It’s not out of the ordinary for a candidate running for president (with “frontrunner status”) to be attacked for their comments from others seeking to win the nomination instead.
Such is the case right now with Sen. Bernie Sanders, regarding comments he’s made about Cuba, the late Fidel Castro, and giving credit to the authoritarian regime for producing positive outcomes in literacy.
Before we dig into those comments, let’s begin with the necessary disclaimer: Sanders is not giving praise to Castro for his leadership style. On the contrary: he’s regularly denounced Cuba’s authoritarianism, as he has other nations, including those with socialist leanings.
And Sanders’s bona fides on supporting democracy are legit: the ACLU gives him a 100 percent rating, for instance.
But in an interview with Anderson Cooper over the weekend, Sanders said, while Castro was hardly a great leader for democracy in his nation, we shouldn’t discount the positive things he had done for his people. That lead to a minor but significant uproar from a number of Democrats, not only those running against him but also many who represent Cuban-American constituencies.
Per reporting from The New Yorker, the exchange between Sanders and Cooper went as follows:
Sanders: We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but, you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad, you know? 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?
Cooper: A lot of p— dissidents imprisoned in, in Cuba.
Sanders: That’s right. And we condemn that. Unlike Donald Trump. Let’s be clear, you want to — I do not think that Kim Jong-un is a good friend. I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator. Vladimir Putin, not a great friend of mine.
That has allowed an opening for other Democratic contenders in the race to be the party’s nominee for president to go on the attack.
“I don’t want, as a Democrat, to be explaining why our nominee is encouraging people to look on the bright side of the Castro regime when we are going into the election of our lives,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg said on Monday evening during a CNN town hall event, Politico reported.
“Of course literacy is a good thing, but why are spotlighting the literacy programs of a brutal dictator instead of being unambiguous in our condemnation about the way he has treated his people?”
For his own part, when Sanders took the stage at the same town hall, he didn’t back away from his opinions. On the contrary, he doubled down, saying that “truth is truth.”
Strong literacy programs for youth in Cuba “is what happened on the first years of the Castro regime,” he said.
He also explained his comments weren’t an endorsement of authoritarianism.
Bernie Sanders stands by his qualified praise of Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba: "(Castro) went out and they helped people learn to read and write. You know what, I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing" https://t.co/WEiDzKKvfb #CNNTownHall pic.twitter.com/yJLLUDApde
— CNN (@CNN) February 25, 2020
“I have been extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes all over the world including Cuba, including Nicaragua, including Saudi Arabia, including China, including Russia,” Sanders said. “I happen to believe in democracy, not authoritarianism.”
So where does that leave Democrats? It’s likely that other candidates will continue to harp on Sanders for his words, as they aim to do well in South Carolina’s primary election later this week, just before Super Tuesday next week. But painting Sanders as a lover of the Castro regime is an unfair portrayal.
After all, Sanders’s words aren’t that far off from former President Barack Obama’s. As he was trying to justify opening diplomatic relations with Cuba late in his tenure, Obama touted positive outcomes of the Castro regime as well.
Cuba, under Castro’s rule, had “made great progress in educating young people. Every child in Cuba gets a basic education — that’s a huge improvement from where it was,” Obama said.
The latest attempt by the media to smear Bernie Sanders is stating that Bernie "praised" Fidel Castro.
NO. What Bernie did is point out to us that despite how bad Cuba was, there were positive elements that we could learn from. Just like Barack Obama pointed out in this video: pic.twitter.com/C7iEhd9wdW
— Nicholas Ivanoff (@NicholasIvanoff) February 24, 2020
The former president also lauded Cuba’s healthcare system:
“Medical care, you know, the life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to the United States…because they have access to healthcare. They should be congratulated.”
Obama, like Sanders, gave praise to Cuba’s positive aspects, while also condemning Castro’s efforts to quell democratic rights for his citizens.
All’s fair in politics and war, of course, and no one should be surprised if this issue comes up during the debate. But Sanders is smart — those planning to go after him should be prepared for his response, which will likely include mentioning Obama’s past comments to defend himself.
And how will that come off? It would be foolish for any Dem contender to try and attack the two-time election-winning former president, who remains popular across the country. And that’s how I imagine they will look — foolish — once Sanders reminds them that the words from his mouth aren’t too far off from what Obama has said in recent years.
It’s going to be a hard sell for others to make, that Sanders is wrong but Obama was right.