Secret Poll: Cubans Unhappy with Government

A new opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute has found a high level of discontent with Fidel Castro's regime. The unusual survey was conducted in secret, through casual conversations initiated by pollsters who never revealed their true mission.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Viva Fidel. Not so much in Cuba, according to a new poll, a super secret poll. We'll get to that part in just a moment.

Here are some of the findings from the questioning of Cuban's living and 14 of the 15 Cuban provinces. It revealed 79 percent of those polled said they disapproved of the Castro government. Forty-three percent said low salaries were the country's biggest problem, followed by the lack of freedom that was 18 percent; the scarcity of food, 12 percent. And 76 percent would like a different system of elections where they could have a choice of ideologies.

All those numbers are really interesting to chew over, but consider this: The survey conducted by the International Republican Institute was done on the down low, very hush-hush. The response did not know their opinions were being canvassed for a poll.

So to find out how all of that worked, we've got Shawn Sullivan, regional program director for Latin America at the International Republican Institute.

Hi, Shawn.

Mr. SHAWN SULLIVAN (Latin America Director, International Republican Institute): Hi. Good morning. Thanks for having me.

STEWART: So this sounds very cloak and dagger and furtive. And how is this conducted - this poll?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, the way we conducted it was - we got third country nationals. We got folks from other Latin American countries to go on to the island and basically strike up conversations with Cubans. And we based the individuals that they approached based on Cuban census data. So we try to get a sample distribution based on province, gender, age, race, what not. So it wasn't a door-to-door survey, but they would approach individuals who met certain characteristics, and then they would try to strike up a conversation with them.

STEWART: What guidelines did you give polltakers in terms of how to ask the questions?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, we - you know, the polltakers that we've used in the past are folks that are pollsters in their own countries. So they're accustomed to, you know, regular standard methodology. And the guidelines we gave them basically focused on how they could try to, as best as possible, get the information without triggering fear on the part of respondents or track in attention. I mean, one of the difficulties that you face operating in a country like Cuba or another close society is that it's extremely repressive and folks are scared. They're scared to talk to foreigners and even amongst themselves.

STEWART: Yeah. It's amazing.

Mr. SULLIVAN: So that was one of the biggest challenges.

STEWART: I've actually been to Cuba, working on a couple of stories.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: And while there are people who have chickens in their house because they need food, every viva Fidel sign is freshly painted.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes.

STEWART: It's very clear where the money is going. The results of your polls compared to other polls that were done by people who clearly identify themselves as pollsters, how different were the results?

Mr. SULLIVAN: From what I understand, they're pretty different. I mean, the results I think are, you know, are, you know, what you would expect. I mean, when your average Cuban, I think, is approached on the street by anyone and somebody starts asking them questions whether they're political in nature or not, they're going to get fearful.

Now, you know, our feeling or our view on this poll is that, you know, we're not claiming it's entirely scientific. What we are claiming, though, is that is shows just broader general trends. And a lot of the findings of the results - that the findings are, you know, very intuitive, I mean, in the sense that, you know, you would expect that most Cubans would want a change from the current system. They would want a higher standard of living. So in many respects, our poll or our survey just gives us the broader trends of what is going on we think in Cuba.

STEWART: I do have to ask you about the name of your group because it's the International Republican Institute.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Sure.

STEWART: All I have to do is hit Google or any search engine and you find out that according to the Web site its non-partisan. But if you dig a little deeper, on your board of directors, affiliated with John McCain, Paul Bremer, Lawrence Eagleburger…

Mr. SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: …the secretary of state under President Bush 41, Scowcroft. And, obviously, if you keep digging a little bit more, you know, that journalists have alleged that the IRI has encouraged the change of other regimes and been involved in post-2003 Iraq. So the question comes up: Does your group have motives for helping change the way Cuba is governed? Is there a reason this information is coming out in this way now?

Mr. SULLIVAN: No. I mean, we, obviously, we get a lot of attention because of our name but we are an organization that was founded in the 1980s. We have a sister organization, The National Democratic Institute, which is also a non-partisan organization but just for…

STEWART: And they're involved in Iraq as well, I should say.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, yeah. Their board of directors is also, you know, full of folks from the other side of the aisle. But a lot of the stuff we try to do overseas is not focused on spreading, you know, Republican ideology or in the Democrat side, Democratic ideology because, you know, at a more fundamental level and most of the countries who are working, were really talking about civics' 101 - basic politics, you know, politics 101. So a lot of the stuff that we do overseas is focused on strengthening political parties, working with civil society groups, strengthening legislatures. So, you know, while we get a lot of credit for changing regimes, it's entirely underserved.

STEWART: So what were you looking for when you did the poll?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, you know, from my perspective, I mean, Cuban is undergoing a dramatic historic transition right now. And what we wanted to do is kind of get out a couple of things. First, we wanted to try to find out what Cubans are thinking of. We wanted to find out what is the fear factor. What are Cubans afraid of when they think about change because change can be scary in these countries? And we also wanted to be able to provide U.S. policymakers, European and Latin American governments with more information to better inform their policy decisions. We think that there is a lot more that governments around the world can be doing to push for a peaceful democratic transition, and we're trying to kind of provide these policymakers with greater information.

STEWART: Shawn Sullivan is the regional program director for Latin America at the International Republican - don't read too much into that word - Institute, which this week released an opinion survey of Cubans which was conducted in secret.

Thanks, Shawn.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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