Sunday, June 4, 2006
In My Opinion
Act's real aim is to halt research about Cuba
By Ana Menéndez
Congratulations to state lawmakers for making it almost impossible for Florida scholars to travel to Cuba and four other ``terrorist states.''
Why stop there? Let's go after scholars wanting to travel to other unsavory states such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ohio, where it recently took 1½ hours to execute an inmate who could be heard moaning and making guttural noises as he died.
Only problem is that Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, is a friend. Pakistan, despite an appalling human-rights record, is an ally. And Afghanistan may be on its way to becoming the world's largest narco-state, but it's our narco-state.
And Ohio's exiled community has yet to become a force in local politics.
Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Travel to Terrorist States Act on Tuesday, proving once again that political leadership today has less to do with moral courage than it does with creating the illusion of it.
The bill was sponsored by Miami Republican David Rivera, who did a brilliant public relations job with it -- persuading people that it was an innocuous little bill that merely prevented state funds from being used for travel to Cuba.
THE FACT OF THE MATTER
In fact, state funds have never been used to finance travel to Cuba, said Lisandro Perez, past director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. The institute has never needed state money, Perez added, having received more than $1 million from private foundations since 1991.
But Rivera should know that. That's why, while publicly crowing about ''tax payer money,'' Rivera worded his bill to outlaw the use of private foundation money as well.
So the Travel to Terrorist States Act is not really aimed at making sure taxpayers don't fund travel to Havana, since that is not happening anyway. It's also more than harmless pandering to that ever-dwindling segment of the exile community that models its political strategy on the ostrich.
In wording, timing and effect, the bill seems aimed at shutting down FIU's Cuban Research Institute, whose activities depend on private grant money. Its passage represents a serious interference with academic freedom that should trouble those Florida residents who fled just this kind of demagoguery.
Luckily we still live in an open society, and the bill will not avoid legal scrutiny.
''A challenge in the courts is inevitable,'' said Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
THE POLITICALLY SKILLED
The depressing thing is that such a seriously flawed bill could ever pass. Its unanimous support is an example of how easy it has become to play the Cuba card and how terrified lawmakers are of seeming soft on Castro.
Rivera, who once tried to deny Medicaid to anyone traveling to Cuba, is not the only politician skilled at using people's hopes and fears to shore up his power base. Take School Board member Frank Bolaños, who made a big fuss about the need to ban a children's picture book on Cuba right before announcing a run for state office.
The Travel to Terrorist States Act is an assault on the pursuit of knowledge that is a vital part of any thriving democracy. Far from striking a blow against oppression, the bill would create the sort of intellectually stunted environment it seeks to condemn.
A healthy society allows access to even those ideas it deems threatening or offensive, whether they're found in Cuba, Saudi Arabia or the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution. In an increasingly complex world, the cause of freedom is served by more understanding, not less.
''I think there's very little to be gained in a setting where you have a totalitarian dictatorship that controls all sources of information and determines what kind of research can be conducted in those regimes,'' Rivera told me Friday.
On that point we both agree.
Ana Menéndez was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of Cuban exiles. She is the author of two books of fiction, which have been translated into several languages: In Cuba I was a German Shepherd, which was a 2001 New York Times Notable book of the year and whose title story won a Pushcart Prize; and Loving Che, a national best-seller. She was a journalist for several years, first at The Miami Herald, where she covered Little Havana until 1995 and later at the Orange County Register in California. She has also lived in Turkey and South Asia, where she reported out of Afghanistan and Kashmir. Since 1997, she has taught at various universities including, most recently, as a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a Bachelor's degree from Florida International University and a Master's from New York University.