Cuba: Polling with an Agenda and Media Parrots


EspañolIf one tortures the data enough, it will confess to anything. I recalled this old adage of analytical work as I prepared to dispute the findings of the recent poll on US-Cuba policy changes conducted by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

In its own words, the “survey looks at whether there is overall support for normalizing U.S. relations (or, engaging more directly) with Cuba…” It concludes that “Nationwide, 56 percent of respondents favor changing our Cuba policy…”

Regrettably these purported findings have been uncritically retold by numerous news outlets and are parroted as a truism without judicious review or analysis. The heading in a February 10 article in the New York Times reads “Majority of Americans Favor Ties with Cuba, Poll Finds.” Reuters echoes the heading in a February 11 article: “Majority of Americans favor closer U.S.-Cuba ties: poll.”

Indeed, the survey’s colorful brochure subtitled, “A New Public Survey Supports Policy Change,” deliberately implies that Americans support a unilateral, unconditional change in US policy without concessions from the Cuban government. But there is nothing in the survey to support that conclusion; in fact, not a single question in the survey asks about the United States changing its Cuba policy without seeking concessions from the Cuban government.

For example, the survey asks respondents if they support “normalizing relations or engaging more directly with Cuba.” This is a featureless question of the “would you be in favor of world peace?” variety and it is actually surprising that engagement is strongly favored by only 30 percent and somewhat favored by 26 percent — totaling the 56 percent cited above.

It is disingenuous to present the answer to this question as evidence of support for a unilateral and unconditional change in US policy. But thematically, that is precisely what this survey does; it equates the desire for more effective policymaking with support for the abandonment of current policy without seeking any concessions from the other side.

Suppose, for example, that we were to ask a more developed question using the reports own factual language: “The Castro government continues to repress liberties, abuse human rights, and, despite some openings, deny its citizens access to basic economic freedoms,” should the United States end its economic sanctions now without seeking any concessions from the Cuban government?

Or: Should the United States unconditionally seek to normalize relations with Cuba even though the Cuban government has sentenced Alan Gross, a 64-year-old US citizen and US Agency for International Development subcontractor, to a 15-year prison sentence for working to help the Cuban Jewish community on behalf of the US government?

Or: Do you favor a unilateral, unconditional elimination of economic sanctions or do you favor a process of negotiations that would lead to concessions from the Cuban government?

Questions of this level of specificity would be required to support the logical leaps regarding policy implications advocated in Atlantic Council report. But I suspect the answers would not support the report’s conclusions.

The Atlantic Council is a reputable organization, and it commissioned experienced pollsters for this report. To their credit, Peter Schechter, director of the Latin American Center responsible for the survey, graciously invited me to be a panelist in the Miami presentation of the report, knowing that I would be very critical.

Why did the Atlantic Council not see these issues when extrapolating conclusions way outside the data scope of the survey questions? Why did the Council produce what appears to be a “push poll” designed to elicit a predetermined result pushing an ideological agenda?

Perhaps an explanation can be found in a revealing parapraxis, or slip of the pen, I came across while researching their work. In the Atlantic Council’s web page promoting the Cuba poll, there is a sentence that makes reference to the United States’ “financial blockade” (of Cuba).

Experienced Cuba watchers will recognize immediately that the word “blockade,” when making reference to the US embargo, is the term used only by the Cuban government and by regime sympathizers. “Blockade” is an inaccurate and politically charged term that elicits the imagery of US Navy ships blocking shipping lanes to Cuba. It is not a term that would be used by anyone seeking to establish objectivity. How did this term end up in the Atlantic Council’s work — a Freudian slip?

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