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Is Florida's restrictive travel law about to unravel?

For nearly a decade, Florida has barred its universities and community colleges from spending any money to send students, faculty or researchers to Cuba. But that law may be about to unravel.

That’s because the prohibition is based upon Cuba’s designation by the federal government as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” And the White House announced earlier this month that President Obama intends to remove Cuba from that list, which it currently shares with Iran, Sudan and Syria. Cuba is expected to be formally removed from the list by the end of this month.

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The 2006 law, whose biggest champion was former state and U.S. Rep. David Rivera (R-Miami), does not specifically target Cuba, something supporters of the law frequently pointed out when defending it. Instead, the law says that universities can’t use any money – whether state or non-state funds – on travel “to a terrorist state.” And terrorist state is clearly defined as country deemed by the U.S. to be a state sponsor of terror.

Said University of Florida spokesman Steve Orlando: “If Cuba is lifted from the State Department list, then, yes, [the statute] no longer prohibits us from spending UF funds on travel to Cuba.”

Still, other university officials are treading carefully on the issue for fear of antagonizing the Florida Legislature, which is still ruled by staunchly pro-embargo lawmakers. In addition to removing Cuba from the terrorism list, the United States must also reestablish diplomatic ties with the country “before faculty or students can engage in scholarly activities in Cuba,” says Brittany Davis, a spokeswoman for the State University System Board of Governors.

Davis cited an older Florida law that prohibits any state employees from traveling or doing business with a country located in the Western Hemisphere that lacks diplomatic relations with the U.S. – in other words, Cuba. But that law appeared to no longer apply to state universities after the independent Board of Governor was created in 2003, part of what prompted Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature to pass the stricter prohibition in 2006.

Still, Davis said the state university system would wait until diplomatic relations were restored “out of an abundance of caution.” Once that happens, however, “university personnel will be able to request university authorization to engage in academic and scholarly pursuits in Cuba, following the normal university processes for foreign travel.”

Some other individual schools are also being circumspect for now. A spokeswoman for Florida International University declined to comment on the issue, while a spokesman for Florida State University says school officials “don’t have enough information” yet. A spokesman for the University of Central Florida says the university has not discussed the subject internally and will take its direction from the state university system.

“While there has long been scholarly interest in Cuba from faculty and students across various disciplines at USF, the university has, and will continue to comply with federal and state law,” adds University of South Florida spokesman Adam Freeman. “Should any applicable laws change, the university may evaluate opportunities for research or education abroad at that time.”