USF students and staff officially bound for Cuba

tbo-logoPaul Guzzo | Tribune Staff | October 9, 2015

TAMPA — University of South Florida students are returning to Cuba.

For the first time since at least 2006, a student group affiliated with USF will travel to the island nation using money earmarked for state education.

On Dec. 13, recipients of the USF Holcombe Scholarship will take a study abroad trip to Cuba. All 15 scholarship students have signed up to go.

The itinerary hasn’t been finalized, said Charles Adams, dean of the USF Honors College and a professor of English who will chaperone the students. But Adams said it will include meetings with scholars in Havana and possibly helping the Tampa-based humanitarian organization Living in Faith install water purification systems in a rural area outside Cuba’s capital city.

“The students will get a feel for different aspects of Cuba’s culture,” Adams said. “They will learn about Cuban history, both pre- and post-revolution.”

The students also are part of history: the first student group affiliated with USF to travel to Cuba since it again became legal to do so.

A statute enacted in 2006 prohibits the use of state university funding for activities related to travel to countries that are designated by the U.S. State Department as a sponsor of terrorism, a list Cuba remained on from 1981 until May.

When the last USF-affiliated student group went to Cuba is not clear, Smith said. He has heard that one went in 2003 but could not confirm that.

If so, that group either did not have a faculty member along or had one there illegally. A 1996 Florida statute prohibits state agency personnel from traveling to a country in the Western Hemisphere with which the U.S. lacks diplomatic relations.

The U.S. and Cuba fell under that category until July, when the Cuban Embassy opened in Washington for the first time since 1961.

Florida was the only state in the U.S. with such prohibitions. Proponents of the statutes claim they were written for Cuba.

Brad and Terry Holcombe, USF alumni who fund the scholarship named in their honor, privately are paying all the expenses for the Cuba trip, airfare, food and lodging.

What links the trip directly to the university is that the students will receive one credit course hour and paid faculty are going and supporting it.

Under the 2006 statute, a faculty member was prevented from even advising a student traveling to a nation designated a terrorism sponsor, because the advising would have been done on university time and pay.

“The Holcombes are dedicated to providing educational opportunities to those who might not otherwise have access to them,” said Adams, of the USF Honors College. “This is yet another unique opportunity they want to give these students.”

According to an online newsletter published by Living in Faith from February 2013, the Holcombes have been among the organization’s most active supporters since 2005, often traveling to Cuba as part of missionary trips.

Living in Faith was created in 1995, the website says, and helps citizens in Havana and Santa Clara by providing them clean water, vision care, basic nutrition and medicine.

“The students won’t be missionaries,” Adams said. “They won’t be laboring for long hours. They’ll do what they can to help but mostly learn about the areas in need of these purification systems.”

This trip will make history as the first USF-affiliated student group to travel to Cuba since at least 2006, but the distinction of first USF employee to return to the island nation using university funding seems to belong to Noel Smith, USF curator of Latin American and Caribbean art.

Individuals linked to state universities continued to study and research in Cuba during the ban by using their own money and without any official association with their institutions.

One was Smith, who traveled to Cuba a number of times over the years to study art.

However, her most recent trip was treated differently by USF.

On July 28, Smith served as a moderator at an arts conference held in the Spanish Embassy in Havana.

The embassy covered her cost of travel and lodging.

But USF covered certain other costs on a per diem basis and counted the trip as work-related so she did not have to use vacation days.

Despite the raising of the Cuban flag in Washington signaling the return of diplomatic relations, USF administrators did not send an email to personnel officially declaring they could travel to the island nation until Aug. 13, the day before the U.S. flag was hoisted above the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

“They knew I was going before that email was sent,” Smith said with a laugh.

After the August email, the Holcombes reached out to Adams about planning this student trip.

U.S. citizens still face restrictions on travel to Cuba and must prove their trip falls into one of a dozen categories.

Categories most likely to be cited by faculty, staff and students from state universities in Florida include professional research and meetings, teaching at a Cuban academic institution, athletic competitions, public performances, sponsorship of academic seminars and conferences, study abroad and workshops related to Cuba or global issues involving Cuba.

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