Of demographics and drift: 'The re-Cubanization of Miami' and waning support for the embargo

More Miami-Dade Cubans than ever support lifting the embargo and travel sanctions on the island nation, according to a new Florida International University poll that attributes much of the change to younger Cubans and new arrivals.

The poll, which drew some quick criticisms, also indicated that a majority of Cubans in the county favor full U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations. Fewer than 50 percent said they send remittances to Cuba or have relatives who do so.

In an unexplained contradiction, however, a majority of Cubans polled also favored keeping the nation on the U.S. list of countries that support international terrorism, a list that carries banking sanctions well beyond those in the U.S. embargo.

Since 1991, when FIU first began polling Cubans, its surveys have shown that support for the embargo has steadily declined by 39 percentage points while support for unrestricted travel has increased 25 points.

“The engine driving change is demographics,” said Guillermo Grenier, who helped conduct the 1,000-respondent survey on behalf of the university’s Cuban Research Institute. “We are moving into a period of re-Cubanization of Miami.”

Grenier said recent arrivals and younger Cubans increasingly favor improved relations with the island. At the same time, the major backers of the embargo and sanctions — older Cubans — are decreasing in number. Today, about 860,000 Cubans live in Miami-Dade,

One-third of all Cuban residents of Miami-Dade arrived after 1995, and arrivals since that year have been on the rise because of favorable U.S. immigration policies, Grenier added. President Obama also has eased many restrictions on traveling or sending money to Cuba, which has increased ties between the two nations.

On the embargo, the pollsters said 52 percent opposed it and 48 favored it — a tie in a survey with a margin of error of 3.12 points. Those numbers continued the downward trend in support of the embargo shown by the previous FIU polls: 87 percent in 1991, 78 percent in 1997, 66 percent in 2004 and 56 percent in 2011.

Grenier acknowledged his numbers reflect only those respondents who said they favored or opposed the embargo and did not include “don’t know/no answer” replies. Including those numbers in the tally would change the percentages to 45-41 against the embargo — short of a majority and with 12 percent replying “don’t know/no answer.”

But leaving out the don’t know/no answers — and reporting percentages as if those numbers didn’t exist — raised eyebrows among other pollsters.

“What you’re telling me is unusual. Really unique. Very, very extremely rare,” David Hill, a nationally known pollster with Hill Research Consultants in Washington D.C., said of FIU’s method. “The ‘unsures’ tell us many things about an issue: how strongly people feel about it, how well an issue is known.”

Grenier’s fellow FIU professor, Hugh Gladwin, who helped conduct the study, said the university’s Cuba poll always reported the embargo and travel sanctions numbers in the same way since 1991, so the trend of diminishing support for the sanctions is consistent.

The poll also came under fire from pro-sanctions lobbyist Mauricio Claver-Carone, who questioned the fairness of the survey because of the two entities that financed it: the Trimpa Group and the Open Society Foundation, both strongly involved in efforts to improve relations with Havana.

Said Grenier in a response: “Even to suggest that is kind of insulting.”

Other polls also have indicated a shift toward normalizing relations with Cuba among those of Cuban descent as well as among Florida voters. A Public Policy Polling survey of Florida voters found they supported lifting the embargo 53-22 percent.

FIU’s results differed somewhat from those of a Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald poll by Bendixen & Amandi International published last week that showed 56 percent of 305 registered Miami-Dade Cuban-American voters favored the embargo and 36 percent opposed it. But the two polls reported their numbers differently and have different sample sizes and methodologies.

The FIU poll also showed 67 percent of the 1,000 Miami-Dade Cubans surveyed favored lifting all U.S. restrictions on travel to the island, while 30 percent opposed it and 3 percent had “no opinion/no answer.”

As in the question about the embargo, the percentages of those who opposed the travel sanctions increased among the younger and more recent arrivals.

FIU’s survey also showed 68 percent of the registered Cuban American voters — 62 percent of the respondents said they are U.S. citizens and 90 percent of those said they are registered to vote — favor full diplomatic relations with Havana, broken since the early 1960s.

Another 81 percent said they would vote for candidates who favor replacing the embargo with a focus on human rights. And 57 percent would back candidates who favor replacing the embargo with a policy of support for private economic activity in Cuba.

Those responses indicate that most Cubans in the county are increasingly “willing to try something new, but not let Cuba off the hook,” said Grenier.

Not surprisingly, strong majorities of all those polled by FIU supported the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act, which both favor Cuban migrants. The former allows any Cubans who set foot on U.S. land to remain, and the latter grants them U.S. residence after just 366 days in the country.

Asked about political and economic changes under Raúl Castro, who took power after his brother Fidel Castro underwent surgery in 2006, Cubans in Miami-Dade indicated that they remained skeptical.

About 52 percent said they would be willing to invest in the island, with the more recent arrivals being more enthusiastic but having the least capital to invest. Another 34 percent said there will never be political changes, while 13 percent believe they are already taking place.

On remittances, the 48 percent who said they send money or have relatives who send money to Cuba also tended to be concentrated among the post-1995 arrivals. A report last year claimed that up to 62 percent of Miami-Dade Cubans send cash to the island.

The criticisms of the poll underlined the difficulties of carrying out public opinion surveys on a topic as complex and controversial as U.S. policies toward Cuba.

In FIU’s 2007 poll, a then-record low of 57.5 percent favored keeping the embargo. Yet 71 percent also said they favored exile military attacks on Cuba, and 51 percent favored a U.S. military invasion of Cuba. Those questions were not asked in the latest poll.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who favors sanctions on Havana, said she regretted that FIU’s “misguided poll … will be seized by many to call for increased relations with the murderous Castro regime.”

But Ric Herrero, executive director of the nonprofit Cuba Now group that wants a “new policy” toward the island, said the poll reflects what he’s seeing.

“This poll is the latest in a series that dismantles long-held perceptions about the Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade County,” Herrero said in a statement. “The Cuban-American community is ready to embrace alternatives, recognizing that it’s possible to both help their families and friends back home expand socio-economic opportunities, while at the same time exerting pressure on the regime in Havana over human rights.”

Related stories from Miami Herald