Every once in a while, a political canard is exposed — something that once may have been generally accepted and perhaps true, but has remained a part of the conventional wisdom.
Such is the case with the view that any kind of normalization of relations with Cuba is a political third rail; that is to say, if you touch it, you die (or get defeated). In the Cold War era, particularly in the 1960s, normalization of relations with Cuba was a nonstarter, and in fact, it was dangerous for most politicians to support.
But that day has long since passed. In all but possibly a handful of congressional districts in Florida and New Jersey — if even there — this is a nothing-burger issue. Few voters would have any problem with it. Like the missile silos in North Dakota, our policy toward Cuba is a Cold War relic that has long since passed its time.
A new bipartisan national survey points to strong and broad-based support for a major change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, even among Republicans.
Indeed, Republican members representing farm states have a particular incentive to support legislation that would create a new market for U.S. goods, particularly corn and grain, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
Commissioned by the Atlantic Council, a highly respected foreign policy think tank, and its Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, the poll was conducted Jan. 7-22, in English and Spanish, among 1,024 adults nationwide. The survey also included an over-sample of 617 Floridians, so that their attitudes could be given particular focus, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points nationally and 4.0 points for the Florida group. The survey was conducted jointly by Republican pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Paul Maslin of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz, & Associates. Both are among the best pollsters in the country.
Nationally, 56 percent of Americans support either normalizing relations or engaging more directly with Cuba; just 35 percent are opposed. Support for a policy change is also reflected in the numbers of people who feel most intensely about the issue, with 30 percent of the overall sample strongly favoring such a change and 26 percent somewhat in favor, while 22 percent strongly oppose and another 13 percent somewhat oppose this. Nine percent have no opinion. Among Democrats and independents, 60 percent favor changing relations; 31 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of independents are opposed. Even among Republicans, 52 percent favor a change in policy, with 41 percent in opposition.
In Florida, the state with the most Cuban-Americans and the one geographically closest and most likely to follow and be affected by U.S.-Cuba relations, 63 percent favor a change — 7 points more than the national support level. Only 30 percent oppose a change, 5 points fewer than the national opposition. So much for the idea that a presidential candidate favoring normalization would lose any chance of carrying Florida.
Among Hispanics nationwide, 62 percent support a change in policy, while 30 percent oppose it. These numbers are almost identical to the Florida attitudes.
Looking at specific policy options, 62 percent nationally support allowing more American companies to do business in Cuba, while just 36 percent oppose it. Looking at intensity, 35 percent strongly support that option; 24 percent strongly oppose it. Among Floridians, the overall numbers are 63 percent in support, 32 percent opposing (with 40 percent strongly supporting a change, and 21 percent strongly opposing). Among Latinos nationally, 65 percent support, and 32 percent oppose (40 percent strongly support; 20 percent strongly oppose).
Another policy option would be to remove restrictions on U.S. citizens spending dollars in Cuba. Sixty-one percent support such a policy change, while 35 percent oppose it (35 percent strongly support; 22 percent strongly oppose). Attitudes among Floridians were quite similar, with 63 percent in support and 32 percent in opposition (40 percent strongly support; 19 percent strongly oppose). Latinos' margin of support was even higher, with 67 percent supporting and 29 percent opposing (38 percent strongly support; 18 percent strongly oppose).
Another question in the poll concerned removing all restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, an idea which was supported by 61 percent nationally, and opposed by only 36 percent (35 percent strongly support; 20 percent strongly oppose). Support for travel was even higher among Cuba's next-door neighbors in Florida, where 67 percent support the lifting of travel restrictions, and just 29 percent oppose (38 percent strongly support; 18 percent strongly oppose). Finally, the numbers were very similar among Hispanics, of whom 66 percent support the idea, and just 31 percent oppose it (37 percent strongly support; 16 percent strongly oppose).
The only question that was at all a close call was whether to allow Cuba access to high-speed Internet telecommunications systems based in the U.S., a question that just 52 percent of respondents supported, with 43 percent opposing the idea. Although, again, the Florida numbers were more supportive of the Internet question: 64 percent voiced support, with only 28 percent opposing the notion. Among Hispanics it was 55 percent support, 33 percent oppose.
It is hard to argue that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been anything but spectacularly unsuccessful. Either Fidel or Raul Castro has been in power since February 1959; so much for our isolation of Cuba destabilizing the Castro regimes. Years ago, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba told me privately that then-Prime Minister Fidel Castro would have probably been gone long ago, or at least big changes would have taken place on the island, if the U.S. had normalized relations. He argued that, with an increasingly global economy and communications advances, the same forces that helped Eastern European countries shed the yoke of Communism probably would have helped transform Cuba as well, had it not always had the U.S. to scapegoat for all of its problems.
Some of America's strongest allies and most important trading partners are countries that we once fought against and with which we had legitimate grievances at one point or another. Eventually, however, nations have to move on; it's time for the tiny band of intransigent Cuban-American politicians who are carrying on this futile crusade to throw in the towel and accept the new reality, or for others to just ignore them and forge a more rational policy.