February 10, 2014
Cuba, an island nation of 11 million people, has become a boulder-sized pebble in the shoes of US relations with a region of over 580 million people. More than five decades after it was first implemented, the Cuba embargo is hampering the United States’ ability to maximize cooperation with allies in the hemisphere at a moment when there is increasing stability, growth, and opportunity.

THE POLL IN-DEPTH

US policy toward Cuba—a web of laws and regulations designed to force regime change in Havana—has not produced its intended results as Fidel Castro maintained power for five decades, and, in 2006, successfully transferred power to Raúl Castro. The Cuban government is also not wholly isolated from the United States. Select US agricultural commodities and medicine/medical devices are regularly exported to the island under an exemption to the embargo passed by Congress in 2000. It is also estimated that approximately a half million US visitors traveled to Cuba last year.

Nor is Cuba sequestered from the rest of the world. In January 2014, for example, Havana hosted the United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS) secretaries general (Cuba’s suspension from the OAS ended in 2009) and presidents of all Latin American nations for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States Summit. The European Union, which introduced sanctions after the Cuban government rounded up seventy-five dissidents in 2003, lifted its sanctions in 2008. This was done to encourage change in Cuba after Raúl Castro took over as head of the government. On February 10, 2014, the European Union—Cuba’s biggest foreign investor—agreed to launch negotiations with Cuba to increase dialogue on trade, investment, and human rights issues.  

The embargo has become the Cuban government’s “enabler.” Cuba today enjoys the benefits of increasing political support in the region, growing financial integration with much of the world, and the largesse of politically-compatible neighbors while making few concessions to its own people. Rather than accelerating an end to the Castro brothers’ regime, the embargo has become the all-encompassing excuse for inaction on the island. Cubans remain repressed, controlled, and largely unable to forge their own destinies.  

Latin America is the United States’ fastest growing trade partner. As Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto likes to point out, a billion dollars of trade passes through the US-Mexico border every day. But our allies in the region are finding it increasingly difficult to defend our Cuba policy.  

These regional allies point out that the United States negotiates with Iran. The president of Vietnam, a country with which the United States went to war and continues to be a one-party state, was welcomed to the White House in July 2013 and is now a negotiating partner in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. It is true that the Cuban government represses freedoms, but the United States engages with unsavory governments all the time. Why, they ask, is it that the United States refuses to talk to a country ninety miles off the coast of Florida?  

At the same time, Latin America has mostly moved on. Even the United States’ stalwart ally, Colombia, is holding peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—a guerrilla group waging war against the state since the 1960s—in Havana. In the meantime, the United States continues to support policies that make it harder to support Cuba’s emerging independent private sector and civil society. Notwithstanding recent changes to policy, US allies in the region find it difficult to defend the US embargo. They are forced to segregate meetings to accommodate the United States. Latin American countries are united in insisting that the next Summit of the Americas in 2016 will include Cuba, even if that means the United States will not participate.

The Obama administration has made a series of laudable adjustments to US Cuba policy. In 2009, it lifted all restrictions on family travel and remittances and it put in place new measures to ease travel restrictions and to allow Americans to send remittances to Cuba in 2011. Now, Americans can travel to Cuba for religious and educational travel under people-to-people licenses and at least nineteen US airports offer direct flights.

This poll shows the Obama administration should expand on those changes and further its commitment to increasing support for the Cuban people.

The policy implications of this poll are far ranging:

1. Profound changes to US-Cuba policy would be well received by the American people, and even more so, by Floridians and Latinos.

Fifty-six percent of Americans agree with the wholesale proposition that the United States need to normalize relations (further engage) with Cuba. In Florida, that number jumps to 63 percent support, and among Latinos, 62 percent. Over and over, the poll points to repeated instances where the American people—by up to three to one in some cases—support change. Americans may not know all the details. They may not be experts on the intricacies of the overlapping set of federal regulations known as the Cuba sanc­tions. But Americans  know that Cuba is not a friend of the United States—characterizing US-Cuba relations as worse than those with Iran—and are aware that the Cuban government violates the basic rights of its own people. Still, they believe that a policy in place since the early 1960s is not working and support alternatives.

