As Bernie Sanders’ American presidential hopes fade amid Joe Biden’s march to victory in the Democratic primaries, so, too, does his dream of a people’s “revolution” in the United States. The R-word has popped up frequently at Sanders rallies. Indeed, Our Revolution is both the title of the book Sanders wrote in 2016, as well as the name of the political-action organization his campaign inspired. The revolution that Sanders speaks of is a democratic, populist process leading to (as his book’s subtitle had it) “a future to believe in.” But Sanders’ own personal history shows that he was, and remains, naively sympathetic to some of the most ruthless revolutionary movements of the 20th century.
Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that in the late 1980s, while mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders made friendly overtures to his counterpart in the Russian city of Yaroslavl. According to Soviet-era documents inspected by the Times, this outreach was leveraged by Soviet officials to further a propaganda campaign intended to “reveal American imperialism as the main source of the danger of war.” After returning from a trip to Yaroslavl, Sanders praised the Soviet healthcare system and subway infrastructure. This was 1988, just three years before the USSR collapsed, by which time even most Russians had stopped believing their own government’s propaganda.
It’s part of a larger pattern. “We are very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba,” said Sanders in a 60 Minutes interview last month. “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?”
Uproar predictably followed in the Cuban-American community. “I’m totally disgusted and insulted,” said the president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus in Broward County (comprising a large portion of the Miami metro area). “Maybe this will open people’s eyes to how super, super liberal and radical Bernie is. I’m not going to defend him anymore. I’m over it.”
The Western Left’s ill-informed romanticizing of Cuba’s communist dictatorship goes back generations, of course. Ever since Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s gleeful visit to Cuba in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution of the 1950s—during which they took boat trips with Castro and posed for pictures with Che Guevara—many far-leftists have depicted the island as a case study in enlightened education and health-care policy, while studiously ignoring or downplaying the regime’s bloody history and ruthless political methods. The Cuban government, which expropriated all significant forms of private property during the 1950s and 1960s, even banned Christmas for 30 years. And in more modern times, it’s been widely denounced by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (hardly conservative mouthpieces) for blatant violations of human rights, including forced labor camps and arbitrary detention. The NGO Archivo Cuba estimates that the Castro regime executed about 4,000 people between 1958 and 2016. To this day, the face of Che Guevara remains a favored staple on posters and T-shirts in the West. Yet along with Castro and other Marxists, all the Argentinian revolutionary did was effectively replace Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship with a bloodier one.
Did Castro, as Sanders claims, really create a massively successful literacy program? According to UNESCO figures, 76 percent of Cuba’s population over the age of 10 was literate when Castro ousted dictator Batista in 1958 (then one of the highest rates in Latin America). Following on his 1957 manifesto, Castro sought to improve literacy, and launched a program to that effect in 1961, which lasted about eight months. Hundreds of thousands of young volunteers travelled to the countryside, where they taught villagers how to read at a basic level. And the World Bank now estimates Cuba’s adult literacy at 99.8 percent. But as pointed out by Andy Gomez, professor emeritus of Cuban studies at the University of Miami, this literacy campaign was used as a vehicle for ideological indoctrination and the creation of a pro-Castro cult among Cuban youth. Similarly, Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago recounts how, despite her outstanding grades at a Cuban elementary school, she was removed from her class’s top rank for refusing to wear the mandated Communist Party red scarf. Her family members were called gusanos (worms) for seeking to emigrate, and her mother had to quit her teaching position for speaking out against Castro.
Sanders’ attitudes date at least as far back as the 1980s, when he traveled to Cuba on a trip organized by the New York-based pro-Castro Center for Cuban Studies. In the Burlington Free Press, Sanders reported that Cuba had made “enormous progress,” and had “solved important problems” such as hunger and homelessness. In an interview, he granted that Cuba wasn’t a “perfect society,” but praised its health system, while remarking that the revolution “is only 30 years old. It may get even better.”
