Politics, Top Stories

The Falsity of the Sanders Venezuela Meme

Bernie Sanders, the senior Senator for Vermont and presidential primary candidate for the Democratic Party in 2016, exists in the popular and intellectual right-wing imagination as an American avatar of Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialist regime. Multiple conservative and libertarian writers at various publications and websites have promoted a relationship – be it one of policy inspiration or ideological brotherhood – between Senator Sanders and the late Hugo Chavez.

Mainstream print media has followed and a representative Forbes Magazine online op-ed in 2016 ran under the headline “Venezuelan People Feel The ‘Bern’ as Real Socialism Destroys Their Country.” Its author, Doug Bandow, ended his column by flatly stating: “Bernie Sanders, call your office. America can’t afford to import a system that continues to fail around the world.” In December 2017, the libertarian comedian Owen Benjamin tweeted this:

Bernie Sanders identifies as a democratic socialist and has a longstanding commitment to the policies and movements of the anti-imperialist Left. It is therefore unsurprising that his views on Venezuela would attract interest and concern during the 2016 Presidential Election cycle and beyond. However, a comprehensive search of Sanders’s congressional records, speeches, newspaper articles, books, and the weight of opposition research against him, offers a rather different picture to that painted by his political opponents. The condemnation of his apparent praise of the Venezuelan regime, it turns out, is based on unfounded claims, unexamined sources, conclusion-jumping, intellectual laziness, and some pretty shoddy journalism.

During the presidential primaries, Sanders insisted that “When I talk about democratic socialism, I’m not looking at Venezuela. I’m not looking at Cuba. I’m looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.” This declaration was met with scepticism by critics such as libertarian economist William L. Anderson, an associate scholar of The Mises Institute. In September 2015 Anderson wrote an article which concluded that, “While many people believe that instituting the Sanders economic agenda would help turn the USA into another Sweden or Denmark, the more likely outcome would be turning this country into another Venezuela.” The renowned economist Thomas Sowell, meanwhile, has linked Sanders with Venezuela as part of a more general critique of socialism and its resurgent popularity among young voters.

Whether one agrees with it or not, criticism that postulates an alarming gap between the aspirations of Sanders’s policies and their likely outcomes is surely fair enough. But the accusation that Sanders is actually ideologically committed to the Bolivarian socialist model is considerably more dubious. It is true that Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, did publicly call Sanders “our revolutionary friend” and praised his candidacy – an endorsement neither sought nor welcomed by Sanders or his campaign. In September 2015, Sanders explicitly disavowed any ideological sympathy with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, whom he described as a “dead communist dictator” in an email to campaign supporters. Sanders’s disavowal was scorned by Venezuelan state media and dismayed Chavez’s remaining defenders in the West.

The widespread belief that Sanders earnestly hopes to import Venezuela’s economic system into the United States invariably rests on the following quotation, usually attributed Sanders himself:

These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who’s the banana republic now?

On the basis of this apparently damning evidence, an August 2017 editorial in National Review described the Democratic Party candidate as:

[B]atty old Bernie Sanders, who celebrated Venezuela, along with Ecuador and Argentina, as a beacon of life where “the American dream is more apt to be realized.” Some dream.

And the same month, a writer for The Weekly Standard’s ‘Scrapbook’ came to this sarcastic conclusion:

And so it’s worth remembering that Venezuelan socialism has long had its champions in the United States, most notably Bernie Sanders, who in 2011 said, “These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina.” The Vermont senator concluded with this taunt: “Who’s the banana republic now?” Good question, Bernie.

Jonah Goldberg said much the same in a December 2017 article for National Review Online (later syndicated in the Baltimore Sun and the LA Times), as did writers at Forbes Magazine and The Federalist. Websites like The Ben Shapiro Show, NOQ Report, and The Daily Wire all referred to, quoted, or paraphrased the same words as evidence of Sanders’s unambiguous devotion to Bolivarian economics. This sample doesn’t begin to cover the innumerable blogs, tweets, and social media posts which all repeat a variation on the same theme, but it is enough to illustrate the point.

The words attributed to Sanders are traceable to a single online source: an article posted on his official website on 5 August, 2011 in the ‘Newsroom’ section and categorised as a ‘Must Read.’ It is entitled “Close the Gaps: Disparities That Threaten America,” and, as the link below the headline indicates, it originally appeared in the 4 August edition of Valley News, a New England regional newspaper. The link to the Valley News website now goes to a downed ‘404’ page, but an archived version shows the article as it appeared on the site. No by-line exists and the author of the article is unclear.

So did Sanders write it? This mystery was resolved with a single email to the Valley News Editorial Board. An editor named Ernie Kohlsaat replied:

The Aug. 4, 2011, piece you are referring to, headlined “Close the Gaps: Disparities That Threaten America,” was an editorial, not a news article. It was written by a member of the Valley News Editorial Board and as such reflects the opinion of the newspaper. The version on Sen. Sanders’ website appears to be an accurate rendition of the editorial as published on Page A8 of the Valley News on that date.

