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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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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Which President told the Cubans “I wish you well”?

May 30, 2014

Finally, a President went to Cuba and uttered the words we’ve longed to hear.

“I wish you well.”

Only, it wasn’t President Obama.

This message to Cuba’s people came from the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue.

It came up,  as he wrapped up his visit to the island with an appearance at the University of Havana, and took questions from the press. When Daniel Trotta of Reuters asked Mr. Donohue, “Is Cuba a good investment?” he responded as follows:

“Cuba would be a better investment if it had issues like arbitration, and agreements that would protect intellectual property, and ways that we could resolve our differences. But I believe that Cuba, 91 miles from our shore, with the new and extraordinary port that’s being built here, has the potential to develop as a very good investment not only for Americans, U.S. citizens, but from people around the world, and I wish you well.”

To borrow a phrase from Vice President Biden, this is kind of a big deal.

In our reports on economic reform and gender equality, we discussed how Cuba’s own policies produced enviable achievements in critical areas like education and health but at unsustainable costs.  Since he became Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro has authorized greater liberties – from legalizing cell phones to overseas travel – while at the same time cutting the size of the state’s payrolls and opening employment opportunities for Cubans in the non-state sector.

In simple terms, Cuba’s project going forward is about addressing its economic crisis and bringing its assets and expenditures into a balance that future Cubans can live with.

This is at odds with the core objective of U.S. policy.  For more than 50 years, its goal has been to sink Cuba’s system by strangling Cuba’s economy.  The era of reform ushered in by President Castro has, at times, posed a paralyzing dilemma to President Obama.

On one hand, President Obama diverted from the orthodoxy in his first term by opening talks with Cuba on some bilateral issues, and by taking truly useful steps to reform U.S. policy; by giving unlimited travel rights to Cuban Americans and restoring some channels of people-to-people travel for Americans not of Cuban descent.

On the other, he has left the embargo mostly in place, stubbornly enforced sanctions against financial institutions to tie up Cuba’s capacity to engage in global commerce and trade, and distressingly allowed many excesses of our regime change program to remain in place.

Changing circumstances in Cuba have occasioned no fresh thoughts – and no Hamlet-like indecision – among the pro-sanctions hardliners.

Tim Padgett wrote perceptively this week about their support for policies that exact sacrifice and impose suffering on Cuba’s people.

“Incredibly, [the hardliners are] convinced that denying Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs more seed money, cell phones and sage advice – that keeping them in the micro-economic Middle Ages – is the best way to change Cuba.

“[W]hy wouldn’t the Cuba-policy hardliners want to help accelerate that process? One answer is that it’s too mundane: It doesn’t fit their more biblical vision of a Cuban Spring in which the Castros are ousted by a fiery, exile-led uprising.”

How else to explain their vitriolic reaction to the U.S. Chamber’s visit?

“Sen. Marco Rubio, the Wall Street Journal reported, “blasted Mr. Donohue in a letter last week, calling the trip ‘misguided and fraught with peril of becoming a propaganda coup for the Castro regime.'” Capitol Hill Cubans taunted The Chamber with a note suggesting they invest in North Korea.  Senator Bob Menendez chastised Donohue, saying conditions in Cuba “hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any responsible business leader.”

Donohue was cheerfully immune to all of this. He said, “the Chamber of Commerce takes human rights concerns seriously,” as the AP reported, “calling it an issue that should be part of a ‘constructive dialogue’ between the U.S. and Cuba.”

He knows -in ways the hardliners simply cannot accept – that the political problems that divide the U.S. from Cuba will never be solved through diplomatic isolation but through negotiation and engagement.

In this sense, the voices criticizing Donohue, powerful as they are, represent the past – and neither the U.S. Chamber nor the 44 members of the foreign policy establishment who appealed for reforms in a letter to President Obama are going back.

Instead, our policy going forward will be defined not by pressing for the system’s failure, but by the principle that Cubans are better off – and U.S. national interest best secured – by respecting the desire of Cubans to succeed in a future of their own design.

It is up to President Obama to say the words, “I wish you well.”

But time is running out.  As Tom Donohue observed, “If [President Barack Obama] wants to get it done before the end of his term, he’s got two years, so he’ll have to get busy.”

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Consider this: Castro Government and U.S. Embargo Likely to Outlast Obama Presidency

February 15, 2013

The clock is ticking.  By February 24, as Leonardo Padura observed in a column this week, there will be 1,823 days remaining in Raúl Castro’s tenure as Cuba’s president, thanks to term limits he pushed through at the 2011 communist party conference.

All things being equal, just five years from now, Cuba will be led by someone whose name is neither Raúl nor Fidel Castro for the first time in 59 years.

By then, whoever is elected U.S. president in 2016 could inherit the same ossified and wildly ineffective structure of sanctions passed down – like the Cold War equivalent of a family bible – from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush and left on President Obama’s desk when he entered the Oval Office.

