When it comes to controversial issues, the public is often far ahead of politicians in supporting sensible policy alternatives. Issues that are intensely salient to small constituencies scare the daylights out of elected officials because the committed single-issue voter poses a greater electoral threat than the pragmatic general public, whose votes are rarely determined by any one issue. Therein lies the explanation for why the United States is still pursuing a policy of hostility toward Cuba, which even the president himself admits hasn’t worked for more than half a century.
At the national level, the new Atlantic Council poll reinforces what we’ve known for years: the American public thinks it’s time to change U.S. policy toward Cuba. Fifty-six percent nationwide would “normalize relations” or “engage more directly with Cuba,” with a majority of Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents concurring. An Angus Reid poll two years ago found similar majorities in favor of re-establishing diplomatic relations and lifting the embargo, as did polls as far back as 2001.
What is different about the new Atlantic Council poll is the finding that there is even greater support for change in Florida, where 63% of respondents favor normalization. Fear of the electoral consequences in Florida has been the principal obstacle to policy change, especially for Democrats. Conventional wisdom among Democratic political operatives held that a tough line on Cuba was the only way to win enough Cuban American votes to carry the state in presidential elections. By winning 35% of the Cuban American vote in 2008 and almost half in 2012, Barack Obama himself cast doubt on the validity of this conventional wisdom. The Atlantic Council poll adds new evidence that the old political calculus no longer applies.
Cuban Americans, once stalwart opponents of any opening to Cuba, have become advocates of greater engagement. Exiles who arrived in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s came as political refugees opposed to the socialist direction of the revolution and their fierce opposition to any U.S. accommodation with Castro is legendary. But Cubans who arrived in the Mariel exodus of 1980 and thereafter are more likely to have left for economic reasons, to retain ties with family on the island, and to favor better U.S.-Cuban relations. With every passing year, the cohort of early exiles becomes a smaller proportion of the community as natural mortality takes its toll, and as new immigrants arrive at a rate of some 30,000 annually. Elected politicians have yet to recognize this change, and continue to embrace a dysfunctional Cuba policy that is supported by an ever-shrinking constituency.
In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon recognized that the national interest required a dramatic change in Washington’s longstanding policy of hostility toward China, and that the political muscle of the much-feared China Lobby had atrophied since the height of the Cold War. President Obama faces a similar challenge and a similar opportunity. The political muscle of the much-feared Cuba Lobby is weakening day by day, as this new Atlantic Council poll attests, giving the president greater freedom of action on Cuba than any president has had in recent decades.
William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC.