By Shachi Kurl, Executive Director, Angus Reid Institute
March 19, 2016 – This week the eyes of the world – and certainly of Americans – will once again turn to Cuba with intense focus. The reason, of course, is President Barack Obama’s visit – the first of the holder of the United States’ highest office since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
Overwhelmingly, America’s neighbours to the north profess strong support for both the reestablishment of U.S. diplomatic ties with Cuba, and the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo against the island nation: our Angus Reid Institute survey of Canadians late last year on this very subject found nearly 90 per cent approved of both measures. This is higher than support among Americans on both questions, according to the Pew Research Center, which studied the issue last July.
But there is one thing bothering Canadians about this thaw in near-frozen U.S.-Cuba relations … the fear that a beloved vacation spot may get wrecked.
Indeed, for those who’ve walked more than a few beaches in more than a few parts of the world, little can compare to the white sands and turquoise waters of Cuba. It’s no doubt a big part of why 1.1 million Canadian visitors – frozen through and weary of winter – visited the country in 2014. That number represents roughly one-third of all annual visits to the country, and there are more than ten times as many visitors from Canada as from the next most-common country of origin (Germany – 139,138).
Of course, sun and sand aren’t the only draws: there’s also culture, storied history, relative safety, and something Canadians think about but are generally too polite to say out loud (unless we as pollsters prompt them): no Americans.
Now, I’ve travelled enough to know the long-held stereotype about “ugly Americans” is just that: a stereotype. And I have witnessed my share of obnoxious globetrotting Canadian “hosers” as well. But while Canadians may be okay with having to share the cabana section with topless octogenarian Russians, the potential easing of travel restrictions between America and Cuba has Canadians feeling quite mixed.
The U.S. defrosting of relations may spur beneficial employment and investment opportunities for Cuba – which has suffered under the long economic shadow thrown by the embargo – and for the United States itself.
Canadians recognize this, with the vast majority saying that normalization of relations between Cuba and U.S. is a good thing for both countries:
As noted in the preceding graph, respondents are far less convinced of any benefit to Canada, with nearly one-in-five actually predicting normalization will result in a bad outcome for this country. Perhaps this view simply reflects anxiety around loss of market share. While Canada’s relationship with Cuba is modest compared to some of its other trading partners, we have had the advantage of exclusivity against the United States, doing more than $1 billion in imports and exports with Cuba last year.
Much more likely, though, is that Canada’s perceived disadvantage in the normalizing of U.S.-Cuba relations is related to how a total lifting of travel restrictions to Cuba for Americans would impact Canadian visitors. Among all respondents, nearly half say it will have a worsening effect:
And indeed, among those who have themselves baked on the beaches of Veradero or strolled through old Havana, fully two-thirds (64%) say the experience of a return visit will be “worse than it is now” – if Americans are allowed to visit too:
Notwithstanding the more self-involved anxiety over potentially ruined vacations, people in Canada are also slightly more circumspect about the impact of normalized relations on the future democratization of Cuba. Our Angus Reid Institute survey showed about two-in-five Canadians (38%) say Cuba will become more democratic in future years, slightly fewer than the 43 per cent of Americans who thought the same, according to Pew Research.
Still, it is presumably a long journey from a historic state visit by Barack Obama to a Starbucks in Havana’s Main Square and full, representative democracy in the country. Cubans will determine their own future.
There’s one thing Canadians won’t have to worry about: the President of the United States is guaranteed to be the most well-behaved of American visitors.