MIAMI President Barack Obama is enjoying dramatically high approval ratings among Cuban Americans, the majority of whom favor his efforts to ease the U.S. trade embargo against their communist-ruled homeland, a new poll showed this week.
Sixty-seven percent of participants in the poll, which underscores a dramatic shift in a community with close ties to the Republican Party, gave Democrat Obama a favorable rating while only 20 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of the young president.
The poll released on Monday was conducted by Bendixen & Associates, a Miami-based public opinion research and consulting firm that has been studying the Cuban American community for more than 25 years.
The nationwide poll of Cuban Americans -- there are about 1.5 million in the United States -- was conducted last week after Obama slightly eased the embargo against Havana by granting Cuban Americans the right to travel freely to the island and send money to relatives there.
He also eased restrictions on dealings by U.S. telecommunications companies with Cuba, but linked any further thaw in relations to Cuban advances in sensitive areas such as human rights and releasing political prisoners.
Fernand Amandi, an executive vice president of Bendixen, said Obama's approval rating was the highest Cuban Americans had bestowed on any president since the Republican Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s and the highest ever for a Democrat.
Obama told Latin American and Caribbean leaders at a weekend summit he was seeking a "new beginning" with Cuba. This followed a statement by Cuban President Raul Castro that his country was willing to talk about "everything" with the United States, including political prisoners.
TRUST IN OBAMA
Sixty-four percent of respondents to the Bendixen poll said they supported Obama's softening of the 47-year-old embargo and 67 percent said they would support the lifting of restrictions so all Americans could travel to Cuba freely.
"The Cuban community is saying, a vast majority of them, that they trust the president, they're supportive of his new approach and his new policy," Amandi said.
"In some respects, it's a recognition that the strategic engagement of the last 50 years has been a failure and it's time to try something new," he added.
However, participants were almost equally divided about the overall embargo that the United States has maintained against Cuba for nearly five decades.
Forty-three percent said they favored ending the embargo while 42 percent said they thought it should continue and 15 percent said they had no answer or were unable to respond when asked their opinion about the sanctions.
The nationwide telephone survey of 400 adult Cuban Americans was conducted April 14-16. It had a margin for error of plus or minus five percentage points and was based largely on responses from Florida, which has long wielded a disproportionate influence over U.S. policy toward Cuba.
"From a political perspective, to see that the president is enjoying this high of an approval rating amongst what was once considered to be the Republican Party's most solid voting bloc -- in the state of Florida which is a key swing state -- should be a very ominous sign for the Republican Party," Amandi said.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Patricia Zengerle)