October 1, 2009 / 3:09 PM / 9 years ago

Cuban exiles changed tune on Havana concert: poll

MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuban exiles, who had previously opposed a concert last month in Havana by Colombian singer Juanes, ended up mostly backing the event after Juanes spoke out in favor of uniting Cubans, a new poll showed.

Juanes, who has a home in Miami, was originally pilloried by Cuban exile commentators who had portrayed his September 20 concert with other Spanish-language artists in Havana’s Revolution Square as pandering to Cuba’s communist rulers.

But many later hailed him as a hero after he used the concert venue to call for “one Cuban family” and a “free Cuba” in a performance before a huge crowd of enthusiastic Cubans estimated by organizers to top one million people.

A poll conducted among Cuban Americans by Bendixen & Associates between Sept 24-26 showed 53 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of the Juanes concert afterwards, against 29 percent who expressed a negative view. The poll was published by the Miami Herald Thursday.

This was a stark reversal of a previous Bendixen poll on August 24 which had shown 47 percent of Cuban Americans opposing the event, against 27 percent who supported it.

An almost five-decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba remains in place but moderate Cuban exiles, who favor a shift in U.S. policy away from a strategy of isolation and hostility toward more contacts and constructive engagement, said the latest poll results showed the atmosphere was ripe for increased U.S.-Cuban cultural and academic exchanges.

“These results reflect what we have been saying for years, that Miami is changing,” said Carlos Saladrigas, Co-Chairman of the Cuban Study Group, an organization of Cuban American businessmen which is lobbying for more U.S. engagement with communist-ruled Cuba to foster political change there.

“Juanes’ bold initiative is an example of the impact and effectiveness of cultural exchanges. It is time to give openness, reconciliation and dialogue the chance they deserve.” Saladrigas said in a statement posted on the group’s web site.

The September 24-26 survey polled 400 Cuban Americans and had a margin of error of five percent, Bendixen said.

“These results should encourage policy-makers to take steps to facilitate more of these exchanges in an effort to break down the barriers that separate the Cuban people,” Saladrigas said.

After promising a “new beginning” in U.S.-Cuban ties, U.S. President Barack Obama moved in April to slightly ease the embargo by lifting restrictions on family travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans and on remittances sent by them to the island.

U.S. and Cuban officials have also restarted talks on migration, postal services and other issues. Such discussions had been halted under Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush.

But Obama has made clear he wants Cuba’s communist leaders to reciprocate by allowing more political freedom for Cubans and freeing detained dissidents.

Cuban President Raul Castro, who took over from his older brother Fidel Castro last year, has said he is willing to talk to Washington about “everything,” but has ruled out any unilateral concessions or a shift by Cuba to capitalism.

In what appeared to signal a pickup in cultural exchanges between the two countries, the Miami Herald reported that a number of Cuban artists, including singer Omara Portuondo, had been granted visas to perform in the United States, in the first such permits issued since 2003.

Reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Editing by Anthony Boadle

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