2. Steps that could largely be taken by the White House to increase its policy of support for the Cuban people yield even more support than a wholesale ending of the embargo.

This fits neatly with political reality. Americans want change, but they are more comfortable proceeding piece-by-piece. When asked about changing the specifics of the policy, Americans are even more supportive. Whether it is changing the travel ban, amending financial restrictions, meeting with the Cuban government to discuss matters of common interest, or removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, support for chang­ing the individual policies rises above 61 percent. Over 80 percent of Floridians and Latinos say the United States should talk with Cuban authorities on issues of mutual concern such as preventing drug trafficking.

While those opposing any change have much emotion and determination on their side, it is clear that demography and immigration have changed the equation of Florida politics.
Americans clearly agree—almost three to one—with messages that communicate compelling reasons to change the policy. Yet, even after hearing these messages, they prefer incremental steps over supporting a wholesale change in policy. Since there is little chance of removing in its entirety the congressionally mandated web of laws, Americans are telling President Obama that he is free to further expand the boundaries of engagement as long as this is done in tandem with a strong advocacy for human rights.

3. Florida actually leads the nation in clamoring for a new direction.

This poll overturns decades of widely-accepted conventional wisdom. Political leaders who push for an easing of restrictions should not fear a backlash from Floridians and their views should no longer be an impediment to changing US policy toward Cuba. For decades, Florida’s politics trumped national policy. This is no longer true. While those opposing any change have much emo­tion and determination on their side, it is clear that demography and immigration have changed the equation of Florida politics. Second- and third-gen­eration Cuban Americans today make up a smaller part of the state’s Latino population. Young Cuban- Americans are rightly proud of their heritage, and continue to acknowledge the Cuban government’s repression. However, they also believe that the policies of the last five decades have not worked. This is reflected in their views on Cuba policy. This poll demonstrates that national politicians could actually gain by acknowledging today’s new reali­ties and changing Cuba policy to meet them. This is consistent with President Obama’s support among Cuban-Americans in 2012, when exit polls showed a plurality backed his reelection.

4. The majority of Americans support further policies that ease restric­tions on travel, spending money in Cuba, and the ability of the US private sector to do business in Cuba.

Limitations have been eased in the past few years but more could be done. Over 60 percent of the US public favor lifting travel restrictions and greater financial engagement with Cuba. Among Latinos, the number jumps to over 65 percent. Still, even more support is seen among Floridians (67 per­cent) for a complete abolishment of the current travel policy.

Greater financial engagement would also help to unleash the new wave of small, independent businesses on the island that began to open through a change in Cuban government policy in 2010. These businesses are clamoring for start-up capital and represent great potential for the Cuban people to increase their independence from the Cuban government. Most of all, over two-thirds of Americans believe that we must open up a dialogue with the Cuban government on issues of mutual concern such as terrorism, narcotrafficking, environmental safety, and resource management. Bilateral cooperation and dialogue is critical for the safety of both countries.

5. The Obama administration has a considerable number of tools to use should it want to follow the careful recommendations of Americans, including removing Cuba from the terrorism list and naming a spe­cial envoy for Cuba.

Removing Cuba from the terrorism list is a top priority, with 67 percent of Floridians and 61 percent of Americans overall in support. Cuba’s government is repressive and dictatorial, but Cuba does not belong on a list next to Iran or Sudan. In fact, keeping Cuba on the list actually makes it harder to provide support for the Cuban people. The United States talks to governments with reprehensible policies (that are not on the terrorism list) regularly and is even involved in a negotiation process with Iran over its nuclear program. At the same time, however, the United States should also insist that Cuban government reciprocates any overtures, including by freeing Alan Gross. Naming a special envoy for Cuba—a move supported by 61 percent of Americans— would show that the Obama administration is ready for deeper engagement with the island.

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