By José Fernando López
“For a public opinion pollster it’s a big challenge to conduct a survey under a system such as Cuba’s. It is truly an intellectual challenge.” These are the words of Joaquín Pérez, an associate of Bendixen & Amandi International, the firm that recently conducted the most important independent survey on Cuban territory since the revolution of 1959, and the first to gather the opinion of Cubans concerning the new relations between Cuba and the United States.
Poll (Spanish): Encuesta en Cuba
The idea of conducting the survey came to Fernand Amandi, one of the principal associates of the firm, which has conducted 25 surveys on the topic of Cuba during the last twenty years, but had not yet conducted any within the island. On two previous occasions they had tried to conduct a survey on the streets of Cuba, but only now were they able to be successful.
According to Amandi, the motivation stemmed from some words uttered by Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the context of the arrest of several opposition leaders following the announcement of the new relations between Cuba and the United States. According to Castro, “the point of view of members of the opposition did not represent the opinion of people on the island.”
“As a public opinion pollster, those words drew my attention,” says Amandi, “and I asked Joaquín if indeed we could do it this time.” After a series of consultations, Pérez said yes, and they began to look into the different ways in which they could carry out the task while adhering to all the standards that have made Bendixen & Amandi a prestigious international public opinion research firm.
The initial idea was to conduct the survey using Venezuelan public opinion pollsters. Pérez had left Cuba in the 1960’s and taken refuge in Venezuela, where he established solid political relations and became the organizational secretary for the Social Christian movement, known as Copey, one of that country’s historical political parties. And today Venezuela is the country with closest ties to the Cuban regime in the region.
Read more (Spanish): Entre la expectativa económica y la desesperanza política
In fact, in the year 2004, when the first attempts were made to conduct an independent survey in Cuba, they tried to design a probabilistic sample based on the island’s telephone directory, and the calls were made on behalf of Radio Rumbos, a Venezuelan radio station well known in Cuba for its opposition to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista during the 1950’s.
“We thought nobody was going to give us any answers,” says Pérez, “but indeed there were answers. What’s more, someone told me he wanted to vote for Payá.” Nevertheless, the limited access to telephones in Cuba and mistrust of the public opinion pollsters prevented the survey from being successful.
“That’s why this time we felt the only way to get it done was by working with local Cubans on the island,” says Amandi, “with Cubans interviewing Cubans it was hard not to get a truthful answer.” That’s the reason why they tried to find a way to recruit a team of local survey takers.
In order to do this they teamed up with a Mexican public opinion pollster with whom they had already done previous work for well-known organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank. His name was Fernando Civera, an associate of the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas de México " Center for Sociological Research of Mexico, a public opinion organization based in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.
After establishing some previous contacts on the island, Civera traveled to Cuba with a team of four Mexicans (all registered as tourists) for purposes of interviewing and training the people who were going to be conducting the survey. They needed 15 pollsters, and only three of the people they initially interviewed refused to participate in the project and had to be replaced.
In order to avoid problems they resorted to a technique of compartmentalizing the interviews. The training was done one person at a time. “The survey takers knew the project coordinator, who was also Cuban, but they did not know each other. There was no way for them to communicate among themselves,” says Pérez.
Amandi as well as Pérez were aware of the degree of scrutiny they would be facing once the results of the survey became known and that is why they were very strict in applying the protocols established for this kind of project, and they documented all the work.
“This is a scientific project, like any other, and that is why we wanted to proceed with absolute transparency,” says Amandi. And, according to him, the transparency began with the selection of the survey takers. “We asked many questions so as to ensure that they were neutral.”
Once they were chosen, they conducted one hundred trial surveys, which were monitored by the Mexicans. The idea was to verify that the questionnaire was being understood, that people were willing to participate and, given the restrictions imposed by the security measures, that the survey could really be probabilistic, so as to make their conclusions valid.
The trial surveys were conducted between the 10th and 16th of March and all of them were recorded in order to gain the trust of the pollsters. According to the firm’s protocols, trial runs normally take a couple of days. But given the conditions on the island (including restrictions on mobility), it was necessary to dedicate seven days to them.
Before conducting the surveys, Pérez was of the opinion that there were too many questions and that they would take too long. According to him, 30 would be enough. But Amandi insisted that they must not lose out on the opportunity to find out the opinions of Cubans on all the selected topics, and that the length of the questionnaire was no problem, given that, unlike in other countries, “time is not of the essence in Cuba.”
Once the trial run was completed, the answers were tabulated and the results analyzed (with just one hundred surveys the margin of error was 9.5%). Some doubts emerged, which led to repeating some surveys and minor changes were made in some of the questions, but in general the results of the trial runs were satisfactory.
It was then decided to begin the fieldwork. According to Amandi, for a survey of 1,500 people, using 15 pollsters, three days are normally sufficient for obtaining the results. Going door-to-door, as was done in this case, may take a little longer. But this took almost two weeks, because the survey takers had to move around on the guagua (that’s what Cubans call the bus) and the data had to be delivered personally.
The survey takers spread out over the entire country and reached all the homes that were defined in the probabilistic sampling. According to Pérez, there were some cases where it was necessary to resort to anticipated alternatives, because the people chosen were refusing to answer the survey, because of fear, or because they were in disagreement with the survey.
But, in general, the people being surveyed responded to the questionnaire, which the pollsters presented to them as part of a university project. “The people’s eagerness to talk about all the questions is impressive,” says Amandi.
There were some incidents, of course. Three of the people being surveyed detained the pollsters, threatened to take them to jail and tried to assault them. But, according to Pérez, “in all three cases there was a satisfactory outcome: One guy ran, another fought back and the other guy paid money.”
Civera and his team saw it as part of the calculated risks, and this was nothing new to them. Some years ago, while they were conducting a survey in Oaxaca, Mexico concerning money transfers [made by Mexicans in the United States to their families in Mexico], several of his survey takers were detained for several hours by Comandante Marcos, chief of the Zapatista guerrilla forces in southern Mexico.
“Nevertheless, this was very difficult for us,” says Amandi, “the incidents made our hair stand up on end.” But, according to him, it was worthwhile. “As with any survey, there are things here that will please some people but will displease others. But this is the most important work we’ve done so far, because there had never been an attempt to give the Cuban people a voice in such a comprehensive way.”