By MARINA LITVINSKY
HAVANA TIMES, April 15 (IPS) – A majority of U.S. citizens feel that it is time to try a new approach to Cuba, according to a recent national poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org.
By a wide margin, the U.S. public believes that increasing trade and travel will lead Cuba to become more open and democratic rather than having the effect of strengthening the communist government.
The results of the poll, which was conducted Mar. 25 to Apr. 6 among 765 adults, come just as the Barack Obama administration announced that the State, Treasury and Commerce departments would lift all restrictions on the visits of family members to Cuba and remittances as a way to “help bridge the gap between divided Cuban families,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.
According to the poll, 59 percent of those surveyed endorse the view that it is “time to try a new approach to Cuba, because Cuba may be ready for a change.” Thirty-nine percent endorsed the opposing position on this issue, that “the Communist Party is still in control; therefore the U.S. should continue to isolate Cuba.”
A majority of Democrats, 71 percent, favor trying a new approach while Republicans are divided with 52 percent favoring continued isolation and 47 percent favoring a new approach.
The poll also showed 70 percent feel that in general, U.S. citizens should be free to visit Cuba, and 69 percent favor re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
When asked what effect the U.S.’s nearly 50-year embargo has had on the Fidel Castro government, 29 percent said that they felt these policies have weakened the government. Fifty-two percent said the policies “neither weakened nor strengthened” the Castro government, and another 16 percent said that the policies have strengthened the government.
Though President Obama left in place the broad trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962, saying he wants to see progress on democracy and human rights in the country, he lifted restrictions that barred U.S. citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families. He also did away with restrictions for U.S. telecommunications companies, permitting them to provide mobile phone and internet services to the island.
In early March Congress approved a general appropriations bill that eases several restrictions on travel and sales to the Caribbean nation.
This was followed by the introduction of The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and interest groups. If passed, the bill would prohibit the president from regulating or prohibiting travel to or from Cuba by U.S. citizens or legal residents or any of the transactions ordinarily incident to such travel, except in time of war or armed hostilities between the United States and Cuba, or of imminent danger to the public health or the physical safety of U.S. travelers.
The administration’s recent announcement garnered mixed reviews from analysts in the U.S.
Cuban-American Senator Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who vehemently opposed the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act in late March, applauded Obama’s move “to get government out of the way of family reunification.”
“The discussion now must be about the relationship the Castro government has with the Cuban people,” he told the Washington Post. “Any further discussion of changes in U.S. policy should come only in response to concrete changes in Cuba.”
Not Enough, America’s Summit Looming
Though the executive order is a departure from the strict policies of the George W. Bush administration, some contend that the new policy does not go far enough in helping to improve trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba.
“(Obama) needs to allow all Americans, not just Cuban Americans, to travel to Cuba, because we can all be good ambassadors for our country and its values,” Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Centre for Democracy in the Americas, told the Washington Post. “He needs to end America’s diplomatic isolation from Cuba, so that it’s not just Russia and China and other countries cultivating commercial and strategic relations with the island.”
Wayne S. Smith, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Policy, was disappointed that the lift of restrictions applied only to Cuban-Americans.
“If this is all the Obama administration has to offer by way of change in our Cuba policy, the president is in for a difficult time at the Summit of the Americas,” he told the Washington Post, referring to the much-anticipated Organization of American States (OAS) summit in Trinidad and Tobago Apr. 17-19.
The U.S., which is likely to face pressure from Latin American leaders to improve its Cuba policy, will be the only country at the summit without diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Cuba, whose OAS membership was suspended in 1962, will not be at the summit, though President Raul Castro is expected to meet with some of the region’s heads of state in Venezuela prior to the OAS meeting this weekend.
Congressmen Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans, criticized Obama’s decision.
“President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship,” they said in a joint statement Monday.
“Despite the Cuban dictatorship increasing its repression of pro-democracy activists, torturing countless prisoners of conscience, and refusing to allow human rights activists and observers into the country, President Obama has violated his pledge of Jan. 20 by unilaterally granting a concession to the dictatorship which will provide it with hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, who was forced into retirement due to illness, last year, said Tuesday the Obama administration’s softening of sanctions is “positive although minimal.”
“Cuba has resisted and it will continue to resist; it will never beg for alms… not a word was said about the harshest of measures: the blockade,” Castro said in a response posted on the internet and published by state-run media just hours after the news broke in Washington.