By: Mary Orndorff Troyan
Most Tennesseans favor ending the trade embargo on Cuba and relaxing travel restrictions to the island nation, according to a new poll that shows similar opinions in three other heartland states.
The survey, sponsored by the Atlantic Council and conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, found bipartisan support for President Obama’s steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba, even in Republican strongholds like Tennessee.
“You would be hard pressed to find any other Obama administration policy with this much Republican support,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center.
The poll is part of a lobbying effort urging Congress to repeal the Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened the embargo.
“It’s clear that Americans see opportunity and want policies which will allow them to capitalize on these openings,” said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Latin American Center at the Atlantic Council. “Policymakers in these critical states should take heed of the voters’ clear desire to further open up our Cuba policy.”
The survey interviewed 600 people in Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Iowa. In Tennessee alone, 150 people were interviewed. The poll’s responses covering all four states have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The margin of error for the responses for Tennessee alone is plus or minus 8 percentage points.
In all four states, 58 percent of those surveyed said they favor lifting the trade embargo entirely, and 67 percent want travel restrictions removed.
The results in Tennessee are especially striking because so many voters are pessimistic about where the United States is headed in general, yet still favor Obama’s moves on Cuba. According to the poll, 71 percent believe the U.S. is on the wrong track, yet 62 percent approve of Obama’s decision to restore formal diplomatic relations with the communist nation.
“One year after President Obama began to normalize relations and allowed for some openings, there is majority support — from Democrats and Republicans — to continue the momentum,” Schechter said in a prepared statement.
In December 2014, Obama announced a historic step to ending more than 50 years of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba, located 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Since then, embassies have reopened and American politicians, business leaders and entrepreneurs are flocking to Cuba seeking new trade opportunities.
While Obama can use administrative actions to loosen some restrictions on travel and diplomatic activity, only Congress can lift the economic embargo, which was strengthened in 1996.
The Atlantic Council teamed with Engage Cuba in sponsoring the poll. The council’s website says it “promotes constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the Atlantic Community's central role in meeting global challenges.” Engage Cuba is a bipartisan public policy group that favors lifting the embargo on Cuba.
James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said Tennessee was targeted in the poll, in part, because Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where legislation affecting Cuban policy would be debated. Corker has agreed that the embargo has been ineffective, but he has been neutral in how Congress should address it.
Williams said the poll results are a message to lawmakers that their constituents support ending the embargo.
"It's not just that it's been a long time, but it's been a long time and clearly it's hurting the people it's intended to help," Williams said.
The poll shows a slightly narrower gap in Tennessee on the issue of whether the embargo should be lifted: 51 percent approve and 41 percent disapprove. The results reflect concerns among both parties in Congress that while the embargo hasn’t ushered in democratic reforms in Cuba, it’s an appropriate response to the Castro regime’s human rights abuses and lack of political freedoms.
Tennessee agricultural interests would see immediate benefits from lifting the embargo. In 2000, the U.S. allowed limited food exports to Cuba, and the industry forecasts huge growth if that sector is allowed to expand even further.
For example, agriculture exports to Cuba were valued at $300 million in fiscal 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service. That represents about 16 percent of Cuba’s total agricultural imports. Poultry meat and soybeans, the two largest categories, are major products in Tennessee.
Support for lifting the embargo is nothing new for Tennessee farmers, who have eyed Cuba’s market for years, especially grain, corn and poultry. A delegation from the Tennessee Farm Bureau traveled there 15 years ago to explore the possibilities.
“We believe we could capture that market,” said Lee Maddox, communications director for the Tennessee Farm Bureau. “We’re so close, it just makes sense. Just put it on the Mississippi River, and it’s there.”
Fifty-four percent of the Tennessee residents polled say the boost to the state’s farmers is a “convincing” argument to ending the embargo.
Tennessee’s business community also sees strong potential for cars, car parts and medical devices, said Catherine Glover, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“There’s been so much uncertainty with a country that is so close to us, and it’s been unsettling for years,” she said. “But now we see new opportunities for us. It is a new and emerging market.”
Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies said the results show Cuba policy is not just of interest in south Florida and Washington D.C., but has the attention of farmers, business owners and travelers around the country.
“Changing these Cuba policies is no longer a third-rail issue among Republicans,” Bolger wrote in an op-ed published by the Miami Herald.