On Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders became the clear front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination with a resounding victory in the Nevada caucuses.
On Sunday, Sanders (I-Vt.) greeted that newfound status with one of his greatest hits: Finding something positive to say about an authoritarian leader.
In a “60 Minutes” interview, Sanders was pressed on his past praise for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and he wasn’t exactly backing down.
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” Sanders said. “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?”
Anderson Cooper responded pointing to Castro’s imprisonment of political dissidents.
“That’s right,” Sanders said. “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.”
The exchange highlighted an issue that is likely to get a more thorough airing now that Sanders finds himself atop the Democratic field: His repeated comments offer varying degrees of praise for socialist authoritarian regimes over the decades. He has often decried U.S. adventurism in Latin America, coming out against the successful and attempted U.S. efforts to pick and choose who leads those countries. But he’s often gone further than just saying the United States should stay out.
Indeed, the comment he was asked to respond to came in the 1980s, when he was asked why the Cuban people didn’t join the Americans in trying to get rid of Castro.
“He educated their kids, gave them health care — totally transformed the society,” Sanders said.
The two responses highlight the fine line Sanders is walking here and arguably steps over. It’s one thing to say why the United States shouldn’t interfere in other countries’ politics and to offer analysis about why the people there should have self-determination; it’s another to emphasize the good in what are otherwise brutal regimes.
Yet Sanders has repeatedly sought to do so:
As these comments show, Sanders has regularly acknowledged the problems within these governments, but he’s often strained to emphasize the positives that come with their more socialist styles of government. That perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, given who he is, but it’s also about the balance he has struck. And the balance is considerably different than basically any modern American politician.
A good counterexample is then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s comments in 2001 about Cuba. While testifying before Congress, Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) argued for a rethinking of U.S. policy toward Cuba and mentioned how many doctors its health-care system produced.
Power caused a stir by acknowledging Castro had “done good things for his people.” He told Serrano, “You touched upon some of them.”
Even in that answer, though, Powell quickly and more strongly emphasized the negatives:
That’s a very different balance than Sanders is striking today, and that balance is the key point here. He will argue he’s simply got a more nuanced view of countries like Cuba, and there are indeed always nuances in foreign policy. But emphasizing those nuances so strongly suggests you believe certain things are of somewhat comparable importance. And Sanders has erred in a very different direction than basically any major politician in the United States in decades.
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