FIU poll: Majority of Miami-Dade Cubans support Obama policy

Passengers arrive in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on American Airlines’ inaugural scheduled service from Miami to Cuba on Sept. 7.
Passengers arrive in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on American Airlines’ inaugural scheduled service from Miami to Cuba on Sept. 7. Miami Herald

In the 18 months since President Barack Obama announced a new U.S.-Cuba policy, his views have won bigger support among his most skeptic audience: Miami-Dade County Cuban Americans.

A new Florida International University poll shows a majority of local Cuban Americans — 56 percent — “strongly” or “mostly” favors reengagement with the island.

The results are from FIU’s first Cuba poll since Dec. 17, 2015, the date when Obama said he would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, and March 2016, when Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in more than eight decades. Prior surveys, which the university began conducting in 1991, had a trend of increasing public support for normalizing Cuba relations. The latest data suggest Obama’s policy has pushed that trend even further.

“It’s given kind of a space for that kind of attitude — out of frustration, out of hope, out of something — where it can be expressed more,” said Guillermo Grenier, one of the professors who conducted the survey of 1,000 respondents for the university’s Cuban Research Institute.

For the first time in the poll’s history, a clear majority of respondents — 54 percent — also wants to end the Cuban embargo, compared to 32 percent who want to keep it (14 percent don’t know or wouldn’t say). The last time FIU conducted the poll, in 2014, respondents were against the embargo by 45-41 percent, with 12 percent in the don’t-know/wouldn’t-answer category.

Asked if the embargo was successful, 55 percent said it wasn’t “at all.” Only 17 percent said it worked well or very well, with 19 percent saying it had worked “not very well.”

This being a presidential election year, the pollsters also tried to gauge the popularity of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump among local Cubans. They favored Trump by 36-31 percent, though that number is somewhat stale because the survey was conducted from July 11-Aug. 12.

Still, that result — slightly inside the poll’s error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points — indicates trouble for Trump among Cuban Americans, the most Republican-leaning of all Hispanic voters.

“Cubans have never given so little support to the Republican candidate,” Grenier said. His finding echoes a survey conducted earlier this year by Republican pollster Dario Moreno, who feared Trump’s candidacy would drive Miami-Dade Cubans out of the GOP.

Of FIU’s respondents, 54 percent were Republican, 22 percent Democrat and 25 percent independent. Most respondents who arrived in the U.S. before 1980 and 1994 are Republican; the pollsters differentiated among three major waves of Cuban immigration to South Florida. In general, more recent arrivals tend to be less Republican and more open to lifting Cuba trade and travel restrictions.

The Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to apply for U.S. residency after 366 days in the country, remains popular: It got the backing of 60 percent of respondents. While still a majority, that represents a significant drop from 2014, when support hovered at about 80 percent.

The 2014 poll drew criticism because it didn’t disseminate the don’t-know/wouldn’t-answer numbers, as is standard in most public-opinion polling. The 2016 poll includes that data.

Despite support for continuing Cubans’ special immigration privileges, 62 percent of poll respondents favored changing federal law to require proof of political persecution before granting Cubans welfare benefits. The poll asked the question as a change to the interpretation of the Cuban Adjustment Act, though the benefits are actually provided under a separate law that automatically treats Cubans as refugees.

Two Miami Republicans facing reelection, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, have filed legislation that would do away with those automatic benefits.

Grenier cautioned that just because respondents want more trade and travel with Cuba doesn’t mean they think lifting those restrictions would benefit Cubans on the island.

Asked when they expect major political changes to take place in Cuba, 41 percent of respondents answered “never.”