MEXICO CITY — The vast majority of Cubans welcome warmer relations with the United States, holding high expectations that closer ties pledged by the two countries will shake up the island’s troubled economy, according to a new survey of Cuban citizens. But they are doubtful that the diplomatic detente will bring political reforms to their communist country.
The poll of residents on the island shows a people unhappy with the political system, eager to end the U.S. embargo and disenchanted with their state-run economy. More than half of Cubans say they would like to leave the country for good if they had the chance.
The survey, done through 1,200 in-person interviews, was conducted in March by the Miami-based research firm Bendixen & Amandi International on behalf of the networks Univision Noticias and Fusion. It is being reported in collaboration with The Washington Post.
With Cuba’s restricted news media and limited Internet and phone access, getting an accurate sense of public opinion in the country can be difficult. Public surveys are very rare; opinion research is strictly controlled by the Cuban government. Some, conducted surreptitiously, have been sponsored by anti-Castro organizations and have been viewed as biased. On the island, Cubans have an aversion to discussing politics: three-quarters of those surveyed in the Univision poll say they feel they need to be careful about expressing themselves. While some believe the Cuban government privately conducts focus groups and surveys, there are not regular public polls.
So the Univision poll provides a rare glimpse of Cuban opinion at a historic time, given the changing relations with the United States. The survey was conducted without government authorization, by local Cuban residents who were trained in survey interviewing. Thirty-nine percent of households where interviews were attempted completed the survey.
After a half-century of hostilities, the Obama and Castro governments late last year announced their intention to normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries. The sentiments expressed in the poll show that Cubans want to hasten that new future, particularly on the economic front. A near-unanimous majority — 97 percent — says that a better relationship with the United States would benefit Cuba. Nearly the same percentage of Cubans say that the economic embargo should end.
Americans also endorse the normalization of relations with Cuba. A December Washington Post-ABC News poll found nearly two-thirds in support of establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. And there was higher support for ending the trade embargo and lifting travel restrictions.
Since Raúl Castro took over as president from his brother Fidel in 2006, the Cuban economy has incrementally added dashes of free-market capitalism to the periphery of its government-run system. Cubans can buy and sell houses and operate some small businesses. More than half say an immediate family member owns a business, and 7 in 10 would like to start one. Many Cubans, particularly the younger generations, want more of these opportunities. Asked to say in their own words what Cuba needs most right now, 48 percent said an improved economy, the most common response.
“My sense is Cubans are still very positive about the agreement,” said Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America. The Cuban government, he said, faces the challenge that people’s expectations for change will not be met quickly. “If you’re a Cuban living in central Havana, you won’t see improvements in your daily life for some time to come.”
“Inevitably, the economic changes will open up political debate and I think there will be political relaxation and opening,” Thale said. But he added, “No one expects a multi-party electoral system in the next three years.”
The poll showed Cubans are eager for the benefits of increased foreign tourism and want more access to basic U.S. products rather than luxury goods. More than 6 in 10 expect that Cuba’s new relationship with the United States will change the economic system, and more than 9 in 10 want to end the trade embargo. If there were going to be more trade with the United States, among the top things people want are more supermarkets and pharmacies. Asked what they want to accomplish over the next five years, Cubans gave traveling abroad as their most common response, followed by opening a business and starting a savings account.
U.S. businesses have already started making moves in Cuba. Airbnb, the online home-rental service, has started allowing bookings in Cuba. Netflix started streaming its video offerings in Cuba. A New Jersey-based telecommunications company struck a deal with the Cuban government to offer long-distance calling on the island.
Despite optimism for the future, the survey reveals deep national discontent. Fifty-five percent would like to leave the country, including more than two-thirds of Cubans younger than 35. About half of those who would like to leave name the United States as their top destination, where almost 1 in 5 Cubans say they have relatives.
Right after the Dec. 17 announcement of changing relations, U.S. officials noted a spike in Cubans leaving the island, apparently out of concern that U.S. immigration rules granting residency to any Cuban who makes it to the United States might be changed.
Among the sources of dissatisfaction, Cubans report broad problems with the economic and political systems. Nearly 8 in 10 are dissatisfied with the economic system, with one-third receiving money sent from family or friends abroad. Fifty-eight percent give negative ratings to Cuba’s Communist Party, and 53 percent say they are dissatisfied with their political system, with half of this group saying it does not offer enough freedoms. While over 6 in 10 expect renewed U.S. relations to change the economic system, more than half expect the political system to remain the same. Cubans are far more upbeat about their nation’s education and health-care systems, with at least two-thirds saying they are “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with each.
Opinion is divided on Raúl Castro: 47 percent report a positive opinion of him, while 48 percent see him negatively. The numbers are slightly more negative for Fidel Castro — 50 percent view him negatively, compared with 44 percent giving him a positive response. For Raúl, the responses are more positive among older Cubans.
President Obama, meanwhile, seems to enjoy vast popularity in Cuba, according to the poll, with 80 percent giving him positive marks, on par with how Cubans feel about Pope Francis, who was a key advocate of normalization. While Obama gets high ratings, views of the United States overall are more mixed. Just over half see the United States as a friend, a rating well below that of neighboring countries in Central and South America. Only 10 percent say the United States is not a friend, however, with twice as many unsure.
Obama and Raúl Castro will see each other this week at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. It will be the first time that Cuban leaders have attended the regional conference.
The Obama administration has been negotiating to reopen the embassies in Havana and Washington, with three rounds of talks between U.S. and Cuban officials since December. Cuba wants to be removed from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which makes it harder to deal with foreign banks. U.S. officials have said they want more freedom of movement for their diplomats in Cuba and permission to increase the number of staffers. Some of those issues may be resolved during the summit.
The poll reflected large and consistent generational differences in Cuba, with young people tending to be more optimistic and positive than older citizens about the United States across a number of measures. The younger people are also more likely to be critical of the economic and political system.
Craighill reported from Washington. Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.