Sanders’s critics would doubtless reply that cross-posting the article without clarification or caveat amounts to an endorsement. But an endorsement of what? The article is not about Venezuela or Bolivarianism (or Equador or Argentina, for that matter) but American inequalities, poverty, and lack of opportunities. The “Gaps that Threaten America” are domestic inequality, ‘the wealth gap,’ ‘the jobs gap,’ and racial disparities in property ownership. The only mention of Venezuela in the 600 word editorial comes in the endlessly circulated final two lines. It ought to be obvious to fair-minded people that, in the context of the article, this final rhetorical flourish was intended to shame America for failing to live up to its promise.

As would-be shaming attempts go, this one is obviously absurd. By 2011, the idea that Venezuela was any kind of land of opportunity was already a significant departure from reality. In 1931, James Truslow Adams offered this widely accepted definition of the American Dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” A cursory examination of Venezuela’s domestic affairs in 2011 would have shown that this was not a remotely accurate description of the situation there.

The American Dream involves entrepreneurism and accumulation of private wealth for social mobility; Bolivarian socialism used expropriation, wealth-confiscation and state seizure of private property in pursuit of a socialist state modeled on Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Wealth in the American Dream derives from private sector growth, trade, and innovation; wealth under Bolivarian socialism flowed from abnormally inflated oil prices, government debt, corruption and the creation of a socialist billionaire class, or Boliburguesía, from stolen public funds. And the American Dream is almost synonymous with the arrival of immigrants to American shores in hope of achieving it; by 2011, Bolivarian socialism had caused an exodus of over one million Venezuelans (including over half the country’s Jewish population), with more than three million Venezuelans now living as exiles and refugees today.

Their stupidity notwithstanding, however, these two lines do not by themselves invite an inference that Sanders endorses the Venezuelan economic model. Nor do they allow us to conclude that they were the only or the main reason he reposted the article. About the editorial’s substance, Sanders has had plenty to say. The article’s narrative of American collapse, rising poverty, and gathering disillusion are themes to which Sanders has returned repeatedly, both in his writings and on the stump. It is reasonable to assume that, if he does in fact harbour a romantic longing for the catastrophe of the Bolivarian model and its fruits, this would be similarly reflected in his other public statements and political activity.

However, a search of the public record reveals next to nothing. Searches of the ‘Must Read’ section of Sanders’ website yield only six results for the word “Venezuela.” Two of these are news articles about a 2007 trade deal between the US and Peru which Sanders opposed. One is a Bloomberg article about the US Bond market. Two are identical op-eds by Sanders discussing the importance of environmental policies and energy independence which mention Venezuela alongside other oil-producing nations such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. None involve Sanders praising or supporting the emulation of Venezuela’s economic policies, or saying anything about Venezuelan politics at all.

Sanders’s extensive political career includes three terms as Mayor of Burlington, VT (1981-1989), followed by his election to the US House of Representatives (1991-2006), and finally the Senate (2007-Present) as an Independent usually caucusing with the Democrats. The Congressional Record preserves any statements made by Sanders during Congressional sessions, taken verbatim from the House or Senate floor. Sanders’s official Senate website contains archives of press releases, official announcements, and articles written by or on behalf of Sanders, as well as news articles promoted by his office in the ‘Newsroom’ section. Finally, the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign and Sanders’ rise to national prominence resulted in substantial opposition research and criticism from Republican and other conservative opponents, as well as Democrats and liberals supportive of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. The legwork and heavy-lifting of this opposition research sought to furnish the electorate with Sanders’s most politically damaging moments, and to provide compelling arguments for his unsuitability for the Presidency.

The Congressional Record yields no results which quote Sanders praising or even discussing Venezuela in any context besides incidental references. Searches of the use of the word ‘Venezuela’ during proceedings and debates where Sanders was present yield none in which Sanders names the country, its economic system, or its government. The majority of instances of Sanders’s name coinciding with mentions of Venezuela are in House and Senate debates on free trade deals, US energy dependence, and funding bills for federal domestic programs; the word ‘Venezuela’ is always spoken by another member. The closest link found between Sanders and Venezuela in the Congressional Record relates to heating-oil programs. Sanders sponsored an unsuccessful Congressional bill, S.3186 (110th), to fund the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), in which ‘Venezuela’ was mentioned by another member in reference to US energy dependence and the need to expand domestic drilling.

