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Bernie Sanders' Take On Castro As Clueless As Right-Wingers' Take On Pinochet

Patrick Semansky
REVOLUTION RECOIL: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont at the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night in Charleston, South Carolina.


As Bernie Sanders doubles down on his controversial praise for Fidel Castro, I’m thinking instead of another deceased Latin American dictator: Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, whose monstrous military regime murdered thousands of people in the 1970s and '80s.

I’m thinking of all the times Sen. Sanders has pilloried conservatives who point to the robust market economy Pinochet engineered – and who then argue it’s unfair to say everything was bad during that Chilean dark age.

Credit Santiago Llanquin / AP
MONSTROUS: Augusto Pinochet (center) in Santiago in 1988.

That is, the way the democratic socialist Sanders keeps insisting that Castro showcases like universal education are proof that “it’s unfair to say everything was bad” in Cuba.

Yes, you could find solid employment in Pinochet’s Chile; and yes, you’d get free schooling in Castro’s Cuba. But then – how free? The bottom line is the awful price Chileans and Cubans had to pay for things that folks in most functioning democracies get without tyrannical strings attached. A price like being tossed out of a helicopter into the Pacific if Pinochet suspected you of being a communist. Or like being tortured in a dank prison if Castro thought you were a counter-revolutionary.

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That’s why it’s naïve, insensitive and wrong-headed to assert – especially if, like Sanders, you’re the Democratic presidential front-runner – that, gee, things really weren’t as bad as all that. Because in cases like Pinochet’s and Castro’s, things inevitably were that bad. Whatever silver lining you might find was deeply corroded by life under totalitarian rule.

In the end, how great was a good factory job in Chile if jack-booted Carabineros could haul you away in the middle of the night because you were overheard saying something subversive on the assembly line? In the end, how great is a good medical degree in Cuba if communist apparatchiks can force you to work in a foreign country and swipe 80 percent of your pay?

In cases like Pinochet and Castro, things inevitably WERE that bad. Whatever silver linings apologists like Sanders might find were deeply corroded by life under totalitarian rule.

Many conservatives did condemn Pinochet’s brutality, just as Sanders said on “60 Minutes” Sunday night that he’s “very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba.” Still, hearing prominent conservatives like the late William F. Buckley applaud Pinochet, and celebrity liberals like Sanders salute Castro, is like listening to a Reign of Terror apologist say: “OK, I’m very opposed to the guillotine thing, but look at the cool liberté, égalité, fraternité program. Darn it, it’s just unfair to say everything was bad under Robespierre.”

Sanders and his supporters have made much of the fact that in 2016, after his historic visit to Havana, then-President Barack Obama himself said Cuba “should be congratulated” for its education and healthcare achievements. But in the same breath Obama disparagingly concluded: “You drive around Havana and the economy is not working. It looks like it did in the 1950s.” In his speech to Cubans days earlier, he’d challenged the regime to stop “fear[ing] the voices” of its own people “and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders.”

He also told Cuba’s leaders how repressive and backward it was not to make the Internet “available across the island.”


What Obama did not do, even as he acknowledged the revolution’s successes, was put a softer spin on the Cuban repression by blithely declaring “it’s unfair to say everything was bad.”

Credit Charles Tasnadi / AP
SMOKESCREENS: Fidel Castro in Havana in 1985

I understand the urge to be fair – and to point out that conditions pre-dictatorship, be it Chile’s economy or Cuba’s healthcare, badly needed upgrading. I’ll be the first to note that before Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, half the oil-rich country’s population lived in inexcusable poverty – and that his socialist project gifted a slew of Caracas slums their first health clinics and potable water pipes.

But if everything wasn’t bad in the early days of Chávez’s authoritarian revolution, it sure as hell is today. The price Venezuelans paid for schools in the barrios was the brazen trashing of their democracy and their economy – and the worst humanitarian crisis in modern South American history.

Sanders did find more backbone when asked last September about Chávez’s disastrous successor, Nicolás Maduro, suggesting he’s a “vicious tyrant.” But such statements on leftist autocrats are usually concessions that have to be prodded out of Sanders (as that one did). They come forth reluctantly; they sound half-hearted.

That will hurt Sanders in November if he’s the Democratic nominee. So if he really wants to convince skeptical voters in America that his liberal campaign isn’t as bad they think, he can start by admitting that most leftist revolutions in Latin America are worse than he thinks. And yeah, Senator, that’s fair.

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Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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