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Sanders’s Cuba comments are bad politics

Any mention of his past boosting of left-wing dictatorships won’t help in a general election.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a campaign rally at Vic Mathias Shores Park on February 23, 2020, in Austin, Texas.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has a long history of showing support for left-wing dictatorships around the world, but some thought he would steer clear of offering even qualified statements toward those regimes now that he’s running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

On Sunday night, though, Sanders made it clear that belief was misplaced.

Asked about his past backing of Fidel Castro’s communist government in Cuba during an interview with 60 Minutes, Sanders began by saying, “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba,” before adding, “but, you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad.”

“When Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program,” he told journalist Anderson Cooper during the interview. “Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?”

It arguably was a bad thing. In a 2015 Atlantic article, two experts on Cuba — including the former British ambassador to the island — explained why.

“Under Fidel Castro, education became universal — but he also stipulated that anyone who received this education would have to actively promote government policies both during and after their schooling,” the authors wrote. “They would also be required to take government-approved courses that didn’t tolerate any criticism of socialism as a way of life. In other words, education was seen as key to the revolution taking hold and creating a literate population loyal to the government.”

And while Cuba does have a widely praised health care system, some say it works better for outsiders than for its citizens.

“Cuba’s health service is divided in two: one for Cubans and the other for foreigners, who receive better quality care, while the national population has to be satisfied with dilapidated facilities and a lack of medicines and specialists, who are sent abroad to make money for Cuba,” Dr. Julio César Alfonso, director of the medical group Solidaridad Sin Fronteras and a Cuban exile, told El País in 2017.

The positive read of Sanders’s comments is that he’s injecting nuance into an oversimplified issue. Members of his team have long told me the senator rejects the good-bad dichotomy that dominates Washington’s foreign policy discourse. One can reject a nation’s system of government and its leadership while recognizing some of the advances they might make, they argue.

In fact, even President Barack Obama made similar comments to Sanders’s. “The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care,” Obama said in 2016.

In that sense, Sanders’s comments aren’t particularly controversial. “There are elements of the Castro regime that have produced things, in terms of health care and education, that were undeniable progress,” Michael Desch, a professor of US foreign policy at the University of Notre Dame, told me. “He’s not crazy to mention them from the standpoint of history.”

The other read, though, is more in line with Sanders’s past. Time after time, he has apologized for the actions of brutal left-wing dictatorships from Cuba to Nicaragua to the Soviet Union, partly out of a critique of America’s meddling in these countries but also — some argue — because of his ideological sympathies toward them.

“Bernie has had his heart frozen in an earlier period of optimism for these regimes, and that optimism hasn’t borne out very well,” Desch said. He added that many of the political and social trends in these places were “frankly deplorable.”

It’s worth noting that Sanders is clear today on his opposition to dictatorial and corrupt regimes, a point the senator’s campaign communications director Mike Casca made in a statement to me on the Cuba comments: “Sen. Sanders has clearly and consistently criticized Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism and condemned his human rights abuses, and he’s simply echoing President Obama’s acknowledgment that Cuba made progress, especially in education.”

But it’s interesting that Sanders doesn’t grant the same nuance to other murderous, despotic governments. For example, he doesn’t note that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has improved economic conditions for loyalists in his nation’s capital, or that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recently granted citizens, and especially women, more personal freedoms.

Those kinds of qualified comments seemingly are reserved solely for leftist revolutionary leaders, and they’re potentially a problem for him in a general election.

Sanders’s left-wing dictatorship sympathies, explained by his Nicaragua stances

Sanders’s stance on Nicaragua provides a particularly instructive example of his leftist dictator problem.

The Sandinistas were a Cuban- and Soviet-backed rebel group in Nicaragua that overthrew the country’s right-wing dictatorship in 1979. They proved adept at brutality: They shot unarmed civilians, relocated thousands, curtailed press freedoms, postponed elections to hold on to power, and mistreated indigenous populations.

The United States under Ronald Reagan tried to force out the Sandinistas, as having a Moscow-friendly outfit in charge of a Central American nation was seen as troublesome in Washington during the Cold War era. The Reagan administration even funded an opposition insurgent group known as the Contras to root out the Sandinistas.

