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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No Americans Left Behind

June 6, 2014

What a week.  In her book Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton calls for an end to the embargo on Cuba. In reaction to the Taliban prisoner exchange to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the President’s political opposition is outraged; some are calling for his head.  Besieged by hate mail and other protests, the “Welcome back Bowe” celebration planned by the soldier’s hometown has been called off.

Will the bitter, partisan reaction to Bergdahl’s release or the principle he asserted in negotiating with the Taliban for his freedom carry greater weight in the President’s mind as he considers whether to negotiate for the release of Alan Gross?

If negotiations with Cuba are off the table, we might paraphrase Billy Malone’s question to Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, and ask the President, “What are you prepared to do?”

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We have neither the space nor the inclination to summarize what one commentator called “the manufactured brouhaha” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s release.  You’d have to live in a sealed container to miss the mud being thrown against the President, the freed prisoner, his father, even his father’s beard.  While their reaction to the negotiations could be consequential later, nothing the critics say or do– since the swap already happened and Sgt. Bergdahl is coming home – matters now.

By contrast, we think the principle used to defend how the Administration engineered his release is worth repeating and amplifying.

General Ray Odierno, Army Chief of Staff says, “We will never leave a fallen comrade behind.” Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls it “the sacred promise that America has to its people.”

State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf echoed the military leadership when she said, “I think what we were focused on here is getting this American soldier home. Again, I think there might’ve been some confusion yesterday that the – how he ended up in Taliban captivity is wholly unrelated to whether or not we should’ve brought him home.”

Finally, from the Commander-in-Chief, “Regardless of circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back,” he said. “Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.”

Why wouldn’t that principle apply to Alan Gross?  Or, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus put it, “What is the justification for freeing these Taliban officials in exchange for Bergdahl and summarily rejecting the notion of a much more benign release in order to secure Gross’s release?”

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The question of whether Alan Gross and Bowe Bergdahl are equivalent is a trap. Alan Gross is not a soldier, even though the technology he brandished was like a weapon.  While his covert trips to the island were part of longstanding U.S. government efforts to overthrow Cuba’s government, he was not really a spy.  He certainly isn’t a hostage.  He is serving a 15-year sentence in a Cuban jail because he broke Cuban law.

“He traveled to Havana in 2009,” as Tracey Eaton wrote, “with satellite communication gear, wireless transmitters, routers, cables and switches – enough to set up Internet connections and Wi-Fi hotspots that the socialist government would not be able to detect or control.”

Stephen Kimber explains further, “He never informed Cuba of his mission, and invariably flew into the country on a tourist visa. To smuggle his equipment into the country without arousing suspicion, Gross sometimes used unsuspecting members of religious groups as ‘mules.’”

The programs that funded his activities were authorized by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, the statute that codified U.S. regime change policies. As Gross’s USAID overseers well knew, “Cuban authorities in 1999 passed Law 88, which prohibited ‘acts aimed at supporting, facilitating or collaborating with the goals of the Helms-Burton law.’”

Against this backdrop, the U.S. government has consistently maintained that Alan Gross is “wrongfully imprisoned,” as Secretary of State Kerry told Congress.  It has said that the Cuban government should unilaterally release him without conditions, and that we won’t swap him for three Cuban spies held by the U.S. because that implies “false equivalency.”

As Bloomberg reported, Scott Gilbert, Mr. Gross’s attorney, dismisses this strategy.

“The U.S. government has effectively done nothing – nothing,” he says, in the years since Gross was arrested, “to attempt to obtain his freedom other than standing up and demanding his unconditional release, which is like looking up at the sky and demanding rain.”

This suits the hardline supporters of sanctions against Cuba just fine.  “We should not be trying to barter with them. We must demand the unconditional release of Gross, not engage in a quid-pro-quo with tyrants,” says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Six months ago, Alan Gross wrote President Obama to say, “I fear that my government – the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare – has abandoned me.”  Then he said in a statement released before his 65th birthday, “it will be my last birthday here.”  Now that the State Department has told reporters that the deal to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s freedom means that “nothing has changed” when it comes to swapping Alan Gross for the remaining members of the Cuban Five, one can only wonder what he is thinking now.

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So, Mr. President, what are you prepared to do?

What justified negotiating with the Taliban, the editors at Bloomberg said, was not only getting Sgt. Bergdhal back, but preparing the stage for reconciliation in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws its troops.

The larger purpose in negotiating for the release of Alan Gross is removing the biggest impediment to improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba.  Although the President has not spent much political capital to obtain this end in the past five-plus years, he might choose to do so now, since Secretary Clinton has used the publication of her forthcoming memoir to disclose her privately-held view that the embargo no longer serves U.S. interests.  Obama can make the task of lifting or easing the embargo in the next administration easier by working to free Alan Gross during his.

Here, recent diplomatic history is a useful guide.  During the Carter Administration, a deal was structured with Fidel Castro in which Puerto Rican terrorists who shot up the Congress and Blair House were released and sent to Cuba, after which American spies held in Cuba for more than a decade were sent back to the States.  Both sides got what they wanted without admitting it was a swap. Such an artifice could help the President obtain freedom for Alan Gross.

In a telling comment about the furor that accompanied Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom, the President said, “We also remain deeply committed to securing the release of American citizens who are unjustly detained abroad and deserve to be reunited with their families, just like the Bergdahls soon will be.”

There is, after all, a principle at stake.  We don’t leave Americans behind.

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