Quiet exchange

Last week the Associated Press announced that the University of Florida intends to import Cuban professors in an academic exchange, and a funny thing happened.



Spokesmen for the Cuban American National Foundation decried the program, predictably, as a forum for Fidel Castro's effort to lift the U.S. trade embargo. But there was no ground swell of outrage, no death threats, no violence.

"In all candor, it's really not an issue down here," says South Florida state Rep. Luis Rojas (R-Hialeah), adding that talk of a Cuban caucus effort to hold back state funding for the Gators "isn't right" and that such a bill would not receive his support.

Don't get him wrong: Rojas remembers his grandfather's oppression by Castro's revolution. "He had to start over at age 80; they took everything away from him," he says. But Rojas, who came to the U.S. in 1959 at age six, will not attack the university's proposal. "The issue boils down to the fact that some people think the exchange is good ... and some people think it's wrong," he says. "We're having that debate. That's what the U.S. is about."

Rojas's rhetorical shrug sums up how, during the past decade, the terms of the debate about U.S. policy toward Cuba have shifted quietly, but radically.

Charles Wood, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, says the AP story was premature: There is no "plan" to do a Cuban exchange, only a hope. "We have a proposal submitted to a funding agency," he says. "We will know in October" whether his department won the grant, which, at $10,000 or $20,000, is "minuscule ... compared to the smoke this has created." No state money would be used for the exchange budget.

"In the academic community," says Wood, who grew up in Cuba, "regardless of what your political persuasion might be, people endorse the free exchange of ideas and discussion."

The grant would allow several Cuban Scholars to visit Gainesville for several weeks, while professors from the University's Cuban Studies program visit Cuba. Such exchanges have been routinely conducted from universities in other states, including the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago.

Even Miami's Florida International University has quietly run an exchange program for the past three years, says Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute there.

"We haven't made a secret of it," he says, "but we don't seek publicity for it. We proceed with this as though the situation were normal."

In South Florida, he admits, "we're sometimes disabused of that. But you can't have a research program on Cuba without any contact with the country you're supposedly studying." He has applied for the same grant that Wood is seeking.

Perez, who is 49 and came to the U.S. from Cuba at age 11, says he's fought with the hard-line exile community, and has seen moderates like himself exiled within that exile community.

The reaction can be much more extreme than a mere cold shoulder. In 1994 Magda Montiel Davis, of Miami, was besieged by protesters and bomb threats after she was shown on Spanish language television kissing Castro on the cheek. Five employees in her law practice walked out and denounced her, and she sought police protection and expensive security for herself, her husband and five children.

Human Rights Watch released a report that year detailing and decrying the Cuban exile community's intimidation tactics. "I live in a free country," Montiel Davis, who came to the U.S. in 1961 and ran for Congress in 1992, says. "These people think they live in Havana in the '50s. They brought over the same corruption."

She says she was unaware of the exchange programs and hopes the university "sticks to its guns."

Perez says he expects little harassment. "In many ways Miami is like a small town," he says. "This has to do with peoples' jobs and livelihoods. But I think things are changing, because there has been a generational shift."

The Cuban exile community's leaders, Perez says, have been people who came to the United States as adults, who felt the sting of Castro's revolution firsthand, and who have nursed emotional wounds. "That has been the predominant point of view," Perez says. "The hegemony of that group, they've been able to enforce that discourse."

The sons and daughters of those exiles are more moderate, and many believe in some kind of constructive engagement with the dictator, to prepare for the inevitable transition from communism. These scholarly exchange programs begin that process.

"We find that when we invite people from Cuba, it's the same as anywhere else," Perez says. "You're not dealing with a government -- except for getting the permits; other than that, they're the same as academics from anywhere else."