Wed | Jan 17, 2018

Rare poll finds Cuban citizens favour better US relations

Published:Wednesday | March 22, 2017 | 12:00 AM
In this May 2, 2016 file photo, Yaney Cajigale, left, holds out a Stars and Stripes flag, and Dalwin Valdes holds a Cuban national flag, as they watch the arrival of Carnival's Adonia cruise ship in Havana, Cuba. A rare poll of Cuban public opinion has found that most approve of normal relations with the United States.

A rare poll of Cuban public opinion has found that most of the island's citizens approve of normal relations with the United States and large majorities want more tourists to visit and the expansion of private business ownership. In a poll of 840 people taken in Cuba late last year by the independent research organisation NORC at the University of Chicago, 55 per cent said that normal relations with the US would be mostly good for the country.

"I'd love for the two peoples to be even closer," Rebecca Tamayo, an 80-year-old retired museum worker, said Monday in Havana. "If there were better relations, more products would be entering the country. There'd be more opportunity to buy things."

Among Cubans aged 18-29, approval of closer relations with the US rose to 70 per cent. An overwhelming eight of 10 respondents said they believed tourism to Cuba should be expanded.

President Donald Trump has pledged to reverse former President Barack Obama's two-and-a-half-year-old opening with Cuba, which restored full diplomatic relations and allowed a dramatic expansion of US travel to the island. Trump has said little about the matter since taking office, but his administration says it is conducting a full review of Cuba policy with an eye towards possible changes.

Critics of Obama's policy hope Trump will reinstate regulations limiting the ability of Americans to travel to the island. US travel to Cuba has roughly doubled every year since the declaration of dÈtente in December 2015. Critics of closer relations argue the added revenue has funded a repressive single-party system without helping ordinary Cubans.

The reality is more complex. New tourism revenue is being captured by government-run tourism businesses, often controlled by the military. At the same time, thousands of new private enterprises, primarily bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants, are allowing many Cubans to forge livelihoods independent of the state. Meanwhile, a drop in aid from Cuba's main patron, Venezuela, helped push the country last year into its first recession since 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The poll reflects this complex reality, with Cubans expressing pessimism about the government's management of the economy, while supporting better ties with the US and hoping for increased privatisation.

"Tourism is improving the country's economy, but it's still not enough, because people aren't seeing a better quality of life," Jorge Beltran, a 66-year-old retired accountant, said Monday in Havana.

Forty-six per cent of Cubans say the island's economic performance is poor or very poor, and most said the country's economic fortunes haven't changed significantly over the past three years. Still, Cubans are nearly unanimous in saying more tourism would be good for the economy, and nearly nine in 10 say it would result in more jobs for local workers.

Sixty-five per cent of Cubans said there should be more private business ownership and 56 per cent said they wanted to start their own business over the next five years.

"It's been demonstrated that the market economy is more efficient than a centralised economy," Beltran said. "People who've started private businesses, you can see that they're happier, they have more access to a lot of things. It's a tremendous benefit for them."

The NORC survey was conducted via in-person interviews of adults across Cuba in October and November of last year. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Seventy-six per cent said they had to be careful about expressing themselves freely. Over half of Cubans said they would move away from the country if given the chance. Of those, 70 per cent said they would head to the United States, where many respondents said they had relatives.

Nearly half of respondents said they received remittances from family or friends overseas.

Seventy-seven per cent had a positive view of the US.