How people feel about US-Cuba relations

At first glance, American attitudes toward Cuba appear to be cryogenically frozen in the Cold War.  A passing presidential handshake with a Cuban leader sets the internet and cable news ablaze. Pictures of a celebrity trip to the island garner threats of congressional inquiry.

But public opinion regarding the troubled relationship is not in line with political conventional wisdom.

We recently worked with the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center to field a national opinion poll to better understand American’s feelings about Cuba and our fifty-year Cuba policy. Published this week by the Council, the results are surprising and interesting.  They indicate that Cuba is no longer a make-or-break issue for the country’s electorate, and, most significantly, normalization is strongly supported in Florida.

We’ve spent decades analyzing poll numbers for candidates from opposing parties, so we welcomed the opportunity to work together for a non-partisan organization to reexamine an issue that has been a fixture in the national political narrative since we started our careers. It was also a chance to dedicate a singular, comprehensive poll – the first of its kind that we know about – to U.S.-Cuba policy. All in all, we polled about 2100 people nationally, with oversamples in key geographic areas and with important subgroups of minority voters on this issue.

A clear majority of 56 percent of Americans agree with the proposition that we should normalize relations with Cuba. Among Latinos that figure jumps to 62 percent. In Florida, 63 percent are in favor of engaging more directly with Cuba. Across the board, the Sunshine State is the most willing to change the American stance towards the island that is ninety miles away.

While most Americans may not know the intricacies of the embargo on Cuba, they are keenly aware that the United States is not friendly with the government in Havana. Respondents correctly characterized U.S. relations with the island as worse than those with Iran. Sixty-one percent of Americans support removing Cuba from the Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, along with 67 percent of Floridians.

Respondents indicated even further support for normalization when presented with specific proposals for direct engagement. For example, 61 percent of Americans support an Obama Administration appointment of a special envoy to work on sensitive policy issues pertaining to Cuba. Floridians indicated overwhelming support (82 percent) for holding meetings with the Cuban government to discuss issues of mutual concern, such as prevention of smuggling and drug trafficking. 

The Atlantic Council poll also found that most Americans oppose the long-standing restrictions against travel to Cuba. Over sixty percent of the US public indicates that the U.S. should lift the ban on travel including 65 percent of Latinos and 67 percent of Florida residents. A strong majority of poll respondents felt that the most compelling arguments for ending the ban were the island’s proximity to American shores and the U.S. government’s unique requirement that all travel to Cuba must have Treasury Department approval.

Americans are also ready to end the embargo, at least in part, on trade with Cuba. Sixty-two percent of the country believes that more American companies should be able to do business in Cuba, including 63 percent of Floridians and even 54 percent of national respondents who had a favorable opinion of the Tea Party.  

Given the Cuban government’s continued repression of human rights and the fundamental lack of freedoms in the island, it is not surprising that negative messages about human rights and repression of liberties on Cuba still rightly resonate with Americans.  However, it is also true that there are positive messages that are effective.   When respondents were reminded that the U.S. today has good diplomatic and trade relations with Vietnam, a country with which we were at war, 61 percent agree that America’s close relations with Vietnam are a convincing argument for re-establishing ties with Cuba. Similarly, 65 percent of Americans, and nearly 70 percent of Floridians, believe that the potential for new economic opportunities is a convincing rationale to normalize relations.

We have collected and dissected a steady stream of poll numbers over the years in our respective careers, but this latest one on Cuba points to very compelling evidence that the time may be ripe for a policy change. Although a wholesale change in current U.S. policy may not be feasible, Americans have shown that they are ready for parts of the embargo, such as lifting the travel ban, to be changed.  

Candidates seeking national office should no longer see the Cuba issue as the ‘make or break’ issue it has been in past Florida presidential elections.   Whether it is the result of a gradual demographic change or the new mindsets of second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans, the Sunshine State is no longer the reason to delay normalization with Cuba. Florida is fixed to be a battleground state for years to come, but that does not mean that U.S. policies towards Cuba need be part of that battle for much longer.

Maslin, a leading Democratic pollster, and Bolger, a leading Republican pollster, collaborated on the Cuba relations project for the Atlantic Council.

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