You can’t always get what you want, the Rolling Stones once told us. But you can, actually, in a push poll: a poll designed to elicit a certain result and then advertised as achieving that result.
This past week the Atlantic Council released a poll it had sponsored about U.S. relations with Cuba. Here’s one key aspect of the poll: When respondents were told “Cuba continues to have a dismal human rights record. The Castro regime represses virtually all forms of political dissent through detentions, arbitrary arrests, beatings, travel restrictions, forced exile, and sentencing dissidents in closed trials,” we find that 33 percent this was a “very important” reason to keep the current U.S. policy and 17 percent said it’s “somewhat important,” for a total of 50 percent. And 43 percent the human rights abuses make it somewhat important or very important to change the policy.
Respondents were also read this statement: “Cuban-Americans support current US policy because it puts economic pressure on the Castro regime, while providing assistance to Cuban citizens. Travel and financial restrictions have already been lifted for Cuban-Americans to help their families; meanwhile we should stay tough on the Castro regime.” The poll found that 61 percent of Americans generally, 67 percent of Floridians, and 61 percent of Hispanics thought this a good reason to oppose normalization with Cuba.
So, given that the statement about human rights abuses is true, and given that 67 percent number, how about a headline saying “Majority of Americans favors keeping the embargo on Cuba.” Of course, it would have been easy to get even tougher pro-embargo results. Suppose a question had asked “Should we normalize relations when they have an American citizen named Alan Gross in prison for more than three years now, and he’s 64 and in poor health and has lost a hundred pounds in prison, and his only ‘crime’ was helping the tiny Jewish community there get internet access?” Or how about this question: “Should we normalize relations when Cuba continues to harbor an American terrorist named Joanne Chesimard, who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and shot and killed a New Jersey State Trooper?” We can pretty well guess what the numbers would have been in response.
The Atlantic Council poll does ask about the fact that Cuba is on the State Department’s terrorism list. It asked this: “Currently, the US State Department designates four countries in the world as state-sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Sudan. The State Department defines state sponsors of terrorism as countries that have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism, and places sanctions on these nations that restrict trade, travel, and foreign assistance. In your opinion, does Cuba pose the same threat as these other countries—Sudan, Syria, and Iran—and thus belong on the list?” This biased query found that 40 percent of all Americans and 43 percent of Hispanics said yes, it does deserve to be on that list; 52 percent of all Americans and 50 percent of Hispanics said no. Think what the results would have been had the “question” added that sentence about Joanne Chesimard!
But the Atlantic Council has a strong position against the embargo on Cuba, so it headlines the poll this way: “Atlantic Council Poll: Americans Want New Relations With Cuba.” And its web site surrounds the poll result with blogs, statements by officials, videos, and articles favoring that result. The handsome booklet the Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center published last week is entitled “Cuba: A New Public Survey Supports Policy Change.”
Well, nice try. People who want to change the policy will find the poll useful. People who oppose change, as I do, will find the whole effort unpersuasive. And I hope that people who are still thinking about the policy, and are undecided, will find it unpersuasive too. The poll found what those who commissioned it wanted it to find. Members of Congress who must vote on Cuba policy, and administration officials who must make decisions, are too sophisticated to be influenced by this kind of advocacy masquerading as opinion research. They know too much about Alan Gross and Joanne Chesimard.