Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Poll: Majority of U.S., Florida Backs Cuba Policy Shift

A new survey commissioned by the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center has found evidence that public opinion on United States relations with Cuba has changed considerably. Coupled with shifting attitudes among Cuban-Americans and key actors in the anti-Castro lobby, this suggests that the country is ready for a change in Cuba policy.

According to a report on the poll results, 56 percent of Americans “strongly” or “somewhat” support “normalizing relations or engaging more directly with Cuba.” More interesting, however, is that this figure was higher among Florida respondents than the nationwide sample, with 63 percent of Floridians favoring a change in U.S. policy towards Cuba.

While support for a policy change was predictably higher among self-identified Democrats and Independents (60 percent among both populations), the poll found that a majority of Republicans (52 percent) want the government to normalize relations or engage more closely with Cuba. According to the report’s authors, the most effective argument for changing Cuba policy was economic (i.e., “new opportunities for American businesses”), followed by the assertion that the 50-year old embargo against Cuba has only hurt the island’s people, not the government.

The poll surveyed 1,024 adults around the country in addition to supplementary oversamples of 525 Latinos nationwide and 617 residents of Florida. The national margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points, and for Florida residents and Latinos it was plus or minus 4 percentage points (more details from today’s New York Times).

The poll raises new questions about the politics surrounding U.S. policy towards Cuba, especially in Florida. For last several decades, as the report’s authors note, prevailing political wisdom towards changing Cuba policy has been that “Florida would never let it happen.” Changing public attitudes in the state mean this no longer the case.

Surprisingly, elements of this shift can be seen not just among just Florida residents as a whole, but specifically among Cuban-Americans as well. A 2011 FIU poll showed that younger and more recent Cuban immigrants are increasingly in favor of relaxing restrictions on travel to the island, and 80 percent of Cuban-Americans polled agree that the U.S. embargo has not worked thus far.  

Attitudes are changing among traditional actors in the hardline camp as well.  Just last week the Washington Post reported on the recent trips to Cuba by sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul, one of the main funders of the U.S.-based anti-Castro movement. While U.S. investment on the island is currently illegal, Fanjul told the Post that one of the goals of his visits is to explore the feasibility and potential benefits of changing this in the future. This view has been echoed by a growing number of Cuban-American elites in recent years, as the Associated Press has pointed out.

These reports set off something of a firestorm among the most prominent supporters of the U.S. embargo, as Cuba policy expert Philip Peters noted at the Cuban Triangle blog:
The seismic importance of the Fanjuls’ shift can be measured in the hysterical reactions of Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart. (Sen. Marco Rubio, thinking presidentially these days, merely expressed “disappointment” through a spokesman.) 
I don’t blame them.  For 50 years, these guys have been inside their tent shooting out, and now they’re outside shooting in.  The importance of Cuban American hard-liners in Presidential politics is already diminished by the fact that other Latinos are increasingly numerous and important in the Florida electorate, and by the fact that Obama and Romney split the Cuban-American vote evenly in 2012.  Demography and the actuarial tables are not the hard-liners’ friends.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday saw further good news for advocates of diplomatic engagement with Cuba, after foreign ministers of the European Union agreed to begin negotiations with the island to boost trade, investment and dialogue over human rights concerns. Reuters reports that the so-called Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement is expected to be signed by the end of 2015. According to the Miami Herald, the government of Spain led the push for the negotiations.
  • After an initial vote on the matter failed to get the necessary quorum, congressmen in Guatemala successfully voted yesterday to convene the nominating committee tasked with naming a replacement for crusading Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. The AP notes that human rights groups outside the congress building protested the vote, and while a number of opposition congressmen withheld their support, the measure ultimately passed with the support of 94 of 158 legislator. El Periodico has an overview of the 14 members of the commission, which includes law school deans, representatives of legal associations and the president of the Supreme Court.
  • The Washington Post offers a sobering look at “fast-track” immigration trials in the U.S. southwest, which have been heavily criticized by immigrant rights advocates who argue that collective trials of eight individuals at a time are inhumane and fail to guarantee due process.
  • On Monday, a California jury convicted former Guatemalan special forces soldier Jorge Sosa of lying about his alleged role in the bloody Dos Erres massacre of 1982 in order to gain U.S. citizenship.  A judge has stripped him of his citizenship and sentenced him to 10 years in an American prison.
  • The controversial constitutional reform package backed by Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista party saw an unexpected setback yesterday. As La Prensa reports, a group of hackers identifying themselves only as “Algerian Ghosts” have prevented the government from publishing the reforms in the online version of La Gaceta, the official publication on legal doctrine. The reforms are due to be published today -- even though the Gaceta website still appears to be down -- and Sandinista lawmakers insist that this has not stopped the reforms from entering into law.
  • At the Pacific Alliance summit in Cartagena, Colombia yesterday, the presidents of Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru signed an accord to liberalize trade between their countries. The Wall Street Journal reports on the significance of the pact, which the paper claims is aimed partially at increasing trade with Asia.  
  • In a development with potential to further complicate U.S.-Brazil relations, the second Cuban doctor in a week has defected from the “Mais Medicos” program, and is currently living in the United States, according to O Globo. The Wall Street Journal claims that 23 Cuban doctors have “have departed from the Brazilian program,” though it is unclear how many of these have requested asylum. In the wake of this announcement, Folha de São Paulo reports that the government of Brazil may consider negotiating higher pay for program participants.
  • Santiago Andrade, the Brazilian cameraman who was gravely injured while covering a protest in Rio de Janeiro last week, died of his injuries on Monday, a development which has dominated TV and print news in the country. As O Globo reports, police say Andrade was killed by a firecracker lit off by one of the protestors, and have released a photo of the alleged suspect.
  • IPS reports on the Mexican government’s recent withdrawal of its reservation to the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, which took effect on February 4. The reservation allowed military authorities to investigate and punish the crime of enforced disappearance, and its withdrawal is in compliance with a 2009 Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruling. As the news service notes, it is a small victory in the fight against impunity for cases of forced disappearances in the country, though activists are still pessimistic about the potential for investigations to move forward.
  • The Global Post's senior correspondent for Mexico, Dudley Althaus, profiles unconventional attitudes towards drugs and drug trafficking among members of militia groups in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Guerrero. Although these groups have declared war against organized crime, many say they are not opposed to drug trafficking itself, only the violence associated with it. As Althaus notes, this is perhaps unsurprising, as communities in these areas have lived with the illegal drug trade for decades.
  • Lawmakers in Puerto Rico are set to take up debate this year over two separate bills on cannabis policy, one which would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug and another which would authorize its use for medicinal purposes. The former actually passed the Senate last year, but has so far failed to make it through the House. Local paper El Nuevo Dia reported last week on the status of the debate, which received a boost from a visit by drug policy reform advocates from the Drug Policy Alliance and Open Society Foundations to a conference hosted by local harm reduction group Intercambios Puerto Rico. In a separate piece published on Sunday, the paper profiled remarks by Intercambios members and drug reformers in the U.S. which highlight the potential economic benefits of relaxing marijuana laws.