The Slatest

Bernie Sanders Declines to Disavow Past Praise of Cuban Communism at Debate

At Wednesday’s Univision debate in Miami, moderators played a clip of Bernie Sanders (then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont) praising Fidel Castro’s communist Cuban government in 1985. “In 1961 they invaded Cuba,” Sanders says in the clip. “Everyone was totally convinced Castro was the worst guy in the world. They forgot that he educated their kids, gave them health care and totally transformed their society.”

The 1985 interview in question involved a discussion of U.S. support for anti-Sandinista guerillas in Nicaragua, and Wednesday in Miami Sanders argued his comments about Castro should be understood as criticism of reckless U.S.–backed regime change. What the ’85 interview “was about was saying that the United States was wrong to try to invade Cuba, that the United States was wrong trying to support people to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, that the United States was wrong trying to overthrow, in 1954, the democratically elected government of Guatemala,” the Vermont senator said. But he also passed up the chance to directly criticize Castro, reiterating his praise for Cuban health care and education and only noting after a follow-up question that the country is “authoritarian” and “undemocratic.”

SALINAS: Senator, in retrospect, have you ever regretted the characterizations that you made of Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro that way?

SANDERS: The key issue here was whether the United States should go around overthrowing small Latin American countries. I think that that was a mistake …

SALINAS: You didn’t answer the question.

SANDERS: … Both in Nicaragua and Cuba. Look, let’s look at the facts here. Cuba is, of course, an authoritarian undemocratic country, and I hope very much as soon as possible it becomes a democratic country. But on the other hand, it would be wrong not to state that in Cuba they have made some good advances in health care. They are sending doctors all over the world. They have made some progress in education. I think by restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba, it will result in significant improvements to the lives of Cubans and it will help the United States and our business community invest.

Hillary Clinton subsequently slammed Sanders’ answer, asserting that “in that same interview, he praised what he called the revolution of values in Cuba and talked about how people were working for the common good, not for themselves.” Continued Clinton: “I just couldn’t disagree more. You know, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere.”

Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.