That policy drew the ire of left-leaning leaders, Sanders among them. “The Reagan administration drove them crazy in the 1980s, particularly over the wars in Central America in El Salvador and Nicaragua,” Desch said.

For Sanders, who was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, at the time, the Sandinista government wasn’t a bloody regime guilty of violating human rights — rather, it was a model for his state. “Vermont could set an example to the rest of the nation similar to the type of example Nicaragua is setting for the rest of Latin America,” he told a crowd in 1985 after touring the Central American nation for a revolutionary rally.

Cameraman Marlon Ortega (center) with soldiers of the Sandinista Popular Army (Ejercito Popular Sandinista, or EPS) in Nicaragua, 1987.
Scott Wallace/Getty Images

Similar to his Sunday defense of Cuba, the then-mayor cited some of the programs the Sandinista government provided. “Is [their] crime that they have built new health clinics, schools, and distributed land to the peasants? Is their crime that they have given equal rights to women? Or that they are moving forward to wipe out illiteracy?” he asked the 1985 audience.

“No, their crime in Mr. Reagan’s eyes and the eyes of the corporations and billionaires that determine American foreign policy is that they have refused to be a puppet and banana republic to American corporate interests,” Sanders said.

Sanders even traveled to New York City that year to visit Daniel Ortega, then Nicaragua’s president and a top Sandinista. The visit was mere weeks after the Ortega regime announced a state of emergency that led to mass arrests and the forced closing of media organizations.

Given a chance to denounce those actions during a press conference, Sanders punted: “Am I aware enough of all the details of what is going on in Nicaragua to say [to Ortega] ‘you have reacted too strongly?’ I don’t know.”

His campaign noted in an email that Sanders, as mayor, had denounced the Sandinistas at certain points. However, even those denunciations were pretty weak. For instance, Sanders told the Burlington Free Press in 1985, “I have no reason to doubt that, like every other government in the world, the Sandinistas make their share of mistakes, and I don’t intend to ignore that.”

When asked about the Sandinistas’ shuttering of newspapers a week later, Sanders also told the Burlington Free Press, “It is very distasteful to me to hear of censorship in any form. My hope is that in Nicaragua in the near future, there will be total freedom of expression for all individuals. That does not exist today.”

However, he went on to say that “he had no reason to believe that any government on earth is perfect,” according to the Burlington Free Press.

It seems that even when criticizing leftist regimes, Sanders just can’t help pointing out their positive qualities or excusing their abuses with a shrug and a “nobody’s perfect.”

And that fact could hurt his chances of becoming president.

“Leading with his chin”

For Van Jackson, speaking in a personal capacity but who is advising Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign and before counseled the campaigns of Julián Castro and Kamala Harris, the focus on Sanders’s 60 Minutes comments isn’t that important. “Everyone’s reaction seems exaggerated,” he told me. “All of it misses the point that Cuba’s just not important except maybe as an indicator of your foreign policy style.

“He’s definitely going to establish rhetorical markers that are different from past presidents, but I don’t think you’re going to see big policy swings or deviations,” Jackson continued.

That may be true, and Sanders’s answers on foreign policy during the campaign have been more mainstream than people realize. As the senator told the New York Times this month, he’d consider military force for a humanitarian intervention, or even to preempt a missile test by Iran or North Korea. He did, however, vow not to engage in any way in regime change efforts abroad.

He’s also mainly framed his left-wing regime support, including at the time the Sandinista backing, as part of his stance against America’s military adventurism. He’s also consistently touted his antiwar record.

The real problem now with Sanders’s left-wing sympathetic past, and his occasional reminders of it, is that it’s horrible politics. President Donald Trump is already stoking fears that Sanders would usher in a socialist revolution that would doom America. Any nod to those previous stances will only make it harder for him to defeat Trump should Sanders be the nominee. After all, Democrats in Florida are already angry at Sanders’s Cuba comments.

“From the standpoint of the Democratic frontrunner, he’s basically leading with his chin,” says Notre Dame’s Desch. “There’s a lot of you can say as the underdog” — which Sanders has been for much of his political career — “but you can’t say it as the top dog.”

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