Cuba: Florida's State Schools Get Some Academic Freedom

Now that Cuba and the U.S. have restored diplomatic relations, students and faculty in Florida's public schools can participate in academic programs on the island. Schools in other states have long done so, but until recently a quirky statute of the Florida Legislature deprived its own schools of this basic academic freedom.

The Cuban embargo refers primarily to the Cuban Assets Control regulations issued by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. Conceding that even federal sanctions must conform to the Constitution, the OFAC regulations created licenses (general ones built into the statute and specific ones available through petition to OFAC) that respected the academic freedom and speech rights of universities. These licenses let academics visit Cuba, conduct research on the island, and participate in a few educational activities.

Truth be told, these stingy licenses permitted little. In addition to any real prohibition, fear of federal prosecution also created a potent chilling effect, not lost on risk-averse academics who could more safely research something else. Nevertheless, enough universities and faculty jumped through OFAC's licensing hoops that academic exchange between the U.S. and Cuba continued, though it slowed to a trickle.

I started on the tenure-track at Albany Law School, whose administration enthusiastically supported my interest in Cuba and our application for a license. Indeed, my first research grant paid for travel to write about the Cuban Central Bank, in part to explore my identity. I moved to Florida hoping to pursue Cuban legal studies. In its wisdom, though, the Legislature then passed its own mini-embargo, making Florida the only state to do so. The state embargo applied to any country listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department.

Like the federal sanctions, Florida's embargo generally forbade travel to the island. The state embargo was worse, though, because it stripped its public academics of the modest freedom of action permitted by the federal licenses. Before the Florida ban, my university supported licensed activity - often funded by the Ford Foundation - but the Florida statute closed the spigot.

This was too bad for Florida schools as a whole and, in particular, for the many Cuban-American students and faculty in the state system. As I've written elsewhere, to form an autonomous judgment on the island Cuban-Americans must have first-hand experience. Like veal calves, though, many raised in the captivity of the Cuban embargo have lacked that opportunity.

The ACLU, our faculty senate, and some brave faculty challenged the Florida travel ban on Constitutional grounds. The district court judge ruled against the statute. On appeal, though, the 11th Circuit Court reversed the district court. After the Supreme Court let stand the Circuit Court decision, Florida schools found themselves at a loss to pursue what should have been a comparative advantage in Cuban area studies.

No more. Some uncertainty remains about the pace and scope of normalization, but much has already changed. OFAC has expanded its federal licenses. Importantly, the State Department removed Cuba from its terrorism list. As a result, the Florida travel ban no longer applies to Cuba. Our Board of Governors (which regulates public universities) insisted that the ban would last until diplomatic relations were restored.

That happened in July. After waiting nearly a decade to take my students to Havana, maybe we can finally pack our bags.