The history of the University of Florida and the Center for Latin American Studies is strongly intertwined with the history of Cuba and the University of Havana, in particular.
The creation of the Center’s predecessor, the Institute for Inter-American Affairs --the first such research center to be established in the United States focusing on Latin America-- was announced by UF President Tigert at the university’s commencement ceremonies in June 1930. At that commencement, an honorary degree was awarded for the first time to a citizen of Latin America, to the Cuban Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Orestes Ferrara. UF Study Abroad at the University of Havana (May 2015)
In that academic year, only four international students were among the 2,257 students enrolled at the University; three of the four were from Cuba. In subsequent years, the Institute took the lead in recruiting students from Latin America. One of the first international exchange agreements signed by UF was in 1938 with the University of Havana. In the 1950s, the opportunity to open a UF study abroad office in Havana was discussed.
The significance of Cuba and the broader Caribbean to the State of Florida and the nation was recognized both in the Institute/Center’s programmatic activities and in the University’s library holdings. The Institute/Center has hosted an annual conference on Latin America since 1951, initially with an emphasis on Caribbean themes. UF began building its library holdings on Cuba in the 1930s. In 1940, under the Farmington Plan – a cooperative acquisition program of the Association of Research Libraries—the University assumed responsibility for the Caribbean. UF’s Smathers Libraries today has the most comprehensive collection of Cuba and Caribbean materials, regarded as among the finest in the world.
In 1950 the University bestowed a second honorary degree to a Cuban citizen, to Dr. Emeterio S. Santovenia, president of the Cuban Academy of History. On that occasion, the Alfaro Foundation gifted the University the bronze sculpture of the head of José Martí, the founding father of the Cuban nation, which currently welcomes visitors to the UF Center for Latin American Studies. This work of art by the Cuban sculptor, Juan José Sicre, was one of several cast for the monumental statue of Martí which sits at the center of the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. The monument was commissioned by the Batista government for the centenary of Marti’s birth and officially installed in 1958 in what was then known as the Plaza Cívica.
Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, under the leadership of the Foreign Student Advisor, Col. Glenn A. Farris, the University played an important role in facilitating the enrollment of hundreds of Cuban university students whose studies had been interrupted when they went into exile. The UF College of Law also initiated the Cuban-American Lawyers Program to facilitate the retraining of exiled attorneys so that they could stand for the Florida bar exam.
The United States embargo of Cuba and the breaking of diplomatic relations between the two countries severely restricted academic exchanges between the two countries for several decades. Scholarly research on Cuba, nonetheless, continued. In 1961 UF received a major grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for a Caribbean Research Program, which included Cuba. This focus was again taken up in the 1980s, under the leadership of Center Director, Dr. Helen Safa, as the Caribbean Migration Program, which had a strong emphasis on Cuba. Dr. Safa, who was president of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) from 1983-85, also developed the first formal academic exchange program between US and Cuban scholars under the auspices of LASA (Latin American Studies Association), an initiative which facilitated visits of Cuban scholars to US universities and vice versa. It is from this period that the UF Center for Latin American Studies began regularly hosting lectures and seminars by Cuban academics.
During the 1990’s, under the leadership of Center Director, Dr. Terry McCoy, the Center helped initiate a research exchange with Cuba focusing on the shared coastal and marine environment. In 1994 with the Florida Sea Grant Program, it co-sponsored a well-attended public conference on "Past, Present and Future Recreational Boating and Marine Relations with Cuba," which resulted in a published monograph. McCoy also set up a campus-wide committee in recognition of growing faculty interest in Cuba.
In 1994 the Food and Resource Economics (FRE) department at the UF Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) launched a program of joint academic research and collaboration with faculty at the Center for the Study of the International Economy (CIEC, Centro de Investigación de la Economía Internacional) and Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEE, Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cuba) at the University of Havana. FRE/IFAS also took the lead in establishing the original collaborative agreement between the University of Florida and the University of Havana. These collaborative research efforts have enabled FRE/IFAS to become the foremost source of data and information on Cuban agriculture in the United States and resulted in the publication of more than 150 research articles, reports, books, book chapters, and papers. UF research team members have testified before U.S. Senate and House Committees and Sub-Committees and before the U.S. International Trade Commission. In 1999, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman presented the program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's highest honor, its Award for Superior Service, for "outstanding service to the United States and Florida agriculture for research on the economic challenges and opportunities associated with a resumption of trade with Cuba." Over the past twenty years, the program has been funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and Foreign Agricultural Service.
In the mid-2000s an initiative supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation linked IFAS researchers and the Cátedra de Azucar “Alvaro Reynoso”, an interdisciplinary working group of Cuban universities and research centers regarding sugar, led by the University of Havana. Various UF faculty members participated in the Cátedra de Azucar’s annual conferences. In 2006 the Center for Latin American Studies offered the first graduate course, on Cuban agriculture, which included a field research component in Cuba, hosted by the University of Havana and led by Dr. Fred Royce. Some 12 UF faculty members and graduate students from colleges across the University participated in the field research trip.
Later in 2006, the State of Florida imposed a ban on the use of all funds that pass through the university system (irrespective of source of funding) for travel to or expenses in countries on the U.S. State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism” (which included Cuba) for research or other professional purposes. Florida’s state universities, under the leadership of the Florida International University Faculty Senate and the auspices of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against the State of Florida challenging the constitutionality of this law, which reached the US Supreme Court. Although the Supreme Court ultimately did not hear the case, collaboration with Cuban scholars continued, assisted by private funding.
The UF Cuba Program was formally launched under the Center for Latin American Studies in 2009. An Alumni Board was appointed to advise the activities of the program and assist in fund-raising. Seed funding for UF-UH collaboration was provided through a linkage grant from the Center’s Department of Education Title VI grant for National Resource Centers in area studies. Although these funds could not be used for travel between Cuba and the United States, due to State of Florida restrictions, this grant furthered UF-UH collaboration by supporting the local costs of hosting Cuban scholars and efforts to develop academic working groups.
In 2011 the Center hosted the visit of Dr. Leslie Yañez, Vice Rector for Research at the University of Havana, to explore avenues for scholarly collaboration between the two institutions. With the support of the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, a research workshop was held at UH in October 2012 on the theme of “Our Shared Environment” to explore the creation of working groups around such topics as production agriculture and agricultural trade, marine fisheries issues, and coastal zone and ecosystems management challenges resulting from sea level rise. Eleven UF faculty from IFAS and the Center participated in this initiative. (See the page on Current Research Initiatives, for the activities of the working groups that were then formed).
UF’s hiring of historian Dr. Lillian Guerra in 2010 has led to a renewed focus in the History Department on graduate training on Cuban and Caribbean history as well as collaboration between the UF Smathers libraries and Cuban institutions in the preservation and sharing of research materials. (See the page on Current Research Initiatives). Dr. Guerra in 2014 also organized the first UF undergraduate study-abroad experience in Cuba in many decades in 2014.
In Fall 2015, the Center for Latin American Studies was renewed as a Title VI National Resource Center in Latin American Studies and received a four-year grant from the Department of Education. The UF Cuba Program will continue to receive seed funding for its collaborative activities with faculty at the University of Havana, focusing in this cycle, on working groups in ecological and historical conservation.