The World

It’s Good to Grill Bernie Sanders on Castro

Bernie Sanders onstage.
Bernie Sanders speaks at a CNN town hall in South Carolina this week. CNN

For more than 35 years, Bernie Sanders has insisted that, atrocities aside, authoritarian regimes like Fidel Castro’s deserve credit where credit is supposedly due. This view was epitomized in a 1985 interview where Sanders praised Cuba’s health care and education systems, and it has faced renewed scrutiny in the last few days.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper on Sunday, Sanders said, “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? 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?” The question came up again, all too briefly, in Tuesday’s debate, where Sanders again couldn’t help but mention Castro’s “progress in education.”

Some Sanders supporters accused Cooper and the debate moderators of red-baiting. But this is disingenuous. The question cannot be dismissed as a provocation because it originates from a pattern in the Democratic front-runner’s career.

In 2016, during a Univision forum in Miami, Sanders refused to disavow his 1985 comments and once again praised health care in Cuba. Weeks later, in an interview I had with him in Los Angeles, he declined to address the failure of Venezuela’s socialist model. Almost four years later, in November 2019, he defended the power-grabbing Bolivian President Evo Morales during a testy exchange with Jorge Ramos. He did so again in a conversation with Chuck Todd earlier this month, in which he also mistook Bolivia for Ecuador. Sanders’ reaction to Anderson Cooper’s question wasn’t an exception. Quite the contrary.

Sanders’ views on Latin America’s authoritarian regimes are, in my view, misguided. Whatever social progress Castro made in the early days of the Cuban revolution came at the expense of a fearful population that would have to endure half a century of repression, persecution, and sheer terror. There is no bright side to a dictatorship. But Sanders’ defense of Castro’s accomplishments could also be bad politics, having already drawn a reaction from Florida’s Cuban American community. If Sanders is not willing to unequivocally condemn brutal, authoritarian regimes like Fidel Castro’s, he and his supporters should at least be grateful the topic is coming up now, rather than later.

Hillary Clinton rarely brought up Sanders’ appreciation of Latin American strongmen in 2016. His opponents for the Democratic nomination in 2020 had, until this week, also steered clear of any serious inquiry, maybe fearing the wrath of Sanders’ loyalists or perhaps not seeing its relevance. But Donald Trump will have no such qualms. And if history is any indication, a negative general election campaign built around Sanders’ controversial positions smiling upon authoritarian socialists could be disastrous for the candidate and the party he would lead in November.

Just think of 2004 and John Kerry. Trump’s attacks could make swift boating, perhaps the most successful negative campaign in modern American politics, look like pillow fighting.

That story bears recounting.

Kerry, an experienced senator with a stellar public record, had led the polls against George W. Bush, a fairly unpopular president, for most of the spring of 2004. Then, in May, a controversial and shady group called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”—led by John O’Neill, a longtime Kerry antagonist, and funded with money associated with the Texas political machinery that supported Bush—aired a series of ads aimed at casting doubts over Kerry’s military record in Vietnam, which had earned him three purple hearts, as well as a silver and a bronze star as a swift boat commander. The ads, which ran extensively in the crucial months leading up to the Republican convention in late August, argued that Kerry had acted dishonorably, deliberately misrepresenting his behavior during the war. The group also questioned Kerry’s conduct after Vietnam, when he became one of the leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, delivering scathing and eloquent testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

John McCain, America’s most prominent military hero of the Vietnam War and a Republican, adamantly defended Kerry. McCain also warned of the consequences of a concerted negative campaign. “It was the same kind of deal that was pulled on me,” McCain said, thinking of his own bout with character assassination during the 2000 Republican primary against Bush. Kerry himself declined to address the accusations. It would prove to be a severe mistake. The ads quickly took a toll on Kerry’s standing in the polls. By the beginning of September, Bush had opened up a six-point gap. Kerry never recovered. He has since said he regrets not fighting back against the slander.

The ruthless smearing of Kerry should serve as a warning for the Sanders campaign, whose supporters often point to his current success within the Democratic field and the slight lead he maintains over Donald Trump in national polls as a sign of the Democratic front-runner’s electability. The real presidential campaign has not yet begun, and prior to this week’s grilling, Sanders’ positions have not faced the detailed examination they deserve. If John Kerry’s presidential aspirations were quashed by a relentless character assassination campaign based on misrepresentations of the historical record, what will Donald Trump do with Sanders’ 30-plus years’ worth of actual statements?

Bernie Sanders’ supporters should make no mistake. The president—who has become quite the Bernie bro—will use every single statement Sanders has made to take negative campaigning to a new low. Better to talk about Sanders’ soft spot for Castro, Morales, Nicolás Maduro, and even the Soviet Union now than for voters to hear about it for the first time in early September, when Florida’s airwaves will be filled with grainy videos of Sanders heaping undue praise on Latin America’s strongmen.