By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - Most Americans - and a strong majority of Floridians - support warmer 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 Washington's half-century-old trade embargo against the communist-run island,
the poll found that 56 percent of respondents nationally favored improving U.S. policy toward Havana. The number rose to 63 percent just counting Florida residents.
Supporters of the embargo said the poll was politically biased, questioned its methodology and predicted it was unlikely to have any impact.
The survey comes on the back of a series of surprise developments in recent days that could challenge longstanding U.S. policy toward Cuba.
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 found that only 35 percent of Americans, and 30 percent of Floridians, opposed better ties between the former Cold War foes.
"Given the results of the survey, it is clearly time to take another look at U.S.-Cuba policy," said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
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."
Mauricio Claver-Carone, head of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, the largest Cuban exile lobby group in Washington, called the survey "biased and agenda-driven," however.
"They didn't ask if they (respondents) were voters. In other words, it's not a poll of 'likely voters' or 'registered voters'," he said.
Proponents of ending the embargo lacked the votes in Congress, or the financial backing to effectively lobby to change the law, Claver-Carone added.
"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 said.
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 opposition from both parties.
"We have made clear our view that we need to think creatively about how to promote positive change in Cuba and the poll suggests much of the American public feels the same way," a senior Obama administration official said.
"The poll also reflects the concern of the American people regarding poor human rights conditions in Cuba, a concern the administration shares," the official added.
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. When told that changing U.S. policy would send a message to Iran or North Korea that they can act against American interests, 51 percent found it very or somewhat convincing.
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.
Kempe told a news conference on Tuesday that the council took Cuba's human rights record seriously. He also noted that it gave a Freedom Award to the prominent Cuban dissident group, the Ladies in White, in 2010.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Rosalind Russell and Tom Brown)