As the possibility grows of Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic nomination for President, his opponents are looking for vulnerabilities that can be exploited. This shouldn’t be difficult, as Sanders has been politically active for some six decades. Surely he has written or said something embarrassing during that period.
But after trawling through the various archives, they have found very little to work with. Until now.
Last week, the attention of the mainstream media focussed on things that Sanders had said about Cuba in the past.
It seems that many years ago, Sanders made reference to two achievements of the Castro regime: raising literacy levels in the country and creating one of the best health care systems in Latin America. When pressed on these comments by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Sanders doubled down and said, “We’re 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?”
When asked about the dissidents Cuba’s Communist government has sent to jail, Sanders replied that “we condemn that.”
Later, he said that his view differed little from that expressed by former President Barack Obama, whose efforts to end the blockade and engage with Cuba have been reversed by Donald Trump. In March 2016, Obama said that “The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care.”
But this did not stop Sanders’ critics, and not only Republicans, from attacking him for being an apologist for Castro. One British writer blasted him in a Facebook post, saying that Sanders “has a record of being a bit soft (and a bit daft) on anti-western dictators”, comparing him to Jeremy Corbyn.
This view is, I think, unfair to Sanders.
The first thing to say in Sanders’ defence is that what he says is not wrong. Or as he put it, “facts are facts”. Literacy rates in Cuba did rise dramatically following the 1959 revolution. And Cuba does have the best health care system in the region.
But it’s not that simple. While people in Cuba can now read, they have been very limited in what they can read. The regime has never tolerated dissent, and strictly limited what kinds of books can be published or sold in the country, as well as print and online media. It is true that there are some exceptions, such as Leonardo Padura’s 2009 book, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which is sympathetic to Trotsky. But for many years, such dissident writing was banned.
The problem with what Sanders says about Cuba is that it’s complicated. Yes, the regime has done a few good things. But overall, it is a repressive society, noted for a lack of human rights and ugly forms of prejudice, including state-supported homophobia.
This means that when discussing Cuba, one is required to display an awareness of the complexities.
Sanders has shown that he can do this, as his views on Israel and Palestine have shown. He does not see the world in black and white. In fact, his understanding of the tragic nature of the conflict in that region, his empathy for the people on both sides, has helped turn him into the most popular politician among both American Muslims and Jews.
He has also shown that he knows to speak clearly about dictators in a way that the current American President has been unable to do. For example, he says of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “He is an autocratic thug who is attempting to destroy democracy and crush dissent in Russia.”
He needs to show the same clarity when talking about Castro and Cuba as well.
This article appears in the latest issue of Solidarity.