Cuba policy could change

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Cuba: Afternoon traffic in downtown Pinar del Río. (Larry Luxner)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) is as liberal on the political spectrum as his Republican colleague from Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake, is conservative. But there’s one issue both lawmakers readily agree on: it’s time to relax U.S. policy on Cuba.

Last month, the two senators appeared at a press conference to unveil a new study commissioned by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

The 26-page report, “US-Cuba: A New Public Survey Supports Policy Change,” shows that even though Americans abhor the Castro regime’s repression of basic liberties and its many human rights abuses, they generally support normalizing relations with Havana. Even more significantly, they enthusiastically back incremental steps the White House could take, such as removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of countries that support terrorism, and appointing a special envoy to oversee U.S.-Cuba relations.

The survey was conducted over a two-week period in January by the bipartisan polling team of Paul Maslin (FM3) and Glen Bolger (Public Opinion Strategies). It involved interviews with 1,024 randomly selected U.S. adults across the country, in English and Spanish. The poll has a 3.1 percent margin of error.

Cuba: Artist shows off her painting at a flea market near the Catedral in Habana Vieja. (Larry Luxner)
Cuba: Artist shows off her painting at a flea market near the Catedral in Habana Vieja. (Larry Luxner)

“Political leaders from both parties have often far too timid to do what’s right,” Leahy said at the Feb. 11 gathering. “You can’t tell a member of Congress not to go to Cuba, but that’s not the case for most Americans. Unless you’re a Cuban-American, you have to convince the government to give you a license. That’s wrong. It’s illogical to continue pursuing a policy that has absolutely no chance of success anymore today than it did during the Eisenhower administration.”

Leahy, admitting he’s “no fan” of Richard Nixon, added: “Can you imagine if Nixon had been this timid toward China, with far greater stakes? Where would we be today? Well, it’s time to show this same kind of leadership. Let’s end this Cold War in our own hemisphere.”

Flake, who’s sponsored a number of bills in the past to liberalize U.S. travel to Cuba, said that for years, Florida politics determined Washington’s policy on Cuba. But this poll, he said, clearly shows that most of Florida’s 18 million inhabitants want better relations with Cuba even more than Americans who don’t reside in the Sunshine State.

“Most of us have known for a long time that in terms of policy and substance, there is no justification for this travel ban,” said Flake. “Twenty years ago, we lifted our trade embargo against Vietnam because it was in our best interests to open up trade. Now they’re one of the nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Why can’t we move forward with Cuba?”

Among the poll’s major findings:

  • Nationwide, 56 percent of respondents favor changing current U.S. policy on Cuba, with an increase to 63 percent among Florida residents, and 62 percent among Hispanics. Interestingly, in Miami-Dade County — home to the nation’s biggest Cuban exile community — support for liberalizing Cuba policy stands at 64 percent.
  • Americans perceive the U.S. relationship with Cuba as being worse than that with Iran, and 52 percent of respondents say Cuba doesn’t belong on the State Department terrorist list (which also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan). In Florida, support for taking Cuba off that list rises to 61 percent.
  • It’s no surprise that 60 percent of Democrats surveyed want better relations with Cuba, but 52% of Republicans and 60 percent of independents also support normalization.
  • For some reason, men are significantly more likely to favor changing Cuba policy than women (61 percent to 51 percent). Also, the more education a respondent had, the more likely he or she was to favor an improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations (45 percent of high-school graduates, rising to 58 percent of those who had some college, 60% of respondents with a college degree and 67 percent of those who have done post-graduate work.
  • Nationwide, 62 percent of Americans (and 63 percent of Floridians) want to allow more U.S. companies to do business in Cuba, while 61% of Americans (and 63 percent of Floridians) support the removal of restrictions on U.S. citizens spending dollars on the island.
  • In addition, 61 percent of Americans (and 67 percent of Floridians) want to remove all restrictions on travel to Cuba by US. citizens, while 52 percent of Americans (and 64 percent of Floridians) would allow Cuba access to high-speed Internet and other telecommunications systems based in the United States.

“For decades, the rhetoric around changing Cuba policy has been that Florida would never let it happen,” said the pollsters. “The results from this poll challenge that long-held belief by putting Florida seven percentage points head of the nation in favoring normalization. The numbers indicate that the closer people are to the issue, the more likely they are to favor changing policy.”

Also, 77 percent of respondents favor diplomatic coordination on issues of mutual concern, such as environmental issues, immigration and drug trafficking, and 61 percent said the Obama administration should appoint a special envoy for Cuba (while 32% percent opposed the idea and 7 percent weren’t sure).

Baseball game in progress, Santiago de Cuba. (Larry Luxner)
Baseball game in progress, Santiago de Cuba. (Larry Luxner)

The survey showed that economic issues — more than the suffering of the Cuban people or any other factor — are the most convincing when it comes to arguments in favor of normalization.

Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said the study comes at a turning point in U.S. relations with the region.

“We are allowing for the views of the people to now be a part of the policy debate,” he said. “Given the importance of the U.S. relationship with Latin America, we thought it was the right moment to re-examine a hot-button issue in the region.”

He concluded that steps which could largely be taken by the Obama administration to increase its policy of support for the Cuban people yield even more support than a wholesale ending of the embargo.

Flake, who frequently travels to Cuba,  noted that Cuban exiles are now visiting the island in record numbers and sending increasing amounts of money to their families there for investment purposes “has made it far more difficult for the Cuban government to reverse” economic reforms enacted by President Raúl Castro.

“For that, we ought to be happy,” said the conservative senator from Arizona. “If it were up to me, I’d lift the entire embargo.”