USA Today features IRI Cuba Poll
The first authoritative poll of the aspirations and attitudes of Cuba’s people reveals an overwhelming desire to elect the successors to Fidel Castro, says the pro-democracy group that conducted the poll.
The poll, which was secretly conducted in Cuba by the International Republican Institute (IRI), shows 79% of Cubans do not believe the current government can fix the problems facing the country and 74% want to vote on Castro’s successor.
“It’s kind of like a nose under the tent of the real Cuba,” said James Roberts, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who served 25 years in the State Department focusing on Latin America.
“It gives what your intuition would tell you that people must be thinking in their heart of hearts, that this 50-year regime of tyranny is not something people would like to live under for another 50 years.”
Among the polls findings:
- 41% of Cubans believe the situation in Cuba is going badly or very badly, compared with 25% who believe it’s going well or very well.
- 77% of Cubans want a new system of elections.
- 83% of Cubans believe changes to a more market-based economy would improve their daily lives.
The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, which represents the Cuban government, declined to comment on the poll.
While many Cuba experts said the poll results agree with their own research of attitudes on the island, pollsters said the method used is rather unorthodox.
The institute, which promotes democracy around the world and receives funding from Congress, employed pollsters who did not tell the nearly 600 Cubans they questioned that they were being polled. The pollsters engaged Cubans in conversation with a set list of topics and later recorded their answers.
Shawn Sullivan, IRI’s program director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the method allowed Cubans to speak freely. Conceding the method is unconventional, Sullivan said it was the best way to get accurate opinions in a dictatorship. “I think they’re always concerned that whoever is asking the questions is working on behalf of the regime,” he said.
There are risks to that method. Eric Nielsen, senior director of media strategies for Gallup, said pollsters can inadvertently skew the response during a casual conversation. “You’re not pushing them down a path, but you’re obviously going to get on a level of discussion where you opinions are going to be interjected,” he said.
He also said that traditional polls target specific households to get a reliable cross-section of a population. The IRI poll was conducted in 14 of Cuba’s 15 provinces; pollsters spoke only with people they encountered on the streets.
Cuba experts said that identifying oneself as a pollster would have yielded a false picture, given that the Communist Party has spies in all neighborhoods and criticizing the government can result in a long prison term.
“As soon as you identify yourself as a pollster, people try to hedge their answers and not be totally honest,” said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
Suchlicki says that reticence is evident in a Gallup Poll done last year. Gallup questioners who identified themselves as pollsters reported that 39% of Cubans disapproved of Cuba’s leadership. That number was 79% in the IRI poll.
IRI, which was once affiliated with the Republican Party but is now non-partisan, has been the subject of some controversy. Former U.S. ambassador to Haiti Brian Dean Curran, an appointee of President Clinton, accused the group of supporting the opposition groups that overthrew former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. The institute said it merely helped teach Haitians about free elections, campaigns and registration drives.
Cuba experts were divided on the meaning of the poll.
Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute, a think tank, was surprised that Cubans say their biggest problem is a broken economy. “What it means is if Raúl Castro seriously takes on the big economic problems that they’ve got, then he will be addressing the main problem on people’s minds,” said Peters, an adviser to the House of Representatives’ Cuba Working Group.
Raúl Castro has run Cuba since his brother underwent surgery in July 2006. Whether he is seen as a viable leader by Cubans could depend on his attitude toward Fidel’s state-controlled economic system. That’s because a vast majority don’t believe the current government can fix the country’s problems. When asked what government could, 32% said a democratic one; only 3% said socialist. Forty-three percent did not respond.
Vicki Huddleston, former chief of the American Interests Section in Havana, said the inconclusive response indicates that Cubans may wish to preserve some things, such as free education and health care.
“They do like some of the things that they’ve gained,” said Huddleston, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They might not be willing to give up stability for democracy.”
The Heritage Foundation’s Roberts disagrees.
“They might be less afraid of losing the goods they have now if they could find out that they could get better education and health care,” Roberts said. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to take that plunge.”