FIU Cuba Research Impacted, After New Trump Policy

Alexandra Gelbard in Cabildo de Regla processional in La Habana, Cuba in 2018 / photo courtesy of Amberly Alene Ellis

Angela Rivas / Staff Writer 

For the last five years FIU graduate student John Ermer travelled to Cuba to study Syrian and Lebanese immigration, while answering questions about his own family ancestry. Now, he won’t be able to return to finish his research as the island was placed back on the state sponsered terrorism list.

FIU graduate students face disruptions to their research centerd in Cuba after former Secretary of State Mike Pomepo announced a policy change on Jan.11, which prevents the use of state money, including FIU funds, for travel to nations on the terrorism list. 

“Most of my research was funded through FIU and without that, it really does raise barriers for myself and my colleagues,” said Ermer who had planned his last trip for later this year.

The Trump administration reversed former President Barack Obama’s 2015 decision to remove the island from the terroism list, nine days before leaving office. This move affects 

FIU students doing research in Cuba who rely on grants given by university professors and departments to travel to the island. 

Without these funds, many are now scrambling to continue their research. 

“This has a deep impact in an area of research that we at FIU and South Florida are supposed to excel in,” said Guillermo Grenier, professor of sociology and chair of FIU’s Global and Sociocultural Studies department. 

While Ermer had already completed most of his investigation, during his last trip he planned to do interviews that have to be in person.The trip was already pushed back due to the Covid-19 pandemic and now, won’t happen. 

“This will definitely affect the quality of my research. I had a lot of oral history interviews planned for this last trip that won’t be able to take place,” he said, explaining he’ll have to wrap up his dissertation without all the information he hoped to include.

Ermer’s dissertation is focused on how citizenship and immigration law affect identity formation and belonging among Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in Cuba. Questions surrounding his family’s history in the island motivated his research.

“My mom was born in Cuba and all four of her grandparents were immigrants to the island from the Middle East,” said Ermer. “I started looking into my own history and realized there really hasn’t been a whole lot done on this topic and I wanted to dig in deeper.” 

His prior trips to the island allowed him to make relationships with locals and he was looking forward to spending time with them and his own family. 

“I had set up appointments with people whom I’ve met on the island to sit down for an interview. It’s disappointing to not be able to see them again and some family members that still live on the island,” said Ermer. 

Another student whose interest in Cuba stems from her background is Rozzmery Palenzuela Vicente, a third year PhD student whose research focuses on Cuban women and the law and politics of motherhood over the course of the 20th century. 

Vicente’s childhood on the island inspired the focus of her dissertation.

“I started realizing my research interest was more founded on the questions I had about my own upbringing and my family’s experience on the island,” said Vicente. 

She planned to apply for grants in the summer and to travel in the fall. Now, she has to fund the trip and change her grant proposals for domestic research.

A research trip to Cuba could take 3 weeks and cost around $700, according to Vicente. 

“I will be affected in a sense that I will have to fund this on my own and change up my proposals to be used domestically. But, I will inevitably have to travel to the island to do research,” said Vicente who plans to continue her research despite the obstacles. 

Her plans to travel inside the U.S to research Cuba in other national institutions are also put on hold now, due the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“As a student, it is really disheartening because we work really hard to come up with a good research proposal and something like this can throw all of it up in the air,” said Vicente. 

Alexandra Gelbard, a PhD candidate studying the African presence in Cuba and the relationship to community formation, cultural production, and religion, is unsure how she will fund her research trips.

Gelbard planned to apply for an FIU dissertation completion fellowship for a research trip planned for April. Now, that is not an option. 

“This adds a whole other layer and if I want to continue doing research in Cuba I have to personally fund my work,” said Gelbard. 

These are just three out of multiple graduate students at FIU who are being affected by this policy change and are wondering how their years of research will come to an end. 

“You put so much effort and time into a project, and you want to see it through. Something that was attainable, something that was achievable, for that to just disappear, is definitely disappointing,” said Ermer.

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