Bernie Sanders Lost Florida the Moment He Started Praising Castro (Again)
The Castro regime is responsible for undeniable atrocities. Generations of Cuban American voters will never forget this.
It was Grandparents’ Day at my high school in Tampa, Florida, about 18 years ago, and my Cuban American grandfather was explaining to my Spanish teacher how horribly expensive eggs were in Cuba.
This particular memory of my abuelo, who passed away in 2006, remained distant in my mind until this February when it suddenly came back to me along with a wave of nausea as my favorite presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, repeatedly highlighted the sunny side of the Castro regime.
At the Democratic presidential debate on March 15, held just days ahead of the Florida primary, Sanders refused to back down from his praise of Fidel Castro’s literacy program. Instead, Sanders reiterated what he told 60 Minutes in an interview a month earlier, saying though he condemns the authoritarian nature of Castro’s dictatorship, he also sees it in a positive light. “I think we condemn authoritarianism whether it’s in China, Russia, Cuba, or anyplace else,” Sanders said at CNN’s head-to-head debate against Joe Biden. “But to simply say that nothing ever done by any of those administrations had a positive impact on their people would, I think, be incorrect.”
If you ask three different Cuban Americans about our national policy on Cuba, you’ll get five different opinions. But they will all agree that the Castro regime is responsible for undeniable atrocities and an endless source of heartache in their families. Sanders’ praise of the literacy program implemented after the revolution in Cuba expresses several levels of ignorance. It will almost certainly hurt him in Florida’s primary on Tuesday, in a state home to a sizable share of Cuban American voters.
A primary objective of the literacy program was to increase the number of people who could read and consequently be subject to the propaganda pouring out of the new authoritarian government. Do not let the seemingly benevolent nature of this program fool you. This was a clever play on a classic autocrat move, exemplified by a mandatory final assignment to write a letter of gratitude to the brutal dictator himself.
Even if the underlying motivations for this program had been altruistic, to even mention them without immediately detailing the horrendous abuses of the regime reflects a degree of cultural insensitivity akin to telling a group of Holocaust survivors that Hitler brought good art to Germany.
It is clear that Sanders’ continued comments on Cuba and the Castro regime intend to show that his approach to United States-Cuba relations is a return to that of former President Barack Obama’s policy, which famously thawed a half-century of contentious relations between the two countries.
Like many Americans, I applauded the reversal of hostilities. After 50 years without results, it was time to try something new. But the way Obama celebrated the new agreement was one of the most concerning and problematic moments of his presidency for Latinx people like me and anyone who takes human rights abuses seriously.
The media coverage of the Obama’s 2016 trip to Havana highlighted seemingly chummy interactions between Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who was known to practice the same brand of cruelty as his brother Fidel. Images of the two leaders enjoying each other’s company at a baseball game were seared into the memories of Cuban Americans like my family and me. It’s hard to express to people who don’t understand our culture and history how shocking a scene like this was. It felt like a slap in the face from the supposed liberal leader of the free world, who now seemed to communicate that the atrocities of this regime, horrors our friends and families risked their lives to flee, were simply distant memories meant to be moved on from like schoolyard tussles.
Obama could have celebrated the new policy from Washington, Tampa, or Miami with Cuban Americans. He could have traveled to Cuba and appeared only with political dissidents or regular citizens in a show of support for the entrepreneurialism of the people he hoped the change of policy would help. Instead, he chose to parade around town with a tyrant.
A few months later, a majority of Cuban Americans and their neighbors voted for Donald Trump and helped deliver Florida firmly to the Republican Party, where it largely remains today.
I have to ask Señor Sanders: cConsidering the likely political consequences in a valuable swing state, what is the value of drawing favorable comparisons to a popular, moderate president in one of his most controversial moments in the eyes of minority voters?
Sanders needs to apologize for his gross oversimplification of the facts to show that he understands his privilege — and how to check it.
As a millennial born and raised in Florida, now working in Brooklyn, and a physician who vocally supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement, I believe his ideas to reshape our country are unequivocally the best — not only for Latinx people but for all Americans.
Sanders had a chance on Sunday to reconsider the gamble he is making by emulating Obama on this point. But instead, it was a missed opportunity.
Sanders doesn’t have to make the case for this good policy change the same way Obama did. He can stand with the citizens of Cuba and their relatives in the United States by highlighting the way the new agreement strengthened these families. This is Sanders’ chance to draw a stark contrast to President Trump, who doubles down on something that only the extreme parts of his base identify with. Sanders knows better than to extoll the virtues of “very fine people on both sides.”
I agree with the point that the United States has meddled in many elections and governments around the world to the detriment of the citizens of those countries and the reputation of our own nation. But Sanders should be able to apologize for the violent misdeeds of the United States without dismissing those of a nearby government.
None of this is likely enough to save the votes of Cuban Americans or those of other cultural backgrounds who live, work, and sympathize with us in Florida. After all, between Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview, CNN town hall, and South Carolina debate, he’s given Republicans plenty of footage to choose from for their inevitable onslaught of television ads in the Sunshine State.
Sanders should have apologized for his gross oversimplification of the facts to show that he understands his privilege—and how to check it. He could have been an example to other light-skinned leaders on how to learn and grow from missteps with people of color instead of just a reminder that even the most progressive political movement can display an appalling amount of cultural insensitivity. Now it may be too little, too late.
My abuelo, a Cuban American man who worked three jobs to provide for his family, including a long tenure with the sanitation department in Tampa, was upset that the government Fidel Castro created couldn’t provide a basic necessity like affordable eggs to its citizens. I wonder how he would feel about a candidate with a base of blue-collar workers who chooses to praise that same government.
I’m starting to understand why Abuelo was a swing voter, just like me.