White House

Poll: Cuban-Americans warming to Obama’s policies toward the island

In this Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, photo, President Barack Obama stands with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro before a bilateral meeting at the United Nations headquarters.
In this Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, photo, President Barack Obama stands with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro before a bilateral meeting at the United Nations headquarters. AP

Cuban Americans around the United States, at first wary of President Barack Obama’s recognition of the Castro government, now strongly support it. And for the first time, an absolute majority support lifting the U.S. embargo against the island, according to a new opinion poll released Thursday.

But while generally favorable toward the president’s Cuba policy, they clearly draw a line at an Obama visit to Cuba, which they oppose.

“This is the first time we’ve seen majority support for ending the embargo,” said Fernand Amandi, managing partner of the Miami polling company Bendixen & Amandi International, which has been asking Cuban Americans about the embargo for years.

“It’s a slight majority — 53 percent — but it’s a majority,” he said.

The poll — of 400 Cuban Americans around the United States, taken this week, with a plus or minus 4.9 percent margin of error — shows an exile community that, although sharply divided along generational lines, has moved steadily toward Obama’s decision to end the political and economic freeze-out of Cuba.

Many cheered while others protested on the streets of Washington D.C. on July 20, 2015, as the Cuban embassy reopened after 54 years. Hundreds crowded less than two miles north of the White House to watch the historic flag raising, the next big st

Obama moved to extend diplomatic recognition of the Cuban government a year ago after more than five decades of estrangement, and last week started negotiations for the first time on property claims against one another.

A Bendixen & Armandi poll taken just after Obama’s announcement last year showed that 48 percent of Cuban Americans opposed diplomatic recognition of the Castro government, and only 44 percent supported it, with the rest undecided.

56 Percentage of Cuban Americans who support diplomatic recognition of Cuba

But in Wednesday’s poll, support had risen to 56 percent, while opposition shrank to 36 percent.

Perceptions of the president’s overall Cuban policy have undergone a similar dramatic shift. Last year, 60 percent of Cuban Americans held a negative opinion and only 33 percent a positive opinion.

In the new poll, Cuban Americans support Obama’s policy by 46 percent to 44 — a slim margin, to be sure, and within the survey’s margin of error, but a striking shift nonetheless.

The story is similar when it comes to the embargo, which, since both Washington and Havana mostly holstered their guns following the 1962 missile crisis, has been the main United States weapon against Castro’s government.

Last year’s poll showed 44 percent in favor of lifting the embargo, 40 percent opposed, and 16 percent uncertain. In Wednesday’s poll, 53 percent backed an end to the embargo, while only 31 percent want it to continue, with the rest uncertain.

Numbers on almost everything, though, change radically when adjusted for age or place of birth.

Exiles who arrived in the United States in the 1960s — mostly Cuban-born — remain adamantly opposed to ending Washington’s economic and diplomatic freeze-out of the Castro government.

But those born in the United States, who now compose the vast majority of the exile community, are more inclined to extend an olive branch.

Among those who arrived before 1980, 54 percent oppose recognition of Cuba and 38 percent support it; after 1980, the numbers reverse, with 59 percent in favor and 30 percent against.

Similarly, support for the embargo is strongest among those over 65 (38 percent in favor) and opposition strongest among those under 49 (66 percent against the embargo).

“The starkest contrast in the entire poll was between those born in the United States and those born in Cuba on Obama’s decision to normalize relations,” Amandi said. “Among those born in the United States, you have 80 percent agreement, and among those born in Cuba, it’s only 49 percent. That’s a massive difference.”

The older exiles simply don’t trust either Cuban leader Raúl Castro or his old brother Fidel.

“You cannot deal with the devil,” declared Mirtha Mendez, 69, of Miami Lakes, one of those polled. “The Castro brothers have always been killers, murderers — look at the paper this week, all the dissidents they’re gagging and jailing. How can you deal with somebody like that?”

You cannot deal with the devil.

Poll respondent Mirtha Mendez of Miami Lakes

One thing that cut across all age groups: dislike for the idea of Obama traveling to Cuba next year, as he has said he would like to do. By a 52-42 margin that does not differ markedly by age, exiles disapprove of a presidential visit to the island. The only demographic group that thinks it’s a good idea: registered Democrats, 57 to 40.

Among the poll’s other findings:

▪ Even the broadening support for the president’s Cuba policy has not made him a popular figure among exiles. Fifty percent continue to view him unfavorably, compared with 46 percent favorably.

▪ Although a majority of exiles still favor retaining the Cuban Adjustment Act — the 1966 law that grants Cuban refugees preferential treatment in obtaining U.S. residency — there’s a surprising amount of sentiment to get rid of it. Just over a third of those polled want to repeal the law, compared with 50 percent who want to keep it.

▪ Exiles overwhelmingly favor allowing the thousands of Cuban refugees currently stranded in Costa Rica, Ecuador and other Latin American countries come to the United States.

▪ One that hasn’t changed: The Castro brothers remain among the most despised people in the world, as far as exiles are concerned. Exactly 1 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of Fidel and 3 percent for Raúl.

Exiles who favor better relations with Cuba said it’s not because they sympathize with the Castros, but because it would be good for the rest of the island.

“I want to end the embargo so people in Cuba can get what they deserve,” said Isabel Perez, 54, of West New York, N.J., one of those polled. “They’ve been neglected for so many years. … I think this country should help them.”

The virtually unanimous negative opinion of the Castros is, in a way, an impressive achievement, according to Amandi, who said he’s never seen anything like it in all his years as a pollster.

“No matter how many people hate somebody, you always get a few outliers in the poll,” he mused. “I think Satan himself could have gotten at least 5 or 6 percent approval. So the Castros have proved that it’s actually possible to be less popular than the devil.”

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