Even Senator Ted Cruz, a deeply conservative Cuban-American just elected from Texas, acknowledged in a question submitted for Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, that the existing policy has failed in its goal of dislodging the Castros.

What will Mr. Cruz say in 2018 about the embargo, which was designed to force from power two brothers who will have instead relinquished their posts voluntarily?  Give it more time to work?

President Obama said nothing about Cuba in his State of the Union Address last Tuesday and, as Bloggings by Boz pointed out, he used just seven words, “Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico,” to refer to just one nation in the Americas, seemingly by accident.

On Cuba, however, the president doesn’t need to say something in order to do something. His administration often excuses its inaction by saying the policy is in the court of Congress, “our hands are tied” by Helms-Burton Act restrictions on normalizing relations with Cuba.

In fact, that’s not really the problem.  Policy makers should never harness the future of any foreign policy – not in Cuba or Venezuela or anyplace else –to the identity or mortality of any particular leader.  That’s called letting the tail wag the dog.

The national interest ought to be our guide.  That’s why Mr. Obama should use his executive authority to start making changes now, so when the presidency changes hands in Washington in 2016 and in Havana in 2018, there’s a plan already being implemented to normalize the relationship.

If he’s uncertain about where to begin, he needn’t look further than our roadmap for engagement with Cuba or to the editorial page of the Boston Globe, which this week offered simple and clear suggestions to “drag US policy into the 21st century” –

  • Remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List
  • Promote cultural exchanges
  • End the Travel Ban so all Americans can visit Cuba
  • Eventually allow trade in oil, gas, and other commodities

The Globe’s editorial ended with the suggestion that President Obama assign his Secretary of State John Kerry to make Cuba the focus of his first few months in office.  That sounds right to us.  After all, the clock is ticking and the president, like his counterpart in Havana, has a limited amount of time in office to get it done.

This week, in Cuba news…

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Senator Menendez- Travel and Glass Houses

February 1, 2013

In public, Senator Bob Menendez is never a shy skeptic about certain kinds of travel.

He bitterly opposed reforms in 2009, to allow Cuban Americans unfettered travel rights to Cuba, and later teamed up with Senator Marco Rubio to oppose opening up people-to-people travel for most other Americans.  Early in the Obama presidency, Menendez, an environmentalist who believes in climate change, held up the nominations of John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, world class scientists, to block a Senate bill with language to liberalize travel to Cuba (something his Hurricane Sandy-battered constituents probably never heard about).

When the Center for Democracy in the Americas was organizing a Cuba trip for Senate chiefs of staff, he and Senator Bill Nelson warned all of their colleagues not to allow their staffs to go (nobody listened).  At John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, he scolded Senator Jeff Flake, who joked about using “spring break” to disrupt the Cuban government’s hold on the island.

Like other hardliners, Senator Menendez even suggested that travel to Cuba was about little more than sexual tourism, as he did in this speech against Cuban American family travel four years ago.

Had Senator Menendez heeded his publicly expressed doubts about travel in private, he might not be in the hot water he finds himself today.  His story has moved swiftly from a lurid set of accusations – which the Senator denies, which some independent journalists and ethics watchdogs  doubt, and at least one late night comic has mocked – to issues involving a friend and donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, that have ensnared him in investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee.

These developments are serious, as Paul Kane of the Washington Post wrote, because his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “makes him the top diplomat on Capitol Hill, someone tasked with greeting heads of state visiting Washington, and affords him the kind of public profile that prompts regular appearances on the Sunday morning political talk shows.”

Questions about his relationship with Dr. Melgen –described as “a high-profile Palm Beach ophthalmologist with major tax problems” –captured media attention this week when the FBI conducted a surprise raid on the doctor’s offices.

According to NBC News, the raid ostensibly “concerned a separate criminal probe conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which typically investigates Medicare fraud. However, agents were also looking for evidence in the other case concerning the alleged under-aged prostitutes” and two airplane rides Menendez and Melgen took to the Dominican Republic.

The trips were never paid for by Senator Menendez or accounted for as gifts, as required under the rules of the Senate, an oversight which his staff attributed to “sloppy paperwork.” But, it’s more than that.  “It’s technically a federal crime to not report gifts on a federal financial-disclosure form,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility, to the Miami Herald.

Mr. Menendez has dug deep into his pockets and sent a check to Dr. Melgen’s company for $58,500 to clean up the error.  This could not have been easy for Mr. Menendez, who was ranked 79th among his Senate colleagues in wealth by the Center for Responsive Politics after reporting net assets of under $500,000 in 2010, according to the Washington Post.  By taking this route, rather than invoking what is called a “friendship exemption” and amending his filings with the Senate Ethics Committee, to clean up the error, he has avoided any requirements to make a public disclosure of details about the trips.  Surely, commercial flights would have been cheaper.

The payment will not make the attention go away. On Thursday, The New York Times reported on how Senator Menendez used his office and position to fight for a contract to help a company in which Dr. Melgen was an investor.  That company “had a long-dormant contract with the Dominican Republic to provide port security and x-ray cargo. Mr. Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that holds sway over the Dominican Republic, subsequently urged officials in the State and Commerce Departments to intervene so the contract would be enforced, at an estimated value of $500 million.”

The Times reports that Menendez spoke to State Department officials about the contract, and used a hearing he chaired last July to question State and Commerce Department officials about why they weren’t being more aggressive in getting the DR to honor the contract, even though his friend lacked border security experience.

According to the Miami Herald, Menendez’s office said the senator did nothing improper, he was a long-time champion for U.S. business abroad, and that “Senator Menendez has over the last few years advocated for more attention to the spread of narco-trafficking throughout Central America and the Caribbean.”

In light of Dr. Melgen’s political contributions to Menendez and others –more than $426,000 in campaign donations since 1992 – news organizations and investigators are likely to examine whether he crossed the line from business advocacy into the land of the quid pro quo.

Beyond dealing with a federal investigation, Senator Menendez is also facing a Senate Ethics inquiry.  Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the committee, told the Washington Post yesterday, “The Senate Ethics Committee is aware of the article in the Miami Herald and other media outlets, and we are following established procedures.”

The Department of Justice will neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.  As a long-time public servant told the Cuba Central News Blast, if the Senator was just an average Joe with a security clearance, that clearance would be suspended – and his access to classified information stopped –until the matters were satisfactorily resolved, one way or the other.  That’s not happening to Mr. Menendez, yet.

What is happening instead is quite telling.  At the White House, for example, Jay Carney, the press secretary, “declined to answer when asked whether the president still has full faith and confidence in Menendez. ‘I don’t have anything for you on that,’ Carney told reporters.”  Asked about the scandal, Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic Leader, praised his colleague as “an outstanding senator,” and then encouraged reporters to call his office.  “Any questions in this regard, direct to him. I don’t know anything about it.”  Allies like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who celebrated Menendez as “a proven leader and defender of human rights when he became chairman,” have said nothing at all.

Rather than dodging the press in New Jersey, as Mr. Menendez appears to be doing, perhaps he should be taking to heart in private what he said in public at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing:

“Yours is a big chair to fill, and I will do my best today to live up to your example. I have watched you lead the Committee with an equally deep and abiding commitment to getting to the heart of the matter — always probative, always open to debate, but always ready to mitigate disagreements, always looking for the truth — for answers – uncovering the facts, hearing all the evidence, and then publically speaking truth to power based solely on what was best for this nation.”

Unless he lives up to that standard, the Senator could put his power and new position at risk.

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Hate in the Time of Cholera

July 13, 2012

Cuba, we’re told, is experiencing a nasty outbreak of cholera.  Under normal circumstances, the reaction here in the U.S. would be obvious and clear: empathy for those who are affected and offers of help to alleviate their suffering.  But since we are talking about Cuba, life is more complicated than that.

Some reports say Cuba is not being forthcoming with information about the scope of the outbreak.  A columnist published in the Havana Times wrote, “It seems they avoided telling us about cholera to spare us the worry.”

The Miami Herald is reporting, however, that confirmed cases now stand at 110 and counting; that general cases presenting symptoms of cholera are rising; and these reports are being carried on provincial television in Cuba as detailed by Ana Maria Batista, identified as a Granma epidemiologist. Details are coming out,as this report filed today by CNN demonstrates. So where is Washington in all of this?

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is providing some information and urging travelers to follow public health guideless and monitor sources of information.

But for others, as Albor Ruiz writes this week in the New York Daily News, the cholera outbreak has become “a propaganda exercise for those who, even after 53 years of a failed economic embargo, prefer a policy of hostility and isolation over one of dialogue and engagement.”

In this case, he is referring to the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), whose position accords her some notice in U.S. foreign policy and who also has tens of thousands of Cubans in her Congressional district with family members at risk on the island.

And yet, her office has issued  no calls for compassion, not when there’s a political point to be scored.  Instead, she was quick to issue a statement condemning the Cuban government – not just for its secrecy, which she asserts without explanation has cost lives, but for “the regime’s utter failure in areas such as sanitation and infrastructure.”  Attack, attack, attack.

Opponents of the Castro government have long enjoyed using the suffering of Cubans for sport, but cruelty at that level isn’t a tactic that everyone is used to.  Albor Ruiz quotes Romy Aranguiz, a doctor born in Havana, who says of the outbreak “there are a lot of people focused on it for anti-Castro propaganda instead of thinking of what they could do to help their brothers and sisters on the island….If they really care about Cuba they should be thinking about sending antibiotics to the island and stop talking so much nonsense,” she said.

But that is not how the hardliners view their role.  “These are the people,” as Yoani Sanchez wrote recently, “who see the Cuban situation as a pressure cooker that needs just a little more heat to explode…Sadly, however, the guinea pigs required to test the efficacy of such an experiment would be Cubans on the island.”

Such are the costs of hate in the time of cholera.  Can’t we do better?

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