libya. But Rivera, the son of Cuban immigrants, says Cuba is the primary target of the legislation because of its proximity to Florida.
Messina and other researchers at UF argue that Florida’s agricultural industry will likely be harmed by the legislation, which still has to be signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush. Cuba, a key exporter of grapefruit, has a growing citrus industry that is important to monitor so that Florida can better understand its competition, Messina said. “You can’t get that data long distance,” he said.
Messina and other faculty from the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are recognized experts on Cuba, Messina said - at least for now. UF faculty have been called upon to testify before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture and the U.S. International Trade Commission. But with this ban in place, Messina says he has doubts that UF will remain the go-to institution for expertise on Cuba.
The bill’s ban on travel monies is broad. Even private donations and federal grants, if processed through a university, couldn’t be used to fund travel under the language of the bill.
Fred Royce, a scientist at UF, is leaving with a group of UF graduate students Sunday for a trip to Cuba. Since the new law won’t take effect until July 1, there are no restrictions on the trip this time. But in the future, Royce said UF will likely have to change the way the money is handled for funding the trip, even though all the expenses are paid by students.
“The money might have to be handled a little differently,” he said. “We’d have talk to the lawyers about that, as we all know.”
Florida lawmakers can’t ban travel to a country altogether, but they can make it difficult enough to effectively end the state’s research in certain parts of the world, said Dennis Jett, dean of UF’s International Center.
Jett questioned the motives of lawmakers who backed the bill, saying the legislation appears intended to stir up support from South Florida residents who oppose the policies of Fidel Castro, head of the Cuban government. “Essentially, what happens is Republicans, before the election in order to increase the Miami Cuban vote, increase the regulations or make a new law,” he said. “It’s a way of energizing the Cuban vote and showing they hate Fidel, too.”
Rivera has heard such criticism before, but the 40-year-old lawmaker says he’s been passionate about Cuban issues throughout his professional life. Furthermore, Rivera says he welcomes any critic who faults him for catering to his base, which he says overwhelmingly supports the legislation.
“My response to that is: Isn’t that what elected officials are supposed to do?” He said. “Be responsive to the wishes of their community.”