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It’s Time to Take the Cuban View Seriously

By Lawrence Gutman

We can now include Cuban public opinion among the agents of reconciliation between Washington and Havana. On April 8, Univision Noticias/Fusion and The Washington Post published results from The National Survey of Cubans Living in Cuba, the first national opinion poll by an independent news organization in Cuba since the 1959 Revolution. For two weeks, in late March, researchers from Bendixen & Amandi International interviewed 1,200 Cubans over the age of eighteen on U.S.-Cuban diplomacy, governance and economic activity, media and technology, and remittances from abroad. The poll marks the first time public opinion on the island is systematically measured and disseminated to a global audience. It gives political observers and potential investors a revealing snapshot of state-society relations on the eve of normalization, and a glimpse of how ordinary Cubans view the unfolding bilateral negotiations and their potential outcomes.

Research teams conducted the survey across the island’s fourteen provinces, without the sanction or knowledge of the Cuban government. Yet, Havana has not responded by challenging the veracity of the poll, questioning the motives of its authors, or threatening to stall diplomacy with the U.S. in protest. This is surprising, given the Cuban government’s history of disputing journalists with whom it disagrees. In fact, the Cuban leadership’s non-response to the poll highlights its changing relationship with journalism itself.

As Cubans become more connected to the outside world through social media, and independent Cuban journalists acquire larger audiences abroad, Havana is growing less eager to embroil itself in public spats with domestic and international critics alike. Drawing attention to an unflattering opinion poll is less a show of competence and strength than a risky strategy for a government seeking to increase public support during an historic diplomatic moment.

However, many of the survey’s results are unflattering. In one of the poll’s most significant findings, only 19 percent of respondents report feeling comfortable expressing their political views in public. Despite broad satisfaction with state healthcare (68 percent) and education (72 percent), only 32 percent of Cubans hold a positive view of the Communist Party, and just 39 percent hold a positive view of the Cuban political system writ large. Nearly two in three Cubans under the age of 34 believe the single-party system should be abandoned. Satisfaction with Raul Castro is not especially low (47 percent), but it trails Barack Obama’s approval rating (80 percent) on the island by an ample margin.

Notwithstanding these expressions of political rebuke, most Cubans acknowledge the durability of their institutions and affirm the capacity of them to survive large-scale disruptions. More than half the poll respondents think the Cuban system will remain the same after bilateral relations are normalized, and only 19 percent believe that direct political and economic engagement with the U.S. will inspire the creation of new political parties.

After nearly sixty years of central economic planning, a punitive U.S. trade embargo, and a rotating cast of foreign patrons, fewer than one in five respondents are satisfied with Cuban socialism. Yet, unlike their pessimism regarding prospects for political reform, Cubans are optimistic that restored relations with the U.S. will create paths to individual and national prosperity. Sixty-four percent of respondents believe the emerging bilateral relationship will transform the Cuban economy, and a full 97 percent believe that normalized relations will be “good for Cuba” (virtually the same number that supports lifting the embargo). In contrast to the view among some foreign observers that U.S. tourism will strip Cuba of its national character, 96 percent of Cubans believe it will benefit their country.

Adding to this sense of economic optimism, less than one quarter of Cubans fear that members of the exile community will return to reclaim property expropriated after the Revolution. This is, on its face, an extraordinary statistic. The Cuban government has attempted to perpetuate anxieties over expropriated property – especially housing – since the 1960s. It has been a pillar of Cuban state discourse, and a longstanding source of division between Cubans on the island and Cuban-Americans in the U.S. The fact that Cubans reject the notion that Cuban-Americans will sweep in with their property deeds and force mass evictions is one of the most significant challenges to the Cuban leadership in decades.

One might have expected greater fanfare from these numbers and findings. Indeed, they parallel a rising consensus in the U.S. regarding the economic benefits of bilateral trade, the ineffectiveness of the embargo, and the potential political upside– however narrow– of a diplomatic reset. The Cuban and American people appear to be in agreement on the most important issues facing U.S.-Cuban relations.

Yet the loudest voices in the debate continue to defend positions that are out of step with majorities in both countries. For years, the prominent Cuban journalist and blogger Yoani Sánchez has critiqued both the Castro government and U.S. trade policy (a position we now know is shared by most Cubans). While Sánchez received praise in the U.S. for her fearlessness as a dissident, she found few allies among the aging North American cold warriors on both the right and the left. Her views simply fell outside the lines of a rigid ideological framework that cast an anti-revolutionary, pro-embargo position as the default rightwing view and a pro-revolutionary, anti-embargo position as the default leftwing view.

These views are quickly losing popular support, despite the continued vigor of their advocates. Over half of Cuban-Americans now endorse lifting the embargo, and the Cuban political reality no longer has the cachet with the U.S. left that it once did. Indeed, the majority position in Cuba that challenges old orthodoxies on both sides of the Florida Straits is becoming the majority position in the U.S.

This is not to say that Cubans are rejecting their Revolution outright. They do not intend to abandon historic gains in healthcare and education that are the envy of the Caribbean, if not much of the Western Hemisphere. These achievements have provided a foundation for the entrepreneurial spirit that flourishes on the island today. Cubans do, however, aspire to end a half-century conflict that has narrowed their political mobility and kept them on the margins of trade with the world’s largest economy. As their opinions become increasingly accessible in the U.S., we should be paying very close attention.

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Lawrence Gutman has conducted research on governance and foreign investment in Cuba as a Fulbright Hays Fellow and Tinker Foundation Fellow. He holds an M.A. in Latin American history from the University of Texas at Austin, and is based in New York. He tweets @lawrencegutman.

[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia and Anja Disseldorp]

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