Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Cuba poll results bolster president’s case for engagement

President Barack Obama is more popular among Cubans than either of the Castro brothers, according to a new poll secretly conducted on the island last month.
President Barack Obama is more popular among Cubans than either of the Castro brothers, according to a new poll secretly conducted on the island last month. Miami

I believe that engagement is a more powerful force than isolation. — President Barack Obama on Cuba.

There are few things more American than an opinion poll.

Routine, anonymous data collection — what a sedate and civilized concept to bring to the discordant, contested, and as we’re seeing in Panama City’s Summit of the Americas, rowdy stage of changing U.S.-Cuba relations.

Taking to a police state like Cuba the concept of independent data collectors randomly querying people about political and economic views — and those collectors overcoming all sorts of obstacles to get riveting results — is unprecedented. And there in resides the value of the survey of 1,200 people taken across Cuba by the Miami-based firm of Bendixen & Amandi International for the TV networks Univision and Fusion in collaboration with the Washington Post.

This is not the type of enterprise you can embark upon in Cuba without government approval — yet here it is, quietly accomplished.

“We gave a voice to the Cuban people,” B&A managing partner Fernand Amandi says of the secret polling in all 16 of Cuba’s provinces. “For the first time, we’re quantifying what the people of Cuba think.”

What a voice has risen: According to poll results, President Obama is by far more popular in Cuba than Fidel or Raúl Castro — twice as popular as he is in the United States. And Cubans overwhelmingly approve — 97 percent — of warmer, normalized relations with the super power to the North. So much for 56 years of anti-Yankee propaganda; these Cubans also opined that, if they had a choice, they’d prefer to live in the United States more than anywhere else in the world.

Just as Americans do, Cubans feel an improved economy is their greatest need (48 percent), and although we in the free world may not like the lower ratings, an open political system came in a distant second (24 percent) alongside quality of life. And while 52 percent believe Cuba needs more political parties, a greater number — 79 percent — expressed dissatisfaction with the economic system.

Bottom line: Score one for the president’s theory of engagement via increased travel and economic incentives.

This is not to say that Cubans aren’t aware of their lack of freedoms.

While pollsters say they found “lots of curiosity about what was being done and why,” 75 percent of the people acknowledged that they have to be careful with what they say in public. In fact, three of B&A’s 18 Cuban surveyors quit during their training for fear of reprisals.

One can only imagine how low the approval ratings of the Castro brothers would fall if all of the people were truly free to voice their opinions. Of those polled, only 11 percent voiced a “very positive opinion” of Fidel Castro and only 8 percent of Raúl. Meanwhile, 34 percent had a “very positive opinion of Obama.”

The poll results should give pause to the extremes — those who favor nothing but isolation and are unwilling to give the president’s efforts a fair chance, and those in charge in Cuba unwilling to democratize and bring Cuba into the 21st century. The dictatorship-loving brutes shouting down and threatening the peaceful opposition in Panama should particularly take note.

If pollsters can infiltrate a country and get these kinds results, imagine the light more openness might bring.

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