As Michael Moynihan noted in a 2016 piece for the Daily Beast, Sanders also repeatedly praised the Soviet- and Cuban-backed Sandinistas of Nicaragua. About 2,000 citizens were executed in the Sandinistas’ first six months in power, and 3,000 people simply disappeared. By 1999, the Permanent Commission on Human Rights (often referred to as the CPDH) had documented about 14,000 cases of rape, torture, mutilations, executions, and kidnappings. The Sandinistas also mistreated the country’s Miskito indigenous population, forcibly relocating 8,500 of them, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“Is [the Sandinistas’] crime that they have built new health clinics, schools, and distributed land to the peasants? Is their crime that they have given equal rights to women? Or that they are moving forward to wipe out illiteracy?” said Sanders in 1985 while reflecting on his tour of Nicaragua. “No, their crime in [Ronald] Reagan’s eyes and the eyes of the corporations and billionaires that determined American foreign policy is that they have refused to be a puppet and banana republic to American corporate interests.” In another interview from the period, Sanders mentioned Nicaraguan bread lines as “a good thing,” because “in other countries people don’t line up for food: The rich get the food and the poor starve to death.” When pressed by a Vermont reporter on the issue of mistreatment of Indigenous people in Nicaragua, Sanders responded testily, “I really don’t think the people of Rutland are staying up nights worrying about this.”
Sanders’ appraisal of Latin America’s left-wing dictatorships didn’t change much over the next 30 years, and seems to have survived the fall of the Berlin Wall entirely unscathed. In 2016, during a primary Democrat debate in Miami hosted by Univision, Sanders was shown a 1985 video in which he had talked enthusiastically about Castro’s policies. While Sanders acknowledged that Cuba was an “authoritarian, undemocratic country,” he repeated his praise for the Castro regime’s “advances in health care.” A few days later, Anderson Cooper asked him if the Cuban revolution had indeed benefited the Cuban people. Sanders dismissed the question by talking about the history of American imperialism.
Sanders’ 60 Minutes comments on Cuba have been defended by some prominent progressives. “It’s funny how folks never talk about what Cuba was like before Castro, particularly if you were black,” opined New York Times’ 1619 Project contributor Nikole Hannah-Jones. When her comments attracted criticism, Hannah-Jones repeated the Sanders tactic of seeking to deflect the conversation by launching a broad indictment of the United States, Tweeting that “the people lecturing me in Cuba right now clearly do not know anything about what it is like to be poor and black in the richest nation in the world. You want to talk about extreme poverty? Surveillance? Incarceration? Human rights violations? Police abuse? Hunger? Let’s go.”
Both Sanders and Hannah-Jones are beset by what Venezuelan psychologist Cristal Palacios Yumar calls “peace privilege”—by which people living in peaceful, prosperous countries simply have “no real clue about what it means to survive” in a dictatorship. Hannah-Jones, in particular, seems ignorant of the institutional racism that has suffused communist Cuba—a country ruled by a mainly white gerontocracy. Afro-Cuban prisoner of conscience Óscar Elías Biscet reported in 1999 that Afro-Cubans “have very low political, economic and judicial representation” within the country. And Afro-Cuban human rights activist Jorge Luis García Pérez recounted how during a trial that would lead to a 17-year prison term in Cuba, “the color of my skin aggravated the situation. Later when I was mistreated in prison by guards, they always referred to me as being black.”
Unlike many other Democrats, Sanders has been ambivalent in regard to both the dictatorship that rules Venezuela and the humanitarian crisis that its policies have unleashed. Sanders’ particular infatuation with Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” dates to 2011, when he used his official Senate webpage to promote an editorial board’s claim that “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.” Sanders has since distanced himself from “that specific claim.” Yet, by 2011, Venezuela’s government already had resorted to imprisoning dissidents, undermining the Supreme Court and closing down opposition media.
