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Majority want change in US-Cuba policy
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MIAMI (AP) — A majority of Americans and even higher proportion of Floridians support re-establishing relations with Cuba, Washington’s Cold War-era foe that remains blocked behind a five-decade economic embargo, results from a poll released Tuesday show.

The poll by the nonpartisan Atlantic Council found 56 percent of Americans and 63 percent of Floridians support engaging more directly with the communist island. In Miami-Dade County, home to the largest concentration of Cuban-Americans, 64 percent of adults said they favor changing U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.

“My sense is that Americans are very supportive of normalization and in particular of beginning, right now, to undo piece by piece each of the strands that make up the Cuba embargo,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

The results fall in line with previous polling of Americans on U.S.-Cuba relations. Gallup polls conducted since 1999 have found a majority favor re-establishing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba. For more than a decade, about half of Americans have also favored ending the trade embargo.

The survey comes as momentum toward U.S. engagement with Cuba has been building. In 2009, President Barack Obama lifted restrictions instituted by former President George W. Bush on the number of times Cuban-Americans could travel back to visit relatives on the island. The administration has also removed restrictions on remittances and in 2011 reinstated so-called “people-to-people” travel. U.S. citizens can apply for licenses to travel to Cuba and participate in cultural and education exchanges.

At a fundraiser in Miami in November, Obama said the U.S. must continue updating it policies toward Cuba.

Attitudes among the Cuban-American community have also been shifting. A 2011 poll of the Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade County by Florida International University found 56 percent favor continuing the embargo, a noticeable drop from 1993, when 85 percent said they favored tightening the embargo. The Atlantic Council poll did not specifically address the embargo, though it did question respondents on components that it includes, including resumption of travel, business and diplomatic ties.

Yet significant hurdles remain in loosening any aspect of the embargo.

A majority of the Cuban-American congressional delegation remains staunchly in favor of continuing the sanctions. And the continued detention of Alan Gross, an American arrested four years ago while working covertly to set up Internet access for the island’s small Jewish community, remains a barrier toward any movement forward.

Jorge Duany, director of FIU’s Cuban Research Institute, noted there has been minor progress on some issues. Over the last year, the U.S. and Cuba have held talks on migration and mail service.

“I would expect, being cautious about it, there might be additional steps taken in that direction,” Duany said. “But it’s hard to see there will be sufficient support for a major change in U.S.-Cuba relations.”

The Atlantic Council poll surveyed 1,024 randomly selected adults by landline and cell phone from Jan. 7 to Jan. 22.

Sixty-two percent of respondents nationwide said they supported allowing American companies to do business in Cuba. Sixty-one percent said they support removing all restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. In Florida, that number was six points higher, at 67 percent.

Seventy-seven percent nationwide said they support diplomatic coordination on issues of mutual concern. In Florida, again, the number was higher, at 82 percent.

Schechter said he was most surprised by the higher level of support for normalized relations in Florida compared to the rest of the nation.

Florida is home to more than two-thirds of all Cubans living in the U.S., some 1.2 million. However, the poll’s overall results for the state are not necessarily indicative of the Cuban-American community. The sample size of Cuban-Americans was not large enough to draw any conclusions specific to the community.

Supporters of the embargo criticized the poll for not informing participants in greater detail about human rights violations on the island.

“The poll skims over the Castro dictatorship’s egregious human rights record, including the beatings, arrests and imprisonments increasing over the past few weeks,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican Cuban-American representative from South Florida, said in a statement.

Schecter said the Atlantic Council chose to conduct the poll now because Cuba remains one of two significant structural problems for the U.S. in Latin America, the other being immigration. He noted that the European Union recently decided to start negotiations with Cuba to upgrade its ties with the Caribbean island nation. Bob Graham, the former Florida governor and senator who supports the embargo, traveled to Cuba in January to discuss oil drilling safety and standards, another area of mutual concern for the two countries, which are just 90 miles apart.

Prominent members of the Cuban-American community, including billionaire sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul, have also expressed their interest in engaging with the island, on everything from business to art.

“We thought it was time to consult the most important stakeholder of all, which is the American people,” Schechter said.