WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A majority of Cuban Americans still stand by the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, a survey showed on Monday, but their support has fallen to its lowest level since the survey was first taken in 1991.
After more than four decades of the embargo, those surveyed also were increasingly in favor of lifting U.S. travel restrictions that prevent them from returning to Cuba whenever they want.
The survey of south Florida’s 650,000-strong Cuban American community has been conducted eight times since 1991 by Florida International University. This year, the Brookings Institution helped organize the poll of 1,000 people while the Cuba Study Group, a Washington lobby group, co-sponsored it.
In a sign that hard-line Cuban American opposition to Cuban leader Fidel Castro is being diluted by more moderate views, 57 percent favored re-establishing diplomatic relations with Havana. In 2004, only 42.7 percent wanted diplomatic relations with Cuba.
“No longer do Cuban Americans seem to believe that isolation is working,” said Vicki Huddleston, a senior fellow at the Washington think-tank the Brookings Institution and a former head of the U.S. interests section in Havana.
It found that 57.5 percent of those questioned wanted the U.S. embargo imposed on Cuba since 1962 to be maintained — the lowest percentage in favor of the economic sanctions since the survey was first conducted. In 2004, 66.1 percent were in favor of maintaining the embargo.
A big majority — 64.4 percent — want an easing in tight restrictions imposed on Havana under President George W. Bush, such as limiting travel to the island to once every three years and curtailing the amount of money Cuban Americans can send relatives. That question was not asked in the 2004 survey because the tighter restrictions had not yet been imposed.
Fifty-five percent spoke out for completely free travel to Cuba while 62 percent said food sales should not be restricted, compared with 54.8 percent in 2004. Seventy-one percent said U.S. businesses should be allowed to sell medicines, compared to 69.3 percent in 2004.
U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba are permitted under the embargo but must be paid for in advance in cash.
The survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent, was published as lawmakers in the now Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress pledge new efforts to ease the Bush administration’s restrictions. It also comes amid uncertainty over Cuba’s future as Castro remains out of sight eight months after intestinal surgery.
The numbers of Cuban Americans who want travel restrictions lifted fell to 42.3 percent when the pollsters stripped out those respondents who are not registered to vote in U.S. elections.
“Many of them (the people surveyed) aren’t citizens and if they are citizens they are not big campaign contributors, so their voice doesn’t matter as much as the voice of the hard-liners,” said Daniel Erikson, a senior associate at the Washington think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.
Cuban America lawmakers who are strongly opposed to dealing with Havana as long as Castro or his brother Raul Castro exert control say they remain confident efforts to weaken the travel restrictions will be defeated.
They also dismiss the Florida International University survey — as they have done for years — as slanted.
“This is another one of those annual ‘push polls’ done by those who want to unilaterally ease sanctions to benefit the Castro regime, with a business interest,” Ana Carbonell, chief of staff for Miami Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, told the Miami Herald newspaper.