CubaBrief: Controversial polls, setting the record straight on the Embargo, and what led to diplomatic relations being severed between Washington DC and Havana

Vice President Richard Nixon & Fidel Castro in 1959.    President Barack Obama & Raul Castro in 2016.

Vice President Richard Nixon & Fidel Castro in 1959. President Barack Obama & Raul Castro in 2016.

Democratic pollsters Bendixen & Amandi International found that approximately “two-thirds of Cuban American voters in Florida said they would not support policies by the Biden administration to return to a period of reengagement and normalization of relations with Havana, according to a new poll released Tuesday.” However the claim of  the study,  that it was “following former President Trump’s more hardline policies toward the island nation, 66 percent said that they do not think President Biden should revert to reengagement.” 

In 2014 Florida International University conducted a contested and controversial 2014 poll claiming support for engagement and an end to sanctions sponsored by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Trimpa Group, two organizations that favored ending the embargo and normalized relations with Havana.

Candidate Obama courts Cuban vote in 2008 at event hosted by Cuban American National Foundation

Candidate Obama courts Cuban vote in 2008 at event hosted by Cuban American National Foundation

This was not the position that Mr. Obama took when running for the White House in 2008. In May 2008 when he addressed the Cuban American National Foundation he held a pro-sanctions position that linked loosening sanctions to improved human rights in Cuba.

“Don’t be confused about this. I will maintain the embargo,” Mr. Obama said. “It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: If you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.”

In November 2013, President Obama spoke at the home of Jorge Mas Santos, head of the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) and did not make any clear statements on ending sanctions. Instead the President spoke of updating policy and being more “creative” and “thoughtful”. No mention was made that White House staffer Ben Rhodes had been secretly meeting with Col. Alejandro Castro, Raul Castro’s son to negotiate the normalization of relations at that point for several months.

This was not a popular position, and Mr. Obama waited until after the mid-term elections in 2014 to announce the normalization of relations, and Democrats lost Florida in 2016 and 2020.

U.S. policy towards Cuba has not been static since January 1, 1959 but has been changing and driven by various interests, including U.S. national interests. There is a lot of disinformation about how the U.S. Embargo was first imposed on Cuba, and how and why the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Havana. Here is a brief breakdown of what happened between January 1, 1959 and January 3, 1960.

Fidel Castro overthrew the Fulgencio Batista regime on January 1, 1959 following a U.S. arms embargo being imposed on the military dictator in the spring of 1958. On January 7, 1959 the United States recognized the new Cuban government ushered in by the Castro brothers. The United States had actively pressured Batista to leave office since 1958.

In comparison it had taken the United States 17 days to recognize the government of Fulgencio Batista following his March 10, 1952 coup. The United States had not been consulted ahead of time about Batista’s coup and this led to the delay in recognition.

Fidel Castro and Vice President Richard Nixon met over three hours on April 19, 1959

Fidel Castro and Vice President Richard Nixon met over three hours on April 19, 1959

In April 1959 Fidel Castro visited the United States on an eleven day trip that concluded with a three hour meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon on April 19, 1959.

Within three months of the U.S. recognition of the revolutionary government in Cuba the new regime began targeting American interests on the island and allying itself with the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and plotting the overthrow of several Latin American governments.

  • Fidel Castro visits Caracas on January 23, 1959 and meets with Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt, a social democrat, “to enlist cooperation and financial backing for ‘the master plan against the gringos.'”

  • On March 3, 1959 the Castro regime expropriates properties belonging to the International Telephone and Telegraph Company, and took over its affiliate, the Cuban Telephone Company.

  • On May 17, 1959 the government expropriated farm lands over 1,000 acres and banned land ownership by foreigners.

  • Havana beginning in 1959 sent armed expeditions to Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to overthrow their governments.

  • On February 6, 1960 talks began publicly between the U.S.S.R and Fidel Castro. The Soviet Union agreed to buy five million tons of sugar over five years. They also agreed to support Cuba with oil, grain, and credit.

  • On July 6, 1960 the Castro regime passed a nationalization law authorizing nationalization of U.S.- owned property through expropriation. Texaco, Esso, and Shell oil refineries were taken.

  • In September 1960 the Cuban government diplomatically recognized the People’s Republic of China.

  • On November 19, 1960 Ernesto “Che” Guevara heading a Cuban delegation in Beijing met with Mao Zedong between 4:20pm and 6:30pm and discussed revolutionary objectives in Latin America.

The Eisenhower State Department in response to the above actions imposed the first trade embargo on Cuba on October 19, 1960, and it “covered all U.S. exports to Cuba except for medicine and some foods,”

Tens of thousands of Cubans were lined up outside of the U.S. embassy in Havana seeking visas to flee the communist dictatorship, and this became a source of embarrassment for the communist regime. Fidel Castro communicated with the Eisenhower Administration on January 3, 1961 and demanded the expulsion of 67 U.S. diplomats, within 48 hours, reducing their number to 11, the same number at the Cuban embassy in Washington DC. The Americans had over 50,000 visa applications to process when the ultimatum was delivered.

