Miami-Dade County

Poll: Cuban-Americans split on Obama’s Cuba policy

An unidentified woman argues with Bryan Medina regarding Medina's congratulatory sign at Versailles Restaurant in Miami on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 following President Barack Obama's announcement that the U.S. will normalize relations with Cuba.
An unidentified woman argues with Bryan Medina regarding Medina's congratulatory sign at Versailles Restaurant in Miami on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 following President Barack Obama's announcement that the U.S. will normalize relations with Cuba. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Cuban-Americans nationwide are almost evenly divided over support for the embargo and for President Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba, according to a new poll that shows a vast generational divide in reaction to this week’s historic announcement.

The poll by Bendixen & Amandi International also showed that Cuban-Americans are nearly split on whether Obama should have exchanged prisoners Wednesday with Raul Castro’s communist government.

But they strongly disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy overall and his approach to Cuba specifically, according to the poll of 400 Cuban-Americans conducted for The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

Among the strongest responses from Cuban-Americans: Whether the United States should remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror. That move is opposed by 60 percent, with only 22 percent in favor. The Obama administration is reviewing Cuba’s designation.

“The Cuban people will not see any benefits,” poll respondent Gabriel Rivera, a 40-year-old Miami resident, said of Obama’s announcement. “They will remain in the same condition because the Cuban government doesn’t grant any freedoms.”

Rivera, a nurse practitioner, left behind family in Cuba in 2004 when he emigrated from Havana to the U.S. A registered Republican, he said voters like him “won’t forget, even after five, six, eight years, that Obama betrayed the history of the Cubans who have fought for Cuban freedom.”

But for his GOP affiliation, Rivera is somewhat of an anomaly in the poll of Cuban-Americans, about half of whom were registered voters.

The profile of those most likely to disapprove of Obama’s positions and more-normalized relations with Cuba: Republicans, those over 65 and those born in Cuba who emigrated to the U.S. before the 1980 Mariel boatlift crisis. After Mariel, immigrants from Cuba have tended to be considered economic immigrants, instead of political exiles.

“This poll shows there are two Cuban-American communities,” said Fernand Amandi, the Bendixen & Amandi pollster who conducted the survey.

“There is the older exile community that has dominated the discussion about Cuba policy for years,” Amandi said. “And there is the emergence of the younger generation, the Cuban-American community of the present and future.”

Because of the strong opposition from these more-traditional exile groups, centered in Miami, Obama’s new Cuba policy is viewed more unfavorably than favorably. When it comes to normalized relations or the spy swap, opposition outpaced support by a few percentage points that were within the poll’s 4.9 percentage-point margin of error. Opposition to the embargo was also with the error margin, meaning Cuban-Americans are basically split on these issues.

There’s another Cuban-American schism: Between those who live in Florida and those who live elsewhere. Florida has more than two-thirds of the nation’s 1.8 million Cuban-Americans, with almost 900,000 living in Miami-Dade County.

Overall, 50 percent of Cuban-Americans support establishing a Cuban consulate in Miami; 39 percent oppose it. But in Florida, support stands at 41 percent and opposition at 46 percent. Outside of Florida, support stands at 67 percent and opposition at 24 percent.

The poll showed 55 percent of Cuban-Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Obama, compared to 41 percent with a favorable view.

When analyzed by country of birth, the poll shows only 37 percent of Cuba-born respondents have a favorable view of Obama, compared to 56 percent with an unfavorable opinion. For those born in the US, Obama’s favorable rating is at 51-49 percent.

Among registered voters, only 6 percent of Republican Cuban-Americans had a favorable view, compared to 73 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents.

Regarding Obama’s policy toward Cuba, 33 percent rated it good or excellent; 60 percent rated it mediocre or poor. Opposition was strongest among Republicans with 91 percent giving Obama an unfavorable rating; 68 percent of Democrats favored it; and 56 percent of independents disapproved while 44 percent approved.

The partisan dislike of Obama and his Cuba policy could be felt in the 2016 race for president in Florida. Cuban-Americans account for as much as 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida, where about 14 percent of the nearly 12 million registered voters are Hispanic.

About 72 percent of the registered Republicans in Miami-Dade are Hispanic and are almost all Cuban-American. Many of them, the poll and prior elections indicate, are Cuba hardliners, such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of West Miami, who is mulling a race for president and has become the face of GOP opposition to Obama’s policy.

