Bernie Sanders’ recent statements about Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution have fired up major controversy and given plenty of ammunition to his mainstream Democratic opponents and their supporters.
During Sunday night’s 60 Minutes interview, anchor Anderson Cooper raised the topic of Cuba and, like a magician who pulls a rabbit out of a hat, presented 35-years-old footage of an interview in which Sanders spoke positively about the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions.
The presidential candidate could be heard saying that the Cuban people did not rise up because Castro “educated the kids [and] gave them healthcare.” While the revolution did expand free healthcare to all Cubans, Sanders left out a critical part of the equation: Castro established a police state that effectively crushed all opposition.
Sanders gave honest responses, saying what he truly believes today. He stated that he was “very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba.” Perhaps he should have left it at that but added that “the Cuban revolution wasn’t entirely bad.” Then he went on to say, “You know, when Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing?”
Anderson pressed on, commenting, “there are a lot of dissidents imprisoned in Cuba.” “That’s right,” Sanders responded with another honest answer. “And we condemn it.”
Sanders’ Statements on Cuban Revolution
As a historian trained to critically analyze sources and information, be they written or spoken, I find no fault in what Sanders said; these were surprisingly honest and refreshingly candid answers from a man, who like many of his generation, was attracted to radical ideas and had sympathies for anti-imperialist movements like the Cuban Revolution.
As a Cuban-born scholar who has spent fifteen years studying and writing about the Cuban Revolution, neither could I find any inaccuracy in Sanders’ statements.
Was everything about the Cuban Revolution bad? Of course not. Did Castro lead a massive education campaign to eradicate illiteracy? Yes, that happened, and it was internationally recognized as a major social accomplishment. It was, I should add, a campaign that the government used to indoctrinate tens of thousands, who learned to read reciting sentences such as “The young and the old, united, pledge with Fidel: to defend Cuba. We will never be defeated.”
As the first South American immigrant member of Congress who proudly represents thousands of Cuban Americans, I find Senator Bernie Sanders’ comments on Castro’s Cuba absolutely unacceptable.
— Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (@DebbieforFL) February 24, 2020
Cooper was the one who uttered that night’s inaccurate statement when he said that Cuba has “many” imprisoned dissidents. As it turns out, in 2018, Amnesty International reported having identified only eleven individuals “detained solely for their peacefully held beliefs” in the last three years. Of course, eleven cases are eleven too many. Does that mean that Cuba respects human and civil rights? Not by a long shot.
After decades of international pressures to free its dissidents, the Cuban strategy changed from long term-imprisonment to intimidation, systematic harassment (sometimes violent), and temporary incarceration.
Cuba’s Repressive Regime
For anyone who still holds on to the fantasy of a benign revolution that can do no wrong, these words from Amnesty International’s 2017/2018 Cuba Report should suffice:
“A family of four human rights defenders were detained … for allegedly leaving their house during the period of state mourning for Fidel Castro in 2016. The three siblings were given one-year prison sentences for ‘defamation of institutions, organizations and heroes and martyrs of the Republic of Cuba’ and ‘public disorder.’ Their mother was sentenced to house arrest.”
How can otherwise progressive academics who are so jealous of their own freedoms be so blind to the sordid realities of Cuba’s repressive regime? The late Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante gave them the nickname “the three monkeys:” they don’t see, don’t hear, and don’t speak. Cabrera Infante was onto something when he sought explanations to such behavior through the lenses of zoology.
As the front-runner in the Democratic primaries, Sanders will continue to take flak for his seemingly radical views, words, and policies, including his somewhat romantic interpretation of the Cuban Revolution.
Having written an honest book on the history of the revolution, Revolutionary Cuba: A History, I can attest to the fact that most people hold black and white views on the revolution. This ranges from the willfully uninformed to the over-informed (academics like me) and from the extreme right to what passes for left.
As for Sanders, I have some unsolicited advice: continue to be honest but stay away from the Cuba trap. Remember that over the past 60 years, several U.S. presidents and presidential candidates have ran aground – or sunk – in the treacherous waters of the Florida Straits.
Painting Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon as soft on communism was part of John F. Kennedy’s successful campaign arsenal in 1960. One year later, Kennedy endured the pain and embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which he referred to as the worst experience of his life.
Two decades later, Jimmy Carter suffered the consequences of mismanaging the Mariel boatlift crisis, which he partially encouraged when he said, “We’ll continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination.”
In 2000, presidential candidate Al Gore lost Florida, and thus the general election. It is widely acknowledged that Bill Clinton’s conciliatory policies toward Cuba and his handling of the Elián González affair, the fierce custody battle between the U.S. and Cuba over the young Elián, eventually cost Gore enough Cuban-American votes to swing the Florida results toward George W. Bush.
Another political casualty was Janet Reno, head of the U.S. Department of Justice at the time of the Elián affair, when she tried to run for Florida Governor in 2002 and was stopped in her tracks during the primaries; Cuban American voters paid her back.
Again, Sanders should stay away from the Cuba trap lest his opponents summon the spirit of a dead Castro as Sanders’ Jeremiah Wright (candidate Obama’s controversial pastor who in a sermon uttered “God Damn America”), or worse yet, in case of earning the Democratic nomination, replay the narrative of Elián González, costing him thousands of votes in Florida and by extension the presidency.