On January 3, 1961 at 8:30 p.m. EST President Eisenhower issued a statement stating: “There is a limit to what the United States in self respect can endure. That limit has now been reached,” and severed diplomatic relations with Cuba.

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President Jimmy Carter in 1977 would warm up relations with Cuba over a four year period that led to the establishment of Interests Sections, in Havana and Washington DC, that operated as Embassies in all but name, but the detente failed due to Cuban incursions in Africa, including participating in a genocide in Ethiopia to establish a Marxist regime there, and Fidel Castro personally sending rapists, murderers, and the criminally insane to South Florida during the Mariel exodus in 1980. This same pattern of opening up to the Castro regime followed by negative consequences were repeated by the Clinton and Obama Administrations.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry in a September 2020 interview with Andres Oppenheimer observed that: “It’s fair to say that everybody shares a little bit of disappointment about the direction that the government in Cuba chose to go” after the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties, Kerry told me. He added that, “Cuba seemed to harden down after the initial steps were taken.”

What some seem to forget in Washington DC is that the individuals who carried out these horrors over the past sixty years, now in their 80s and 90s, have hung on to power and are ruthless, cunning killers with over sixty years experience. They should not be trifled with.

The Hill, March 16, 2021

Poll finds Florida Cuban Americans opposed to engaging with Havana

By Celine Castronuovo – 03/16/21 02:52 PM EDT

Getty Images

Getty Images

About two-thirds of Cuban American voters in Florida said they would not support policies by the Biden administration to return to a period of reengagement and normalization of relations with Havana, according to a new poll released Tuesday. 

The study, conducted by management and consulting firm Bendixen & Amandi International, found that following former President Trump’s more hardline policies toward the island nation, 66 percent said that they do not think President Biden should revert to reengagement. 

The finding marks a shift from the 51 percent in 2015 who supported then-President Obama’s commitment to normalizing relations with Cuba. 

Additionally, while 56 percent of Cuban American voters in Florida supported easing restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Cuba in 2015, the same percentage in Tuesday’s poll either somewhat or strongly opposed doing so. 

Fernand Amandi, president of Bendixen & Amandi, told Politico on Tuesday that the survey’s findings show a “Back to the Future” moment for the largest Latino voting bloc in Florida, with positions now similar to hardline views they held in the 1980s and 1990s. 

“We see the Cuban-American electorate has recalibrated and defaulted back to the hardline positions,” Amandi said.

Cuban American voters in the Sunshine State became more favorable to open relations with the country under Obama, who removed Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list and lifted trade and travel restrictions on the country. 

However, the Trump administration’s return to these restrictions, as well as his campaign’s continued engagement with Cuban American voters in the state, have helped fuel a return to more hardline views toward Havana. 

The Trump administration in its final days added Cuba back to the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, and on Friday, GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) proposed a bill that would bar Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken from removing the designation.

Under the legislation, the U.S. cannot remove Cuba from the list until the Caribbean nation releases political prisoners and holds democratic elections.

However, Florida International University professor Guillermo Grenier told The Hill in January that throughout the next few years, hardline views could once again soften as they did under the Obama administration. 

“The hard-line has made a comeback, but there are plenty of soft spots in the hard-line, such as travel, consular services, remittances,” he said at the time. “So, I do think if Biden changes the rules, we will see further changes among Cuban voters.” 

Tuesday’s survey, conducted from March 8 to March 11, reported a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

From the archives

Legal Insurrection, June 19, 2014

Poll finding Cuban-Americans favor ending embargo called into question

Numbers called into question, as well as ideological sponsors.

Posted by Casey Breznick Thursday, June 19, 2014

A poll released this week suggests that a majority of Cuban-Americans living in Miami favor ending the Cuban trade embargo. A finer reading calls those results into question.

The poll, conducted by Florida International University (FIU) professors Guillermo J. Grenier and Hugh Gladwin for the Cuban Research Initiative, finds that 52% of all Cuban-Americans and 51% of Cuban-Americans registered to vote favor ending the 54-year long embargo that restricts all imports of Cuban goods and most exports to the communist island.

Though, since the study has a margin of error of 3.12 points, a 52-to-48 spread is a virtual tie.

Professors Grenier and Gladwin have conducted the FIU Cuba Poll every year since 1991. Its respondents are 1,000 randomly selected Cuban-Americans above age 18 living throughout Miami-Dade County.

As written in the introduction to the poll, the purpose of this annual study is to “…take an ideological snapshot of the Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade County”.

The professors note that a major finding of the study is the generational divide between those Cubans who left before and after 1994, the year the last major wave of Cuban balseros fled the Castro regime. A total of 35,000 set off on flimsy rafts to make the 90+ mile journey to the USA that year.

The poll finds that Cubans arriving after 1994 favor détente with Cuba more so than the older generations do. The younger generations of US-born Cuban-Americans too favor opening relations much more than their parents and grandparents.

Grenier was quoted in the Miami Herald pinning his findings as evidence of changing demographics favoring younger Cuban-Americans, and what he calls a “re-Cubanization of Miami.”

Currently, about 860,000 Cuban-Americans live in Miami-Dade, nearly one-third of the county’s population and 44% of the nation’s Cuban-American population. One-third of Miami’s Cuban-Americans arrived after 1995, according to the same Miami Herald article.

