Lots – we mean LOTS – of polling on Cuba!

June 13, 2014

This week, when the Miami Herald released its survey of 400 registered voters in Miami-Dade County, it contained startling results, including a finding that the Cuba issue is not having much effect on Florida’s race for governor.  (This is not something you would have guessed reading the Herald’s headline: Cuban voters weigh Crist down in Miami-Dade.)

A few days ago, Public Policy Polling released a poll showing a majority of Floridians supporting an end to the embargo.

Next week, the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University will release results from its 2014 survey of Cuban Americans in South Florida.

So, there’s a flood of new data. Since public opinion research had a rocky week in Washington – just ask Rep. Eric Cantor, or, even better, ask his pollster – we thought it would be a good time to look at recent surveys on Cuba policy and think about how public opinion affects public policy.

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If foreign policy issues turned less on how politicians calculated their domestic political interests and more on how public servants weighed the national interest, U.S. policy toward Cuba would have changed long ago.

After all, Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War before the invention of the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies, in a report published in 1997, said “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.”  Foreign policy elites – including diplomats known to fear communist influence in the region – recently united behind a letter to President Obama urging meaningful changes in the policy.

As with national experts, public opinion in the U.S. settled the Cuba debate decades ago.  Since 1974, as Gallup reported, “a majority of Americans have consistently said they support establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, with the exception of one poll conducted in 1996.”

Yet, the policy, conceived in the Cold War, is largely unchanged. This produces truly loopy outcomes – consider a recent House-passed defense bill that prohibits U.S. cooperation with Cuba on efforts to control drug trafficking despite Cuba’s exemplary record in this area – along with the more troubling and continuing U.S. efforts to overthrow Cuba’s government.

Cuba continues to be, as the Atlantic Council says, “the third rail of Latin American foreign policy in the United States,” thanks, as the data consistently shows, to inaccurate positioning of Florida’s importance in electoral politics.

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Until the 2008 presidential campaign, when Senator Obama promised to reopen family travel to Cuba, and expressed his willingness to negotiate with Cuba’s government, no serious candidate – Democrat or Republican – promised anything less to Florida voters than complete loyalty to the Cuba sanctions agenda.  Until former Secretary Clinton released her memoir last week, no serious contender offered to undo the embargo before declaring for the White House.

The received wisdom for standing behind a failed policy was simple.  Candidates were told they could not win office, nationally or locally in Florida, without carrying the Cuban American community, because it was resolutely opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba’s government.

That is why we suggest paying close attention to the data released this year, this week, and next Tuesday.

In February, the Atlantic Council released a comprehensive survey that found substantial support nationally for normalizing relations with Cuba (56% to 35%) but even greater support in Florida for re-engaging.  Floridians supported normalizing relations by a 63% to 30% margin, and approved of eliminating all restrictions on travel by 67% to 29%.

Public Policy Polling, which conducted a Florida survey this month, recorded 53% of Floridians, including 64% of independents and 57% of Democrats, supporting an end to the embargo with only 22% of respondents in support of maintaining the embargo.

But the bigger news came in a Miami Herald poll, which tested voter preferences in Miami-Dade County for Florida’s upcoming Governor’s race.  As we previously reported, former Governor Charlie Crist astounded observers when he called for ending the embargo and announced plans to visit Cuba in the midst of his campaign against the incumbent Governor Rick Scott.

Crist’s announcements have had no effect on the state’s most feared voters.  Despite losing the county’s Hispanic vote, the Herald reports that Crist leads Governor Scott by a 47%-35% margin; sustained by 84% support among African-American voters, 58% support among “White Anglo” voters, and a 49% to 49% split among voters of Cuban descent born in the U.S.  More telling, 67% of all respondents said that Crist’s Cuba position had no impact on their vote.

Given the link between public opinion in Florida and public policy on Cuba in Washington, these results are really important.

