April 8, 2015 | By Dina Smeltz

Where You Sit is Where You Stand on US-Cuba Policy

Graffiti in downtown Havana, Cuba
On Friday, President Obama will head to the Summit of the Americas in Panama. For the first time since 1962 when it was expelled from the Organization of American States, Cuba is attending. Although no formal one-on-one meetings have been scheduled, top officials from the US and Cuba are expected to hold talks on the margins. While it will occur with much less fanfare, the Chicago Council Survey team will be traveling to Florida International University a few days later, April 15, to discuss results from its report on Latino attitudes toward US policy. The convergence of these two events prompted a review of American attitudes toward restoring ties with Cuba. It turns out, not surprisingly, that results differ widely on who is asked – Americans overall, Latinos, Floridians, Cuban Americans, and most particularly, Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County.
The polls show widespread support for opening a political dialogue with Cuba, increasing travel, and even some aspects of trade. But the closer you get to the core of the Cuban American community in Miami, the more mixed attitudes are toward ending the embargo (and perhaps for removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, though only two surveys included a question on this and they are not comparable.) Moreover, the findings show some real demographic transitions taking place among the Cuban American community between Florida and non-Florida residents, between native born and Cuban-born, and between the younger and older cohorts. The results suggest that Cuba is still a pretty hefty issue in Florida politics, though generational replacement will undoubtedly have an effect in not too many years to come.
Views of US public (and Latinos): The overall American public favors restoring ties with Cuba. Since 2008, Chicago Council Surveys have shown majorities of Americans supporting “meeting and talking with Cuban leaders.” In the latest 2014 survey, seven in ten Latinos (71%) and non-Latinos (74%) supported dialogue. More recent polls from the Pew Research Center, CBS News, CNN/ORC and ABC News/Washington Post also found US public support for normalizing ties with Cuba as well as easing travel and trade restrictions.
Views among Florida Residents and Latinos: A prescient Atlantic Council telephone survey from January 2014 included oversamples of Florida residents and Latinos. The survey found some results that ran counter to the conventional wisdom that Floridians – where most Cuban Americans reside - would be more resistant than others to a rapprochement with Cuba. In fact, slightly more Floridians (63%, and 62% of Latinos) compared to the overall public (56%) favored normalizing relations or engaging more directly with Cuba. The poll did not include a direct question about support or opposition to lifting the economic embargo against Cuba, though the survey tested various messages for and against changing Cuba policy (with majorities being influenced in both directions).
One of the key sticking points in the restoration of US-Cuba relations is Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, along with Iran, Syria and Sudan. In fact, the State Department is nearing a decision on whether to remove Cuba from this list very soon (North Korea was dropped from the list in 2008).  The Atlantic Council included a question about Cuba and the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. Respondents were first told that the State Department has placed economic and travel sanctions against Cuba, along with Iran, Syria and Sudan, for repeatedly providing support for “acts of international terrorism.” They were then asked “In your opinion, does Cuba pose the same threat as these other countries—Sudan, Syria, and Iran—and thus belong on the list?”
This is a slightly different question than asking directly whether they support or oppose Cuba remaining on this list. Nevertheless, by a 5 to 4 margin, both the American public (52% no, 40% yes) and Latinos (50% no, 43% yes) tended to say that Cuba does not belong on this list. In Florida, twice as many residents said Cuba does not belong on the list as said that it did (61% no, 31%). Based on this and other results, one of the key takeaways mentioned in this survey report stated: “Future presidential and congressional candidates should recognize that Cuba is no longer a make-or-break issue in the state that lies ninety miles away from its shores.”
Figure 1, via Atlantic Council
Views of Cuban Americans: More recent (March 20-25, 2015) polling by Bendixen and Amandi International focused specifically on views of the Cuban American community. Bendixen and Amandi (henceforth, B&A) is an international research and communication strategy firm with an emphasis on Hispanic and multicultural research and consulting. B&A conducted interviews with 400 Cuban Americans living in the US, predominately in Florida (66% Florida residents). The firm had previous conducted a similar survey in December 2014 after the December 17 announcement in conjunction with the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.
Overall, 51 percent of Cuban Americans – up from 44% in December – agree with “President Obama’s announcement to begin normalizing relations with Cuba.” Cuban Americans in Florida tended to disagree more than agree (41% agree, 49% disagree) compared to those living outside of Florida (69% agree, 23% disagree). Given that the question wording includes President Obama’s name, these results likely also reflect partisan views (in the December poll a solid majority of Republicans said they disagreed with Obama’s announcement to normalize, compared to solid majorities of Democrats and Independents who agreed).
The B&A survey also found that overall, Cuban Americans are somewhat cautious about discontinuing the US embargo on Cuba. Forty-seven percent say it should not continue, while just over a third (36%) say it should continue. At the same time, however, nearly six in ten Cuban Americans support opening business channels across the border, whether through companies owned by Cuban Americans in the United States (58%) or through independent businesses owned and run by Cubans living in Cuba (56%).
Besides Florida residence being a big factor in attitudes, these results show there are strong differences in the attitudes of Cuban Americans who were born in the United States versus those born in Cuba, what decade they arrived, and what age brackets they fall into. Majorities of those who were born in the US, arrived after 1980, or below age of 49 are the most positive toward normalizing relations with Cuba and ending the embargo. Older Cubans and those who left Cuba before 1980 are more committed to isolating Cuba.
Views of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County: Another survey conducted by the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami consisted of telephone interviews with 1,000 Cuban Americans in Florida’s Miami-Dade County between February and May 2014. Large majorities in this sample supported the “United States re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba” (68%), lifting travel restrictions (69%), and continuing people-to-people exchanges (71%). Majorities also favored allowing companies to sell food (82%) and medicine (77%) to Cuba, and a majority said that the US companies that are currently selling grain and medicine should be allowed to expand (48%) or maintain (28%) this type of trade.
But FIU’s findings also showed that Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade were fairly divided on ending the embargo. A bare majority preferred to discontinue (52%) than continue (48%) the embargo, even though seven in ten said the embargo has not worked well or at all. Two in three (63%) Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade thought that Cuba should remain on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Only among those between the ages of 18-29 did a majority disagree and think Cuba should be removed from this list. The survey report hypothesizes that removing Cuba from this list would be seen as “a capitulation” to the Castro government. Perhaps to some, the same could be said for removing the embargo.
Figure 2, via Florida International University
These findings show some real demographic transitions taking place among the Cuban American community – not only between those living in Florida and in the rest of the country, but also between native born and Cuban-born, and between the younger and older cohorts of Cuban Americans. Based on these results, especially among Miami-Dade Cuban Americans, I’m not sure that Cuba is no longer a deal breaker for Florida politics just yet. 


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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