Bernie Sanders’ recent comments about Cuba have been the target of numerous attacks from both his Democratic rivals in the 2020 presidential race and conservative candidates. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Sanders said, “We are very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba. But, you know, it’s unfair to simply say, ‘Everything is bad.’ When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?”
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cubans who escaped Cuban totalitarianism, quickly attacked Sanders. Rubio noted, “The central promise every Marxist makes is that if we give up some of our individual freedom, the state will provide us more “security” like free health care and education.” He then concluded, “But ultimately Marxism fails to deliver “security” and you don’t have the freedom to do anything about it.”
Even moderate leftists within the Democrat Party such as Donna Shalala have criticized Sanders for his comments. The Florida Congresswoman tweeted, “I’m hoping that in the future, Senator Sanders will take time to speak to some of my constituents before he decides to sing the praises of a murderous tyrant like Fidel Castro.”
The Trump campaign will be looking to score points against Sanders on the campaign trail should he receive the Democratic Party nomination. His comments — both current and past — will offer easy attack material for the campaign to exploit.
Back in the 1980s, while he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders praised Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega. During a visit to Nicaragua in 1985, Sanders met up with Ortega, whom he described as “a very impressive guy.” During this period, Nicaragua was mired in a civil war and Ortega presided over numerous human rights abuses. The country was one of few during the period of 1960 until the end of the 20th century that actually witnessed negative economic growth on a per capita GDP basis. In 1989, Bernie Sanders visited Cuba — the Western Hemisphere’s most lurid illustration of communism at the time — and had positive words about the country’s “free health care, free education, free housing.”
Sanders has avoided referencing his previous praise for economically radical communist regimes so far in his campaign. Instead, he has paid tribute to social democracies like Denmark and Sweden. “When I talk about democratic socialism, I’m not looking at Venezuela. I’m not looking at Cuba,” he famously stated. “I’m looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.”
There are several things to unpack here. Indeed, there are substantial differences between Venezuela and Scandinavian welfare states. The former is an authoritarian socialist state that has reached the nadir of its multi-decade decline. Property rights are non-existent, while government-induced shortages and hyperinflation are the order of the day. On the other hand, the latter countries are redistributionist states with strong institutions that protect property rights. More importantly, the prosperity we see in Scandinavian countries is the result of multiple decades of capitalism that allowed the countries to accumulate enough wealth to establish a welfare state.
Nevertheless, Scandinavian welfare states have encountered issues due to mass immigration, rampant political correctness promoted by government authorities, and fiscal imbalances that were the result of profligate spending policies during the 1970s. Not all have been paradise in Scandinavia. However, to be intellectually honest, we must recognize historical nuances and contrasts between countries.
Back to Sanders, his comments illustrate a tone-deafness on his part. The regimes that he has praised or normalized in rhetoric are some of the most repressive in recent memory. We can give Sanders the benefit of the doubt when it comes to some of his changing views, however, his previous praise of authoritarian leftist governments should be condemned. The modern-day Left has shifted its focus to identity politics, globalism, and political correctness, which Sanders has embraced in recent years. What ties these ideological strains of leftism together is their disregard for decentralized governance, civil liberties, individual expression, and civil society.
From now until Election Day (should Sanders receive the Democratic nomination), the Vermont Senator should continue to be held to account for his entire body of political views.
Voters deserve to know what Sanders truly stands for and if he is willing to admit he was wrong.