Though the rather remarkable findings flew across headline to headline to headline, over at Capitol Hill Cubans editor Mauricio Claver-Carone has torn two immense holes in this acclaimed study and its findings.

According to Claver-Carone, this year’s FIU Cuba Poll was sponsored by left-wing ideological groups and purposely manipulated and/or omitted key data.

In the same Miami Herald article cited above, Grenier admits to a crucial omission:

“Grenier acknowledged his numbers reflect only those respondents who said they favored or opposed the embargo and did not include “don’t know/no answer” replies. Including those numbers in the tally would change the percentages to 45-41 against the embargo — short of a majority and with 12 percent replying “don’t know/no answer.”

The Herald article notes that this is an unusual practice in polling and surveying.

Grenier claims that every FIU Cuba Poll since 1991 has been conducted this way, so the overall downward trends of hostility towards Cuba hold true. If so, then the percent of those supporting the embargo comprised 87 percent in 1991, 78 percent in 1997, 66 percent in 2004, and 56 percent in 2011.

But, other studies have failed to match the FIU Cuba Poll’s findings.

Miami Democrat pollsters Bendixen & Amanda found in their polling similar generational divides, but that among all Cuban voters 56% support it while 36% are opposed. This poll also found that among all Cuban voters 51% oppose unrestricted travel to Cuba, whereas only 42% favor it. In contrast, the FIU poll found support for unrestricted travel to be at, as Claver-Carone puts it, a “laughable” 69%.

The FIU poll’s findings that did not make headlines also reveal several issues with either data collection or inconsistencies in the psyches of Miami’s Cuban-Americans.

For example, the FIU poll reports 60% do not think people in the US should be allowed to invest in non-government small businesses in Cuba. In regards to Cuba’s official designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, 63% agree it should remain.

Another major issue is the mismatch between the number of respondents who said they are US citizens—62%—and the number who said they are registered to vote –90%.

Given the numerous issues, Claver-Carone calls the poll “sloppy” and “designed for a sensationalist headline.” The alternative scenario is rampant voter fraud in Miami-Dade County, which is not that unlikely of a possibility.

That two of this year’s sponsors for the FIU poll were George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Trimpa Group might explain the slew of red flags.

The Trimpa Group, run by the Democrats’ “answer to Karl Rove” Ted Gimpa, is dedicated to advancing liberal and progressive causes, including the hash tag diplomacy project #Cubanow that is urging the Obama administration to reverse US policy towards Cuba. The campaign also included plastering ads across Washington D.C. However, #Cubanow has refused to release its list of private donors in an effort to “shield” them from personal attacks.

Thus far, there seems to be no direct political or economic conflict of interest between Trimpa and Open Society Foundations with their advocacy to end the Cuban embargo. Yet, these groups are lobbying groups and possibly stand to gain financially from the favorable findings of the FIU Cuba Poll.

As Claver-Carone writes:

“In other words, FIU has gone from having its polls sponsored by ideological non-profit organizations to ideological, for-profit lobbyists.

Noted Cuba hawk Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), who represents large swaths of Miami-Dade County (including where your non-Cuban correspondent lives), takes up similar issue with this study.

“Polls are as deceptive as the questionnaire or the people behind them,” Ros-Lehtinen was quoted saying to Miami’s Local 10 news. “They can be skewed. Questions can be asked a certain way. So I’m not surprised.”

Office of the Historian: U.S. State Department, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, Cuba, Volume VI

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, Cuba, Volume VI

287. Editorial Note

On April 19, [1959] Vice President Nixon met in the Vice President’s formal office in the Capitol with Fidel Castro during Castro’s visit to Washington. Nixon concluded his draft summary of the conversation as follows:

“My own appraisal of him as a man is somewhat mixed. The one fact we can be sure of is that he has those indefinable qualities which make him a leader of men. Whatever we may think of him he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally. He seems to be sincere. He is either incredibly naive about Communism or under Communist discipline—my guess is the former, and as I have already implied his ideas as to how to run a government or an economy are less developed than those of almost any world figure I have met in fifty countries.

“But because he has the power to lead to which I have referred, we have no choice but at least to try to orient him in the right direction.” (Department of State, Central Files, 711.12/4–2459)

The draft summary is attached to an April 24 memorandum from Nixon to John Foster Dulles that reads: “Particularly since you were so helpful with suggestions for my talk with Castro, I thought you might like to see the enclosed copy of a memorandum I drafted of our conversation.”

The full text of the draft summary is printed in Diplomatic History, IV, 4 (Fall 1980), pages 426–431. For Nixon’s recollection of the conversation and a portion of the text of the draft summary, see Richard M. Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978) pages 201–203.

At the Acting Secretary’s Staff Meeting on April 20, Rubottom reported that Castro’s talk with Nixon had been “useful” and that Nixon had been “impressed by the force of Castro’s personality.”

[Page 477]

Rubottom also noted that there had as yet been no requests for loans from the Cubans. (Department of State, Secretary’s Staff Meetings: Lot 63 D 75, April 1959)