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In recent years, hardliners have demonstrated they will not give up the perception of their lock on Florida’s votes without a fight.  In 2008, they predicted Obama would lose Florida when he promised to restore family travel.  He won 35% of the Cuban vote, won Florida, won the election, kept his promise, and family visits surged from 50,000 in 2004 to nearly half-a-million in 2013.

When the President restored people-to-people travel in 2011, Capitol Hill Cubans called it a sure way to lose votes. After he won Florida by a larger margin in 2012 than he did 4 years before, and split the Cuban vote with Governor Romney, Mauricio Claver-Carone said, “I have a problem with exit polls,” and his organization later issued a report aimed at disproving Cuban American support for the President.  When the Atlantic Council poll demonstrated vast support in Florida for changing the policy, he and others denounced it as a push-poll.

This is why we’re eager to see the 2014 results from the Florida International University poll, the longest-running survey of public opinion in the Cuban American communities of South Florida. When FIU began its project in 1991, 87% of Cuban Americans favored keeping the embargo in place without changes.  When FIU released its last survey in 2011, that figure had fallen to 56%.  We won’t be surprised if the 2014 results – in line with these other findings – show even less support among Cuban Americans for the embargo.

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Two points in conclusion.  At t a time when more than 400,000 Cuban Americans are returning to the U.S. after visiting their families on the island each year, it’s hard to imagine that they are unaffected by what they see.  As these visits affirm that travel to Cuba helps their families, Cuban American support for further reforms in the policy, in our judgment, is likely to grow.  So, we predict more positive movement in the FIU poll (thanks, we should say, to President Obama’s family travel policy).

Alternatively, if you prefer to believe that nothing has changed, you can consult the Capitol Hill Cubans website.  There, you will find a presentation from 2009 showing that the existing embargo policies are strongly supported by the Florida Cuban-American community. Keep in mind, the analysis is based on a survey by McLaughlin and Associates, Eric Cantor’s pollster.

Still, you can’t predict polls.  With you, we’ll wait to see what the Florida International University survey says next Tuesday.

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Oswaldo Payá – On parting as friends

July 27, 2012

Oswaldo Payá, a humble but determined figure in Cuba’s opposition, who believed in non-violent activism as a means for achieving political change on the island, died in a car accident on Sunday.  Also killed was Harold Cepero Escalante, a fellow dissident.  A Swedish citizen and a Spaniard, reportedly at the wheel of the car, were injured in the crash.   We report other details below.

Payá, a Catholic layman, and founder of Cuba’s so-called Christian Liberation Movement, was best known as the main organizer behind the Varela Project, a petition drive that collected thousands of signatures, which called upon his country’s National Assembly to propose new laws to open Cuba’s system.

News of Payá’s death was received by Cuban allies and friends internationally with sadness and mourning for his activism and his abiding belief that change could occur organically on the island.

His loss also occasioned dark suggestions – expressed by grieving family members and in the opinion pages of the Washington Post –that his vehicle was intentionally rammed.  But Elizardo Sanchez, founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission told the Associated Press,“We rule out any conspiracy theory.” Diplomats connected to the Europeans traveling with Mr. Payá, told Reuters “they believe it was a genuine accident and it appeared the car was speeding.”

Despite these statements, members of the U.S. Senate introduced a resolution calling upon the island’s government to “allow an impartial, third-party investigation in the circumstances surrounding (his) death.”

That Mr. Payá’s passing would be a source of contention, even politicization, is hardly a surprise.  His unique approach attracted support and courted controversy during his life.

By technique and demeanor, Payá didn’t fit any stereotype of a regime opponent.  As the New York Times reported, Mr. Payá “created a new model with his humility, his public rejection of both American aid and the American trade embargo, and his effort to draw Cubans into the movement.

“By trying to reform the Castro government,” the Times said, “Mr. Payá placed himself in the middle of two extremes. Reviled by the government, he was not much loved by hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami, either; they appreciated the attention he garnered but said he was naïve.”

