Cubans tell pollsters that Raúl Castro’s reforms are having little impact

Though hints of optimism creep up, most Cubans say in a poll that Raúl Castro’s reforms have a long way to go before they begin to benefit.

06/04/2012 5:00 AM

06/04/2012 10:15 PM

Five in six Cubans say they have not benefitted from ruler Raúl Castro’s economic reforms and nearly 75 percent say their family’s economic situation is the same or worse than a year ago, according to a poll made public Monday.

The survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) also showed the growing disgruntlement among huge majorities of younger Cubans, hinted that optimism is creeping up, and showed an odd slip in those who favor capitalism and democracy.

IRI’s figures backed up the complaint from Cuba analysts that Castro’s reforms have been too few and too slow to fix the sluggish economy. But they also hinted that the reforms have sparked some level of optimism on the island.

It was the seventh Cuba poll conducted since 2007 by IRI, a Washington nonprofit that works to advance freedom around the world. Like its counterpart, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, it is technically nonpartisan.

The poll involved face-to-face interviews of 787 Cuban adults Feb. 29-March 14, and has a 3.5 percent margin of error. IRI says it works “discreetly” in Cuba because the communist government bans independent surveys, but declines to provide further details.

Eighty-five percent of those polled said they have not benefitted directly from Castro’s reforms, and three-quarters said the economic situation of their families is the same or worse than last year and 60 percent expect it to stay the same in the next year.

Asked more generally how things are going, those who said “well” dropped from 27 to 19 percent while those who picked “so-so” rose from 24 to 37 percent. Cubans who replied “very badly” slipped from 9 to 8 percent.

“After more than a year of hearing about reforms in Cuba, adults over 18 don’t see any differences in their lives economically, nor are they especially more confident about the year ahead,” said IRI Latin American director Alex Sutton.

The IRI figures also showed some small hints of optimism, however. Twenty-three percent of those polled said their family’s economic situation improved over the preceding year, an increase from the 18 percent recorded in IRI’s previous poll in July of 2011.

Those who believe their family’s economic situation will improve in the next year rose from 23 to 27 percent, while those who expect it to stay the same sagged from 61 to 59 percent. Those who expect worse dropped from 10 to 8 percent.

Low salaries and high prices were picked by 51 percent as the island’s top problem, a drop from 61 percent last year, while those who singled out the dual-currency system slid from 18 to 16 percent. Less than 5 percent picked the U.S. embargo. But those who picked food shortages as the biggest problem, the third-largest group, climbed from 4 to 13 percent. Food prices spiked by an estimated 20 percent over the past year because of government cuts in subsidies and imports.

Asked if the government would be able to fix those problems in the next few years, only 19 percent said yes this year, compared to 21 percent in July and 29 percent in November of 2008 — soon after Castro officially became president and began promising vast reforms.

In a seemingly odd shift, those who said they favor a capitalist economy dropped from 89 percent in July to 80 percent this year, while those who favored multi-party democracy, including freedom of speech, dropped from 76 to 69 percent.

Most of those drops were found among older Cubans, who have been hard-hit by reforms like the cuts in government subsidies for food and health care. Castro also has increased the retirement age, while retirement benefits seldom rise above $15 a month.

“So they think, if this is what an economic reform means, I’m out,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which backs strong U.S. sanctions.

Ninety percent of those aged 18-29 favored a market economy and 88 percent favored democracy, yet among Cubans 60 and older, only 41 percent favored a democratic system and 33 per cent opposed it.

“The future is clearly on the side of freedom,” Claver-Carone added.

IRI’s survey also indicated that access to the internet had slipped slightly since July, from 7 to 4 percent. Only 8 percent reported access to email. Those who reported having no access at all inched up from 83 to 87 percent.

The shift follows reports that government authorities have been trying to crack down on government employees who have free office access to the Web and rent their sign-ons and passwords for $20 and more per month.

The poll also showed 80 percent of Cubans said they received no remittances from abroad, although most analysts have estimated that 60 percent of island residents receive remittances.

On a question measuring perceived levels of freedom, 40 percent of those polled answered that zero out of 10 of their fellow citizens can publicly express dissentt. Three percent said everyone could do that.

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