When I attended a rally with my family in Little Havana for then-Senator Barack Obama in 2007, our old neighborhood greeted both us and the future 44th president as if we were traitors. Older, conservative protestors yelled “Comunistas!” at us from across the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. We brushed off the attacks because we knew they came from understandably traumatized exiles and, to paraphrase the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, as Cuban Americans, we know socialism when we see it. Obama was no socialist. In fact, his message resonated with us, in part, because of his emphasis on helping those who were struggling by giving them a hand up, rather than a hand out—that was our story.
My mom came to this country shortly before I was born and worked as a social worker while she studied English. The pay wasn’t great, and she sometimes had to work a second job, but the hours were flexible and she had good healthcare benefits for our family. After 15 years, she was able to save enough money to start a small business and move us out of our modest duplex off Calle Ocho and into Miami’s middle-class suburbs.
Given our humble immigrant roots, student loan debt, and monthly medical expenses, you’d figure that democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would appeal to us—but they do not. Instead, they’re eerily reminiscent of the left-wing populists that millions in my community fled. Don’t get me wrong. I agree we must do more to help families like mine, but the policies of democratic socialists would have shackled us to the duplex where I was raised. I know this to be true because that is exactly what happened to the loved ones my grandparents left behind in socialist Cuba. They died in the same place where they were born.
In a classic bait-and-switch scam, democratic socialist politicians and their allies in the media are hoping that Americans confuse them for Nordic social democrats. While the terms are phonetically similar, those of us who have worked and spent time in Latin America understand that this is more than a misnomer. The ideology and policies of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which include an end to profits and “democratizing” the means of production, are much more like those of Havana and Caracas than Helsinki and Copenhagen.
Having been raised in a community built by the victims of socialism, it is difficult to explain just how bizarre it is to hear American media personalities—from The View’s Joy Behar to the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig—assure us it’s “just like liberalism” and “unlike your grandfather’s concept of socialism.” Of course, they fail to mention the part about government seizing control of people’s businesses and property. Such blitheful ignorance would usually be met with laughter at my house, but it just so happens that my grandfather had such an intimate understanding of socialism that he died as a political prisoner for opposing some of the very same ideas being peddled by the socialists du jour.
The failure of pundits to discern between democratic socialism and Nordic social democracy is not for a lack of transparency on the part of DSA. While their political candidates tend to resort to platitudes, DSA isn’t hiding the ball. In an article published in Jacobin, the socialist magazine’s editor and DSA’s Vice-Chair laid out a case for why Scandinavian social democracy is not what they have in mind, arguing a need for “a militant labor movement…to not merely tame but overcome capitalism.” Further dispelling the “it’s just free healthcare” myth, prominent democratic socialist Megan Day was even more explicit: “here’s the truth: democratic socialists want to end capitalism. And we want to do that by pursuing a reform agenda today in an effort to revive a politics focused on class hierarchy and inequality in the United States.”
If this sounds extreme, it’s not because it upsets our American “right-of-center” political sensibilities. When I presented a team of Norwegian economists with a summary written by Vox of DSA’s economic ideas, eleven out of the 12 indicated the views would fall on the “far-left/fringe” end of Norway’s political spectrum. Meanwhile, in neighboring Denmark, DSA’s commitment to ending the free enterprise system is a near mirror image of the platform of the Enhedslisten, the one-time communist Red-Green Alliance party that has averaged less than 4 percent of the vote in elections since 1990.
Americans are likelier to find quotidian examples of democratic socialism directly to our south. In Venezuela, the late Hugo Chavez both identified as a democratic socialist and governed like one. Unlike in Scandinavia, where state-owned enterprises are largely independent, profit-pursuing ventures and property rights are sacrosanct, Chavez confiscated private assets, and not only nationalized major industries, he ran them, too. For example, when the workers of oil giant PDVSA refused to embrace his policies, he fired and replaced them with unqualified cronies (including a cousin) in a move that accelerated the oil-dependent nation’s demise.
Venezuela and Cuba are perfectly valid illustrations of democratic socialist policies, but if this sounds like trite red-baiting, consider the outcomes elsewhere in the region. In Argentina, presidents Nestor and Cristina Kirchner nationalized major companies and placed them under the control of incompetent allies, which taxpayers continue bailing-out to the tune of $400,000 per day. True to the democratic socialist playbook, they also implemented labyrinthine business regulations and grew public payrolls by 61 percent. Kirchnerismo’s results ranged from lackluster to so dismal that government officials felt they had to manipulate economic data to conceal their performance.
The problem is not, as some say, that “democratic socialism” has not been tried and that only they know how to get it right; it’s that, by design, it makes economies fail and societies susceptible to totalitarianism. Just like 1959 Castro and 1998 Chavez, U.S. socialists stress their commitment to democracy, but human nature is a stubborn thing. Why should Americans trust that America’s socialists would be any more willing to relinquish power than their ideological brethren in Latin America and across the world? Indeed, it is odd that those who argue President Trump has authoritarian tendencies, are often the same people who want to give the federal government even more power over our economy.
To be clear, Latin America’s misfortunes are no excuse for inaction on healthcare and education at home, but they should help make us more scrupulous consumers of politics. Just as my family and most Americans were wise to dismiss the socialist slurs against President Obama, Democrats should be wary of those who assure us that “democratic socialism” will make us more like Europe. As millions of Latinos will tell you, it won’t.
Feature photo by Mark Hallum/Shutterstock.
Giancarlo Sopo is a Miami-based public affairs consultant specializing in Latin America.