The state-level affairs of Vermont do provide one tenuous association between Sanders and Venezuela in the historical record. In 2005 and 2006, several northern US states including Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts, were negotiating trade deals with the Venezuelan state oil company, CITGO. The deal involved the discounted purchase of Venezuelan heating oil for use in winter public assistance programs. Sanders was involved in negotiating the State of Vermont’s purchase of oil from CITGO. Whilst the program attracted controversy at the time and retrospectively, the particulars had no connection to Bolivarian socialist politics or ideology. The only thing being imported into the US was heating oil, not ideas.

As Michael Moynihan has pointed out in an article for the Daily Beast, dictatorships and autocracies feed on endorsement from elected politicians and celebrities in the democratic West. There is never a shortage of what Paul Hollander called ‘Political Pilgrims‘ eager to receive a despot’s VIP treatment. There exists a bewildering desire among some of the West’s most eminent and moralistic academics, campaigners, and columnists to be flown to a captive state as honoured guests, whisked from the arrivals lounge in a Mercedes to plush hotel rooms, before embarking upon carefully-choreographed national tours under the guard of regime escorts and minders. The information such people provide about Venezuela is intended to distort the understandings of their audiences and supporters at home. But Sanders was not among them. He never visited Venezuela under Chavez on the kind of legitimating-pilgrimage indulged in by British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, nor did he appear on Venezuelan state media TeleSUR to praise the “spirit and presence” of Hugo Chavez as Oliver Stone has done. Sanders has had less contact with Venezuela than former US President Jimmy Carter, whose election monitoring organisation was crucial to the regime projecting legitimacy overseas.

There is no record of Sanders sponsoring or co-sponsoring any symbolic motion which praises the “achievements” or policies of Hugo Chavez, or (quite notably for Sanders) any resolutions condemning US foreign policy towards Venezuela. In fact, the opposite can be inferred from an August 12th 2004 open letter in support of Chavez which bore the signatures of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn, and U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich. The name of Bernie Sanders, then a U.S. Representative known for his lifelong left-wing anti-establishment politics, is made conspicuous by its absence.

Even at this relative high-point of Chavez’s popularity, Kucinich was the only U.S. Representative to publicly praise Chavez’s regime and condemn U.S. policy towards Venezuela specifically. All public declarations of support or solidarity with Venezuela or its rulers made by Kucinich were left without concurrent support from Sanders. In more recent months, Sanders has made his position on Venezuela clearer. On February 27th 2018, he co-sponsored a joint resolution of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations which officially “condemns” the “sham election” soon to be held by Venezuela’s government. This was six days before Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard sent the following tweet:

It was really not very difficult to check whether Sanders had actually written the words now routinely attributed to him. Nevertheless, this idle misattribution and the tropes it supposedly supports have been energetically circulated by some of the most respected and well-established authors and editors in the world of conservative letters. From their syndicated columns in national newspapers they have propagated and legitimised a falsehood about a national political figure. In the brutal cut-and-thrust of American politics, this may not seem like much. But in the post-truth era ushered in by the Trump administration, conservatism requires a principled and scrupulous intellectual class to anchor the movement’s goals to intellectual honesty and evidenced argument. As T. A. Frank argued in a brilliant essay for the Washington Post entitled “Why Conservative Magazines are More Important than Ever”:

With so many Americans today engaged in partisan war, any publication with a commitment to honesty in argument becomes a potential peacemaker. It also becomes an indispensable forum for working out which ideas merit a fight in the first place. This is what, in their best moments, the conservative magazines are now doing.

The most irritating irony of all this is that Sanders’s near-total silence on the subject of Venezuela presents ethical issues of its own, about which conservatives would find plenty to criticise if they’d only notice. Absent his belated co-sponsorship of the February resolution, Sanders has effectively ignored an important topic of US foreign relations, and now a major humanitarian crisis. He has not used his unique position as both a nationally popular politician with high public approval ratings, and a beloved figure on the American Left, to warn progressives away from the destructive delusions of the disastrous Bolivarian experiment. It is possible that the subject is simply not of interest to him, or that he considers it outside the realm of his central concern with income inequality in the United States.

Either way, what makes Sanders unusual among American radicals – from Noam Chomsky and The Nation magazine to almost every left-wing intellectual and journal of thought – is that he has never uttered a kind word for the cargo cult of Hugo Chavez. The more strange then, that he has been accused, convicted, and tarred-and-feathered on precisely that charge.

 

Jack Staples-Butler is a writer who studied History at the University of York and the University of Illinois at-Urbana-Champaign, and Law at BPP University. His non-fiction writing focuses on the politics of illiberalism, atrocity-denial and the role of intellectuals in society. He blogs at historyjack.com and you can follow him on Twitter @jstaplesbutler

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Jack Staples-Butler is a writer who studied History at the University of York and the University of Illinois at-Urbana-Champaign, and Law at BPP University. His non-fiction writing focuses on the politics of illiberalism, atrocity-denial and the role of intellectuals in society.