By David Adams
(Reuters) - A strong majority of Americans - and an even greater percentage of Floridians - support normalizing relations with Cuba, according to a poll released on Tuesday by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
In an apparent boost to efforts to end the half-century-old economic embargo against Cuba, the poll found that 56 percent of respondents nationally favored changing U.S. Cuba policy, a number that rose to 63 percent when just counting Florida residents.
Supporters of the embargo said the poll was politically biased, questioned its methodology and said it was unlikely to have any impact in Washington.
The poll comes on the back of a series of surprise political announcements in recent days that could challenge longstanding U.S. policy towards the communist-run island.
On Friday, Florida's former Republican Governor Charlie Crist, who is running for the office again in November - this time as a Democrat - said in a TV interview that he supports lifting the embargo.
Also last week, Alfonso Fanjul, a wealthy Cuban American sugar baron in Florida and a major political donor, spoke publicly for the first time about trips he has made to the island in an interview with the Washington Post, and his interest one day in investing there.
The poll, conducted by a Republican and a Democratic pollster, found that only 35 percent of Americans, and 30 percent of Floridians, opposed improving ties with Cuba.
"Given the results of the survey, it is clearly time to take another look at U.S.-Cuba policy. There has been a surge in thinking about whether it's working," said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
The results in Florida show conventional wisdom about U.S. policy towards Cuba may need to be reconsidered.
Political commentators often note that U.S. presidential candidates support a hard line on Cuba out of fear of losing the swing state of Florida.
"We may have crossed the Rubicon with this poll," said U.S. Senator, Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona and longtime opponent of the embargo.
"This tells us that Floridians by a greater percentage than the rest of the country want to see changes to the policy, so there's really no reason not to move ahead now politically," he added.
Supporters of the embargo accused the Atlantic Council of having a political agenda, as well as poor methodology.
"The entire release is biased and agenda-driven," Mauricio Claver-Carone, head of the largest Cuban exile lobby group in Washington, said in reference to the Atlantic Council's announcement of the survey.
"They didn't ask if they were voters. In other words, it's not a poll of 'likely voters' or 'registered voters'."
Claver-Carone, director of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, said proponents of ending the embargo lacked the votes in Congress, or the financial backing to effectively lobby to change the law.
"The fact remains every single Cuban-American elected official, in any position, in Miami-Dade County supports the embargo. So the facts speak for themselves," he added.
Officials from both countries have told Reuters that U.S.-Cuban relations have taken on a more pragmatic tone in recent months, with cooperation on drug interdiction, oil-spill mitigation and immigration.
President Barack Obama told a Miami fundraiser in November "we have to continue to update our policies" on Cuba, but he has withheld using his executive power since last easing rules on travel to Cuba and the flow of remittances in 2011.
Obama cannot lift the economic embargo without the support of Congress, where there is serious opposition from both parties.
The poll showed some ambivalence among those surveyed when they were reminded of the state of human rights in Cuba, where dissent and freedom of speech are inhibited.
The poll - conducted over the phone in English and Spanish from January 7 to January 22 - surveyed 1,024 randomly selected U.S. adults age 18 and older, with disproportionate numbers of Florida residents and Latinos, the council said.
It had a nationwide margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent, the council said. In Florida the margin of error was plus or minus 4.0 percent.
The Atlantic Council bills itself as a non-partisan research institution that promotes "constructive U.S. leadership and engagement in international affairs." Chief Executive Frederick Kempe is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, and the council's honorary directors include recent secretaries of state and national security advisers.
Its findings provided a timely boost to Crist, who said in an TV interview on Friday that he doesn't think the embargo has worked.
"If we want to bring democracy to Cuba, we need to encourage American values and investment there," he said later in a statement.
Crist, who currently leads in early polling, is the first candidate for governor from either major party to endorse lifting the embargo, a position that has long been considered politically risky in Florida due to Miami's large Cuban American population.
His Cuba comments were pounced upon by Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott who insisted on that Floridians still support the embargo, saying it "stands for the Cuban people's right to be free."
(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Rosalind Russell)