They called him naïve because he wouldn’t hew to their line that regime change supported by the U.S. was the only way forward.

In a meeting with visitors from the U.S., Payá once said “we don’t have arms, we don’t believe in coup d’état, we don’t believe in outside intervention.  We Cubans must bring about the change.”

While he was no fan of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, he challenged visitors to think not about U.S. policy, but instead to focus on the economic, political, and social problems that affected everyday Cubans. A man with a lowered voice and an outstretched hand, he would say about disagreements in our perspectives, “if we cannot be partners, we can at least be friends.”

What decency.

Our hearts go out to his family and friends, colleagues and allies, who are suffering because of his loss.

This week in Cuba news…

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Haiku Hype: The Flutter over Fidel’s Twitter-Length Reflections

June 22, 2012

Whoa, Fidel Castro in the age of Twitter.

Headlines from Miami to London sound the alert.  “Fidel Castro leaves people guessing as he writes cryptic, Haiku-like notes.”  As the Miami Herald put it:

“In cryptic paragraphs of never more than 65 words, the former Cuban president has written about yoga poses, edible plants, a criticism by a Chinese leader who died 15 years ago and a former leader of communist East Germany who died even further back.”

Despite more contemporary concerns –such as this week’s meeting of bloggers in Cuba or the report that U.S. sanctions prevent Cubans from using Google analytics—it is no surprise that this development made news.  What Fidel Castro says and how he communicates has been engaging some and enraging others since before the creation of the computer, the fax machine, or the U.S. embargo.

According to Lars Schoultz, political scientist and renowned Cuba scholar, the U.S. government has been tracking what Fidel Castro thinks and says since 1947 when he was in college, sixty-five years.  That is longer than the time period extending from Morse to Marconi, from the invention of the telegraph to the invention of radio.

This preoccupation with Castro’s communications skills intensified after the revolution.

In 1959, as Schoultz records in his classic history on U.S.-Cuba relations, “That Infernal Little Cuban Republic,” the U.S. Embassy in Havana described one of his appearances as follows:

“Castro in his standard uniform of rumpled fatigues, radiating health and boundless energy, hunched over the table as he talks, waving his arms and hands, with the eternal cigar always at hand.  Words pour from him like a ceaseless torrent.  He appears literally capable of talking forever, on any subject under the sun.”

The volume of words was astonishing.  “This is, after all, the man who gave the longest speech in the history of the U.N. General Assembly,” Joshua Keating observed in his foreign policy blog.  But, of course, the effort to overthrow Castro and the Cuban system stemmed not from how much he said –or how he said it – but from his commitment to revolution and his resistance to the will of the U.S.

What followed has been decades of U.S. sanctions, and division between both countries, a collision between Cuba’s immutable faith in its right to self-determination and the immoveable desire of U.S. policy to upend its system.

Reporters inside Cuba tell us that Cubans are genuinely baffled by the former president’s messages on the Moringa tree, the cosmos, and yoga, published after his most recent full-length treatise on the use of drones by President Obama.

That’s probably right.  This interest is clearly shared by the boo-birds in Miami who’ve waited so long for the embargo to bring Cuba to its knees that they are now reduced to snickering about Fidel Castro’s twitter length pronouncements.

One “Miami analyst” said the former president needs to stay in the limelight.  “Like a mediocre starlet of cheap and superficial shows, [he] needs to feel like he’s in the center of the spotlight.”  Prof. Jaime Suchliki, Director of Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, sniffs, “Evidently he does not feel coherent enough to write longer pieces.”

If the “Cuba wars” are now being waged with exchanges of snark and sarcasm, we suppose that’s progress.  But, after 65 years, if we’re still worrying about how Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former president is expressing himself, we’d humbly suggest that the policy of not talking to the current president of Cuba about matters that actually concern us merits reexamination.

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