The World

Sanders Has a Soft Spot for Latin American Strongmen

And it could hurt him in the election.

A collage of Bernie Sanders surrounded by Daniel Ortega, Nicolás Maduro, and Fidel Castro.
From left: Daniel Ortega, Bernie Sanders, Nicolás Maduro, and Fidel Castro.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images, Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images, and Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photography/Getty Images.

On Tuesday, as part of the rollout of his second run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders spoke with Univision’s Jorge Ramos. After asking Sanders about his domestic platform, Ramos used the last couple of minutes to inquire about Venezuela. “Do you consider Juan Guaidó the legitimate president of Venezuela?” he asked. It’s a relevant question, not only because Venezuela’s catastrophe seems to worsen every day and will likely become a complex diplomatic challenge in the months ahead for the United States and the rest of the Americas, but also because the U.S. president whom Sanders hopes to unseat would be more than happy to make next year’s election a referendum on socialism.

Just this past Monday, a few hours before Sanders announced his decision to join an already crowded Democratic field, Donald Trump took the stage in Miami to deliver an impassioned condemnation of the Nicolás Maduro regime that quickly became a denunciation of socialism in general and a politically convenient warning for the United States. “Socialism has so completely ravaged this great country [Venezuela] that even the world’s largest reserves of oil are no longer enough to keep the lights on. This will never happen to us,” Trump said, continuing a theme he had broached during his State of the Union address.

In his reply to Ramos’ question, Sanders declined to endorse Guaidó and then continued guardedly: “I think there are serious questions about the recent election,” he said, referring to last year’s tragic sham process in which Maduro stole a second term. “I think the United States has to work with the international community to make sure that there is a free and fair election in Venezuela.” Still, Ramos dug further. “Is Nicolás Maduro a dictator?” he asked. “Should he go?” Sanders declined to portray Maduro as an authoritarian leader (despite ample evidence to the contrary) and instead settled on describing the Venezuelan strongman’s actions as “very abusive.”

This isn’t the first time Sanders has chosen to tiptoe around Latin America’s despotic leftist regimes. In the ’80s, Sanders traveled to Nicaragua. Upon his return, he repeatedly defended the Sandinistas and their leader, Daniel Ortega. (Michael Moynihan offers an excellent overview of Sanders and Nicaragua here.) Sanders’ enthusiasm for both Ortega and the Castro regime in Cuba came back to haunt him during the 2016 presidential campaign. Three years ago, during a primary debate against Hillary Clinton hosted by Univision and the Washington Post in Miami, Sanders was shown a video shot in 1985 while he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in which he spoke about Nicaragua and enthusiastically described how Fidel Castro had “totally transformed” Cuban society, providing education and health care. After Univision anchor María Elena Salinas followed up, Sanders acknowledged Cuba as an “authoritarian, undemocratic country” but then proceeded to praise the Castro regime, again, for its “advances in health care” (a dubious claim at best).

A few days after the debate, Sanders appeared on CNN. When Anderson Cooper brought up the exchange in Miami, asking Sanders if Castro’s revolution had indeed benefited the Cuban people, Sanders tried to dismiss the question, pivoting toward the (admittedly immoral and tragic) history of American intervention in the region. When Cooper tried to get a straight answer, Sanders promptly accused him of “redbaiting” and repeated his condemnation-praise routine of the Castro government.

I personally witnessed Sanders’ discomfort and impatience when asked about the failure of the socialist experiment in Latin America when I interviewed him in Los Angeles toward the end of the 2016 primary season. I asked Sanders to explain whether the socialist model has brought Venezuela to the brink of collapse. Exasperated, Sanders dismissed my line of questioning and declined to offer an opinion. “I am running for president of the United States,” he told me, as if the position somehow impeded him from offering a clear evaluation of the Venezuelan crisis.

It is entirely possible, of course, that the Democratic electorate will not care about Sanders’ history of ambivalence toward Latin America’s repressive socialist regimes. Capitalism has become increasingly unpopular among young Democratic voters, a majority of whom now express a positive opinion of socialism. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, arguably the country’s most dynamic political figure and a democratic socialist, worked on Sanders’ 2016 campaign and sees the Vermont senator as an inspiration and a mentor.

Still, Democrats shouldn’t dismiss Trump’s political instinct so quickly. The Democratic primary is not the general election. Millennials and more decisively progressive voters might see the appeal of Sanders-style socialism in a time of disparity and social injustice, but the label could become a liability among older, more conservative voters in November 2020.

If he wins the nomination, Sanders’ old (and not so old) videos praising failed socialist experiments and tiptoeing around recent cruelties in Latin America will surely resurface, playing on a loop while Trump warns about the long-dreaded socialist takeover of the United States of America. This may be fearmongering, but Democrats dismiss its effectiveness at their own peril.