Over the weekend, in an interview with Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes, Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders was asked about old video clips in which he praised the achievements of the Cuban Revolution without endorsing the island nation’s undemocratic political system. Sanders’s response to Cooper was a nuanced evaluation of the pros and cons of the Cuban model from a democratic socialist point of view.
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba,” he said, but “it’s unfair to simply say that everything is bad.” He then cited the enormously successful literacy program that Fidel Castro initiated immediately after the revolution, noting that it would be absurd to say the policy was “a bad thing” because “Castro did it.” Finally, answering Cooper’s follow-up question, Sanders unequivocally condemned the Cuban government’s jailing of political dissidents.
These manifestly reasonable comments were immediately denounced not just by conservatives like Kevin D. Williamson, who wrote a piece on the controversy for the National Review entitled “Bernie Sanders is a Moral Monster,” but also by Democrats like Florida congresswomen Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, former Democratic National Committee head Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and most of Sanders’s rivals in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Generally speaking, the critics chose to focus on the middle part of the 60 Minutes clip, simply pretending that the snippet didn’t begin with Sanders denouncing the “authoritarian nature” of the Cuban government and end with him deploring that government’s jailing of dissidents. Williamson, for example, vaguely noted that Sanders said “some criticisms” of Cuba’s leaders were unfair and then immediately launched into a rant about how Castro “lined up political dissidents and shot them.” Similarly, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg tweeted that Sanders “doesn’t recognize” that “we need a president who will be extremely clear” about human rights violations abroad.
The Narnia Standard
Are these critics attacking Sanders based on a willful misrepresentation of his comments? In the cases I just quoted, that certainly seems to be the case. Still, there may be a (slightly) more charitable way to interpret at least some of their complaints.
For example, in a CNN town hall on Monday, Pete Buttigieg responded to a quote in which Sanders said that “teaching people to read and write is a good thing” by faulting him for asking people to see the “bright side of the Castro regime.” Instead, Mayor Buttigieg insisted, we should “stand unequivocally against dictatorships everywhere in the world.”
To Buttigieg, it’s not good enough that Sanders clearly and unambiguously condemned the authoritarian aspects of Cuba’s system because his comments weren’t “unequivocal” in the sense of being entirely critical rather than including a mix of criticism and praise. The principle Buttigieg is appealing to is that it’s wrong to praise any policy of a dictatorship. Apparently, the “unequivocally” anti-dictatorship stand is to talk about all undemocratic countries “everywhere in the world” as if they lacked any positive features whatsoever — like Narnia before Aslan, where it was “always winter and never Christmas.”
This certainly seems to be the standard Sanders’s critics applied in a previous iteration of the same “praise for Communist dictatorships” attack, when clips were dredged up from the press conference that Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, gave when he and his entourage returned from a trip to the USSR in 1988. Even though Sanders took time in the press conference to criticize the Soviet Union for its lack of democracy and for the poor quality of its housing and hospitals, the fact that he praised the undeniable architectural impressiveness of Soviet subway stations was treated as evidence that Sanders might as well have been a Stalinist — never mind that the man has spent his entire political career, even in his fire-breathing radical youth in Vermont’s Liberty Union Party, calling himself a “democratic” socialist precisely to differentiate his vision of a good society from the Soviet model.
One obvious problem with the Narnia standard for “unequivocal” criticism of authoritarian regimes is that it requires you to deny easily verified facts. Cuba did make tremendous strides in literacy, infant mortality, racial desegregation, doctor-patient ratio, and many other areas after the revolution. When the subject comes up, is a properly “unequivocal” opponent of dictatorships supposed to pretend not to know that all of this happened? Is the rule that you always have to respond by changing the subject?
Unsurprisingly, hardly anyone plays by this rule in practice. As commentator Eric Levitz points out in his excellent piece on the controversy, every president in the last several decades, Democrat or Republican, has “found positive things to say” about a regime in Saudi Arabia whose human rights record is far, far worse than Cuba’s.
Take one of the most indefensible parts of the Cuban state’s record: gay rights. In the years immediately after the revolution, gay men were arrested and put in labor camps. Since then, the situation has dramatically improved — so much so that in recent years, state-sanctioned gay pride parades have been held in the streets of Havana. Compare this to contemporary Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality remains a beheading offense.
And even in the specific case of Cuba, centrist Democrats haven’t generally held one another to the Narnia standard. For example, to the best of my knowledge, no major Democrat criticized Barack Obama for praising Cuba’s education system — in a speech he delivered in Cuba, no less — in 2016.
The Sanders Difference
Is the difference between Sanders’s comments and Obama’s that some worry Sanders secretly longs to import the authoritarian aspects of Cuba’s system to the United States? If so, this isn’t a rational concern. As Levitz points out, Sanders is a fervent believer in democratic rights — so much so that he’s taken considerably heat for suggesting that those in prison should still have the right to vote. His rating from the American Civil Liberties Union is 100 percent, and his commitment to free speech has led him to criticize student activists for shouting down right-wing speakers on college campuses.
Perhaps the worry isn’t that Sanders wants America to become an authoritarian one-party state, but that he thinks, in some sense, that it’s fine for Cuba to be such a state. This certainly seems to be what Kevin Williamson is suggesting when he writes that Sanders is “rather like the apologists for antebellum slavery who say, ‘Well, think of how much better-fed they were than they would have been in Africa.’”
Is the Cuban Revolution supposed to be the equivalent of the transatlantic slave trade in this analogy? If so, an obvious difference is that Africans lost their freedom. Far from replacing a democracy with a dictatorship, the Cuban Revolution replaced a dictatorship that oversaw monumental economic inequality, poverty, misery, illiteracy, de jure racial segregation, and high infant mortality with a dictatorship that promoted racial equality and redistributed much of the wealth of the ruling oligarchs to promote social goods like health care and education. And, as indicated by his condemnation of the “authoritarian nature” of Cuba’s leadership and his call for political prisoners to be freed, Sanders thinks that it would be better if Cubans — without losing their social rights to health care, higher education, and the rest — also gained the democratic rights he defends so passionately in the United States.
This is a fundamentally decent and principled position. Sanders should be commended for taking it. And if he becomes president despite his refusal to reduce complicated realities to the cartoonish slogans of two-dimensional anti-communism, he’ll have succeeded in showing future candidates that they don’t need to pander to the most extreme elements of the Cuban-American community in order to win.