WASHINGTON – In nearly equal measure, Americans say they don't like Cuban President Fidel Castro but do want the United States to re-establish regular diplomatic relations with the communist island nation after 46 years of estrangement.
Less than half of those polled think Cuba will become a democracy after the 80-year-old revolutionary leader dies or permanently steps aside. However, 89 percent in The Associated Press-Ipsos poll say they think Cubans will be better off or about the same when Castro is gone.
"It's probably not very likely in the short term," Kelly Shanley, 29, of North Haven, Conn., said of prospects for a democratic shift. "I just hope for the citizens of Cuba that it's something that's realized in the next few decades."
Castro has appeared to be in failing health for six months and has temporarily shifted power to his younger brother Raul. Rumors have been rampant about his ailments and how long he can survive.
The poll suggests the Cold War animosity that has defined U.S.-Cuba relations for nearly a half-century may be fading.
Although U.S. administrations from left to right have called Castro a dictator and a tyrant and have spent millions trying to undermine him, 27 percent of poll respondents said they hadn't heard enough about Castro to form an opinion.
The poll showed 64 percent of respondents had a very or somewhat unfavorable opinion of Castro, the revolutionary leader who has said he will be a Marxist-Leninist until the day he dies.
"He hasn't done much for his country. The country has not progressed," said Shiraz Damji, 61, of Woodland Hills, Calif. "It's still in the '40s or something like that. Leadership must grow the country and he's not done that."
Castro got slightly better reviews from younger people -- 60 percent of those under 35 had an unfavorable view of Castro while 66 percent of older people felt that way -- and younger people were more likely to reserve judgment about him. Among people 18-34, 35 percent said they don't know enough about Castro to have an opinion, while 24 percent of those 35 and older said that.
Even so, a large majority of people -- 62 percent -- said the United States should re-establish diplomatic ties. The scant contact between the two countries is now handled through Switzerland or via low-level diplomatic offices called interests sections.
The U.S. cut off diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961, two years after Castro led an armed revolution that drove out U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Decades-old trade and travel embargoes made it illegal for American businesses to trade in an economy they once dominated, and few Americans have visited Cuba.
Although the tropical island 90 miles off Florida was once a vacation playground famed for its nightlife, nearly half of those polled, 46 percent, said they would not be at all interested in vacationing in Cuba. Forty percent of those polled said they would be interested in vacationing there if a long-standing travel ban were lifted.
Despite the public's interest in diplomacy with Cuba, 48 percent of those polled said the United States should continue its trade embargo against Cuba.
A majority of Hispanics surveyed said it is likely Castro's regime will be replaced by a democracy while just 38 percent of non-Hispanics think that will happen. Among Hispanics, 70 percent say Cubans will be better off after Castro, compared with 53 percent of non-Hispanics.
Castro stunned his nation on July 31 by temporarily ceding power to his younger brother, the 75-year-old defense minister. Raul Castro has led the nation at the head of a collaborative leadership that has kept the government running calmly in his brother's absence from public life.
Fidel Castro appeared more vigorous in recent television images, but many U.S. Cuba analysts assume he will never resume power.
The Bush administration receives relatively little criticism for its Cuba policies.
Cuba could seek more normal relations or an end to the trade embargo after Castro leaves the scene, but for now there is little domestic political pressure on Bush to engage Cuba.
A bipartisan delegation of American lawmakers visited Havana in December, seeking improved diplomatic and economic ties, but vehemently anti-Castro Cuban exiles have been a potent force in Republican politics for years.
Among Republicans polled, 82 percent had an unfavorable opinion of Castro while 59 percent of Democrats felt that way. Similarly, 62 percent of Republicans doubted the prospects for democracy in a post-Castro Cuba, compared with 50 percent of Democrats, and 72 percent of Democrats said they favor establishing diplomatic relations, compared with 51 percent of Republicans.
The poll of 1,000 adults was taken Jan. 30-Feb. 1 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.