Hugo Chávez has been dead since 2013. But Nicolás Maduro, his successor, has presided over a continuing national meltdown, with malaria, diphtheria, and yellow fever reappearing after being eradicated from the country. Almost half of Venezuelans reported not eating three times per day, and around five million people—almost 20 percent of the population—have simply left the country. Military courts have prosecuted civilians for crimes against the regime, while security forces have committed summary beatings, electrocutions, asphyxiations, and rapes of detainees. According to Human Rights Watch, Maduro’s forces have executed 18,000 people since 2016. Yet Sanders refuses to even call Maduro a dictator. Sanders has even hired, as a speechwriter, David Sirota, a known Chávez apologist who once described Chávez’s legacy as an “economic miracle.”
The political crisis in Venezuela intensified in 2019 when Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, was named the country’s interim president in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution’s provisions regarding a power vacuum. (Maduro’s de jure term ended in January 2019, following 2018 elections widely denounced as a fraud.) Guaidó was recognized as the legitimate president by most governments in Latin America and Europe, and by Washington. Most Democrat leaders followed suit, but Sanders shocked fellow party members by telling Mexican-American journalist Jorge Ramos he didn’t consider Guaidó to be the legitimate Venezuelan leader.
Sanders is hardly the only American politician to ingratiate himself to autocrats. President Donald Trump does this regularly. But Sanders’ position is exceptional in that it flies in the face of both mainstream Democrats and Republicans, including even fellow progressive leftist Elizabeth Warren. In December, the New York Times asked Sanders if it was “appropriate for the United States to provide non-military support for regime-change efforts” in Venezuela. “No,” Sanders replied.
Sanders is not completely alone, admittedly. When Guaidó was proclaimed interim president in 2019, far-left Democrat Ilhan Omar, a House member from Minnesota, called the situation “a U.S.-backed coup” on behalf of “a far-right opposition.” (In fact, Guaidó, along with most opposition leaders, hails from a social-democrat background. His party, Voluntad Popular, is even a member of the Socialist International.) Later, in May, Omar blamed the United States for supposedly contributing to “devastation in Venezuela.”
Similarly, Green Party perennial candidate Jill Stein has framed the Venezuelan conflict as a racial narrative, alleging that the Bolivarian Revolution had “empowered long-oppressed Black Venezuelans for the first time,” while the “right wing” opposition is known “for brutally lynching Black people in the street to ‘send a message’” (a completely unfounded claim). She also Tweeted two pictures of the Chavista Constituent Assembly and the oppositional National Assembly, which had been hue-adjusted to highlight a supposed distinction in racial composition (a Photoshop effect that is obvious when you compare the color of the same wall in the background of each picture).
Such talking points also have been amplified by celebrities such as Roger Waters, Boots Riley, and Pamela Anderson, as well as by the Anglo-American lobbyist movement Hands Off Venezuela; and the far-left activist group Code Pink, whose co-founder, Jodie Evans, endorsed Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016.
Hands Off Venezuela is particularly notorious among Venezuelans for trolling critics of Maduro (who’s supported by only about a fifth of the Venezuelan population, according to statistical firm Datanálisis). Its members’ signature tactic is to “explain” Venezuelan history and Venezuelan living conditions to Venezuelans. These activists also use the aforementioned epithet gusano (worm) against diaspora Venezuelans, just as Fidel Castro used it to vilify Cuban émigrés. The situation has become so common that the term “venezuelasplaining” has become recognizable slang word in Venezuelan online communities. In March 2019, when NGO Code Pink occupied the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C. in support of Maduro, actual Venezuelans in Washington established themselves outside to protest the occupation. This led to confrontations between the (American) activists occupying the embassy and (Venezuelan) protestors.
The American far Left’s narrative on Venezuela is essentially a Latin-inflected version of the noble-savage archetype, presenting Latin Americans as people incapable of committing evil without being prompted to do so by evil foreigners. And the paternalistic white saviors who populate Code Pink and Hands Off Venezuela see themselves as noble allies, or even noble revolutionaries. Sanders has used his political stature to encourage this propagandistic and ignorant way of thinking in certain leftist circles for years. While his presidential run seems to be over, the pernicious effect of his words will linger long after November’s ballots are counted.
Featured image: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Fidel Castro, in 1960.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Nikole Hannah-Jones by her Twitter moniker. Apologies for the error.