Obama, Rubio said, gave Castro virtually everything the U.S. president could and got no concessions in the way of guarantees for more democracy, free speech or human rights. “This is what happens when you send a speech-writer to negotiate with a tyrant,” he said.

Of the Republicans, every other major potential candidate for the White House echoes Rubio’s position — except for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. He said the U.S. should lift the embargo because, he said, it hasn’t worked.

That prompted a series of testy exchanges between Paul and Rubio that went from TV to Twitter to Facebook.

The Bendixen & Amandi poll showed 44 percent supported normalizing relations; 48 percent opposed it.

Those born in the U.S. supported the normalization effort by 64-33 percent. Those born in Cuba opposed it 53-38 percent. Of those born in Cuba, those who emigrated before Mariel in 1980 opposed the deal 64-29 percent. Those who came after Mariel were split, with 45 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed.

Florida Cuban Americans opposed the normalization 56-35 percent; those who live elsewhere supported it 61-32 percent. Those results are consistent with other polls that indicate Cuban-Americans in Florida are far more conservative than in other states, where they’re more likely to resemble more liberal-leaning non-Cuban Hispanics.

Overall, 44 percent said the embargo should not continue and 40 percent favored it. . Of registered voters, the poll showed 44 percent wanted the embargo kept and 42 percent wanted it discontinued.

Either way — whether it’s Cuban-Americans in general or voters in specific — Amandi said the numbers show how Cuban-American attitudes are changing.

“It makes crystal clear that Cuba policy and the embargo is not a third-rail issue with Cuban-American voters in the same way that support for Israel is thought to be for Jewish voters,” Amandi said.

The top reasons given for opposing normalization were that the U.S. shouldn’t negotiate with a communist dictatorship (24 percent); it will benefit the Castro government (17 percent); there are no human rights in Cuba (10 percent).

The top three reasons people agreed with normalization: The embargo hasn’t worked/it’s time for a change (38 percent); it helps the people of Cuba (23 percent); it’s good for international relations (7 percent).

“I’m hope this will help save Cuba,” said, Teresa Rodriguez, a 72-year-old Democrat who came to Miami in 1995. She supports Obama because she is hopeful a new strategy will bring about real change in Cuba and eventually bring down the Castro regime.

“I hope we can bring Cuba back to what it was before.”

In Atlanta, 74-year-old Julio Vazquez said he’s a staunch Republican who would be more likely to vote for a Republican who opposes Obama’s Cuba policy. Vazquez left the island in 1961, right after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, then an 18-year-old who worked in a bank. He’d never envisioned a future outside of Cuba, but he felt he had to leave.

On the issue of American businesses investing in Cuba, he said he thinks anyone willing to do that must have a short memory. After witnessing American businesses kicked out without any compensation after the revolution, he thinks it foolish for anyone to trust the Castros.

“You can fool me once, and it’s your fault,” he said. “Fool me twice, and it’s my fault. Why would anyone invest in Cuba?”

He wasn’t the only one who said that: 75 percent of the poll respondents said they wouldn’t invest in Cuba, whose gross domestic product stands at $72 billion. South Florida’s GDP: $281 billion.

Overall, Cuban-Americans are skeptical about the benefits of Obama’s announcement, with 34 percent saying the deal is good for neither country, 30 percent saying it’s good for Cuba, 21 percent saying it’s good for both and 10 percent saying it’s good for the United States.

The prisoner swap was opposed by 43 percent; supported by 40 percent. Support for increased travel to Cuba: 47-39 percent. Yet 65 percent of respondents said they didn’t want to travel to Cuba. And a vast majority — 88 percent — said they’d want to remain in the U.S. if freedom and democracy were restored on the island.

“I’ll never go back to Cuba,” said Maria Moreno, 83, of New Jersey.

A Democrat, the retired teacher left Cuba in 1966 after the government took her husband’s successful cigar factory. They spent four months in Spain before landing in New Jersey. She hesitantly supports Obama and hopes it leads to changes in Cuba and, although she considers herself a Cuban first, she has no plans to go back.

She said she’s absolutely an anti-communist, but if the U.S. opening up relations with Cuba improves the Cuban people’s quality of life, then it’s worth trying. She remains skeptical, especially because the Castros remain in power.

“You have to be Cuban to truly know the lies that they tell,” she said. “They’ve stained the lives of the Cuban people forever.”

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