Cuba Thaw Could be Boon for Academics

Researchers are hopeful about restored diplomatic relations

Years ago, state universities in Florida could easily send students to Cuba for academic research or bring Cuban intellectuals and cultural figures to the United States for special events.

That got a lot more difficult in 2006, when the state Legislature passed a law declaring that any funds going to state universities cannot be used for travel to nations that the State Department lists as a state-sponsor of terrorism. The law applied to several countries, but it was aimed at Cuba and meant to tighten the restricted relationship the United States had with the communist nation since the 1960s.

But the future looked promising for Cuban studies in the Sunshine State with President Barack Obama announcing last month the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Depending on what happens in the next few months, the distinct possibility that Cuba could be removed from the list of terror sponsors would make academic research and student pursuits a lot more accessible.

That’s especially good news for Florida International University, whose Cuban Research Institute helps organize more than 70 events each semester. In recent years, they have managed to host Cuban intellectuals and public figures including Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban blogger known for her criticism of the country’s government.

“We’re looking forward to renewing our programs with Cuba and taking students there,” said Sebastian Arcos, director of FIU’s Cuban Research Institute.

“It’s going to be good for the university because it will unshackle us. … What you don’t want is the topic you’re studying to be boring. And with yesterday’s news, the next few months are going to be very interesting.”

Locally, the changes could reinvigorate what a once-burgeoning interest in Cuba studies at the University of South Florida.

Before the 2006 law, you might find students aboard a research vessel studying marine life off Cuba’s coast. The university also has hosted Cuban artists.

There was once even a small group of faculty members who comprised the Cuban Studies Committee.

Harry Vanden, a USF professor of government and international affairs whose research has focused on Latin America, said he can imagine Cuban studies making a comeback. Most immediately, he sees study-abroad opportunities for students, as well as study tours, maybe as soon as the next spring break.

“The idea that we can’t go is just bogus,” Vanden said. “We can go — it’s just a question of when.”

That possibility never vanished for the state’s private universities.

And for a group of students at Eckerd College, the timing could give them a front-row seat to whatever diplomatic changes are imminent. Economics professor Peter Hammerschmidt organized a January trip for 18 students to study the country’s economic system. He had finalized an itinerary just before Obama’s announcement.

“We’re just waiting to see how things unfold,” Hammerschmidt said. “One of my concerns is the emotions that run high on both sides. I hope that people aren’t offended that we’re going there. Our goal is to study the economic system and to learn, not to judge.”

By Dan Sullivan, Tampa Bay Times, January 2, 2015


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