President Barack Obama is more popular among Cubans than either of the Castro brothers who have ruled the island for the past five and a half decades, according to a new poll secretly conducted there last month.
Eighty percent of the Cubans polled said they had a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” opinion of Obama, while just 17 percent registered a “very negative” or “somewhat negative” impression.
The widespread approval of the U.S. president was in sharp contrast to the mostly adverse opinions of Cuban leader Raúl Castro (48 percent negative, 47 percent positive) and his retired older brother Fidel (50 percent negative, 44 percent positive).
Obama’s popularity — exceeded only by that of Pope Francis — was perhaps the most startling finding of the poll, which was conducted by the Miami company Bendixen & Amandi International for the TV networks Univision and Fusion and the Washington Post.
The survey is the first nationwide opinion poll conducted in Cuba by a private firm since the country turned communist. Without the Cuban government’s knowledge or permission, the pollsters conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,200 adults throughout the island between March 6 and 16. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
The survey shows a curious mix of emotions and expectations among Cubans in the wake of the thaw between Washington and Havana announced by the two governments in December.
According to the poll, Cubans overwhelmingly support improved relations with the United States (including an end to the U.S. embargo), which they believe will generate more tourism and better economic conditions on the island. Yet they don’t expect political change.
And while 73 percent said they are personally optimistic about the future, more than half said they would prefer to live in another country — mostly the United States, which by a 5-to-1 margin they regard as a friendly country.
The percentage of Cubans who would like to leave the island was the most surprising result to Fernand Amandi, a managing partner of the company that conducted the poll.
“When you break that down by generation, 80 percent of people aged 18 to 34 want to leave,” Amandi noted. “That’s not a brain drain, it’s a brain exodus.” It also has potential implications for U.S. immigration policy should the Cuban government make it easier for its citizens to leave.
Though Cubans interviewed for the poll were happy with some of their institutions — 72 percent approved of the health system, 68 of the education system — the poll paints a picture of a population deeply discontented with a politically monolithic government and a crippled economy. Asked what the main thing the government needs to do in the next five years to improve Cuban quality of life, 54 percent said “improve economic opportunities” and 29 percent said “reform the current political system.”
Criticisms of the political system were harsh and widespread. Of the 53 percent who were dissatisfied with it (compared to 39 percent who were satisfied), about half cited “lack of freedom” as the main problem and a quarter “lack of economic development.”
The grievances spilled over to Cuba’s only legal party, the Communists. Fifty-eight percent of those polled had a negative view of the party, compared to just 32 percent with a positive view. Fifty-two percent said the country needs more than one party; 46 percent had a positive view of Cuban opposition groups, compared to 33 percent negative.
The poll’s open-ended questions — in which people could volunteer their own answers rather than choosing from a set of pre-selected options — produced even more strident responses. To the question “What do the people of Cuba need the most at this time?” one person answered: “To finally be done with the Castros.”
Said another, when asked why he wasn’t satisfied with Cuba’s political system: “Because they make us believe we are living the best life in the world when that’s not the case.” Another acidly replied: “I didn’t choose my president.”
Negative opinions of the government tended to be higher in younger age brackets than older ones, suggesting that support for Castro brothers, both now in their 80s, is dying out along with their original revolutionary supporters.
Amandi admitted that he was somewhat startled by the degree to which Cubans were willing to openly criticize their government and their leaders.
“I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” he said. “These questions have never been asked before. There’s always been some anecdotal results from recent arrivals, people saying criticism of the revolution is becoming more open, but you never know what to make of that.”
Some Cuban-American activists, however, thought the poll probably understated public dissatisfaction with the Castro regime.
“I don’t think there’s anything really crazy in the results,” said Miami radio host Ninoska Perez. “But I question this supposed support for the health and education systems. That’s not what people say when they get here — they say nothing works at all in Cuba. In countries with repression, people will not necessarily express the reality of what’s going on to a stranger.”
Highlights of the poll
Answers may not add up to 100% because of rounding and because Don’t Know/No Answer responses have been omitted
What do the people of Cuba need the most?
Open political system24%
Improved quality of life24%
Satisfaction with the economic system
Not too satisfied36%
Not at all satisfied43%
Need for political parties
Should have more political parties52%
One political party is enough28%
Freedom of expression in public
Express freely in public19%
Have to be careful about what to say75%
Normalization of the relationship between Cuba and the United States
Good for Cuba97%
Bad for Cuba1%
Opinion of Fidel Castro
Very positive opinion11%
Somewhat of a positive opinion33%
Somewhat of a negative opinion23%
Very negative opinion27%
Opinion of Raúl Castro
Very positive opinion8%
Somewhat of a positive opinion39%
Somewhat of a negative opinion48%
Very negative opinion14%
Opinion of Barack Obama
Very positive opinion34%
Somewhat of a positive opinion46%
Somewhat of a negative opinion15%
Very negative opinion2%