When Bernie Sanders Thought Castro and the Sandinistas Could Teach America a Lesson

As mayor of Burlington, Sanders praised the regimes of Nicaragua and Cuba—claiming bread lines were a sign of economic health and press censorship was necessary in wartime.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

After the ISIS-orchestrated bloodbath in Paris last November, CBS News informed the three Democratic presidential candidates that a forthcoming debate it was hosting would be shifting focus from domestic to foreign policy.

It seemed like an uncontroversial decision. But it was enough to send Bernie Sanders’s campaign into paroxysms of panic. During a conference call with debate organizers, one Sanders surrogate launched into a “heated” and “bizarre” protest, complaining that CBS was trying to “change the terms of the debate…on the day of the debate,” according to a Yahoo News source.

Still, the clamor from Bernie’s camp wasn’t that bizarre. Bernie understands that the frisson Sanderistas audiences experience isn’t activated by conversations about the Iran nuclear deal. No, Sanders disciples are slain in the spirit by repeated-ad-infinitum sermons about billionaires twisting mustaches, adjusting monocles, and jealously guarding their “rigged system.” It was this message that vaulted Sanders from the mayor’s office to Congress and into the Senate. But foreign-policy questions, The New York Times noted, had a habit of pushing him “out of his comfort zone.”

So here we are: The candidate accused of not caring about foreign policy was the same politico who, years ago, was routinely accused of preferring foreign affairs to the tedium of negotiating overtime pay with the local firefighter’s union. Indeed, after he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders turned the town into a fantasy foreign-policy camp. In his 1997 memoir, Outsider in the House, he asked, “how many cities of 40,000 [like Burlington] have a foreign policy? Well, we did.”

What were the policies and ideas that animated his small-town internationalism? In a recent interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Sanders was asked about a comment he made in 1974 calling for the CIA’s abolition. He qualified, hedged, and offered a potted history of CIA meddling in the affairs of sovereign countries, all while arguing half-heartedly that his views had long-since evolved toward pragmatism.

If CNN can ambush Sanders by reaching back to 1974 and his not-entirely-unreasonable criticism of the CIA, perhaps another enterprising television journalist will ask the candidate-of-consistency one of the following questions:

— Do you think that American foreign policy gives people cancer?

— Do you think a state of war—be it against the Vietnamese communists, Nicaraguan anti-communists, or al Qaeda’s Islamists—justifies the curtailment of press freedoms?

— Do you stand by your qualified-but-fulsome praise of the totalitarian regime in Cuba? Do you stand by your unqualified-and-fulsome praise of the totalitarian Sandinista regime in Nicaragua?

— Do you believe that bread lines are a sign of economic health?

— Do you think the Reagan administration was engaged in the funding and commissioning of terrorism?

A weird palette of questions, sure, but when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, he answered “yes” to all of them. Hidden on spools of microfilm, buried in muffled and grainy videos of press conferences and public appearances, Mayor Sanders enumerated detailed—and radical—foreign-policy positions and explained his brand of socialism. (If you find foreign-policy debates tedious, feel free to ask Sanders if he still believes that “the basic truth of politics is primarily class struggle”; that “democracy means public ownership of the major means of production”; or that “both the Democratic and Republican parties represent the ruling class.”)

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In the 1980s, any Bernie Sanders event or interview inevitably wended toward a denunciation of Washington’s Central America policy, typically punctuated with a full-throated defense of the dictatorship in Nicaragua. As one sympathetic biographer wrote in 1991, Sanders “probably has done more than any other elected politician in the country to actively support the Sandinistas and their revolution.” Reflecting on a Potemkin tour of revolutionary Nicaragua he took in 1985, Sanders marveled that he was, “believe it or not, the highest ranking American official” to attend a parade celebrating the Sandinista seizure of power.

It’s quite easy to believe, actually, when one wonders what elected American official would knowingly join a group of largely unelected officials of various “fraternal” Soviet dictatorships while, just a few feet away, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega bellows into a microphone that the United States is governed by a criminal band of terrorists.

None of this bothered Sanders, though, because he largely shared Ortega’s worldview. While opposition to Reagan’s policy in Central America—including indefensible decisions like the mining of Managua harbor—was common amongst mainstream Democrats, it was rare to find outright support for the Soviet-funded, Cuban-trained Sandinistas. Indeed, Congress’s vote to cut off administration funding of the anti-Sandinista Contra guerrillas precipitated the Iran-Contra scandal.

But despite its aversion to elections, brutal suppression of dissent, hideous mistreatment of indigenous Nicaraguans, and rejection of basic democratic norms, Sanders thought Managua’s Marxist-Leninist clique had much to teach Burlington: “Vermont could set an example to the rest of the nation similar to the type of example Nicaragua is setting for the rest of Latin America.”

The lesson Sanders saw in Nicaragua could have been plagiarized from an editorial in Barricada, the oafish Sandinista propaganda organ. “Is [the Sandinistas’] crime that they have built new health clinics, schools, and distributed land to the peasants? Is their crime that they have given equal rights to women? Or that they are moving forward to wipe out illiteracy? No, their crime in Mr. Reagan’s eyes and the eyes of the corporations and billionaires that determine American foreign policy is that they have refused to be a puppet and banana republic to American corporate interests.”

But Sanders was mistaking aspirational Sandinista propaganda for quantifiable Sandinista achievement. None of it was true, but it overlaid nicely on top of his own political views. Sanders’s almost evangelical belief in “the revolution” led him from extreme credulity to occasional fits of extreme paranoia.

For instance, in 1987 Sanders hosted Sandinista politician Nora Astorga in Burlington, a woman notorious for a Mata Hari-like guerilla operation that successfully lured Gen. Reynaldo Perez-Vega, a high-ranking figure in the Somoza dictatorship, to her apartment with promises of sex. Perez-Vega’s body was later recovered wrapped in a Sandinista flag, his throat slit by his kidnappers. When Astorga died in 1988 from cervical cancer, Sanders took the occasion to publicly praise Astorga as “a very, very beautiful woman” and a “very vital and beautiful woman,” positing that American foreign policy might have given her cancer. “I have my own feelings about what causes cancer, and the psychosomatic aspects of cancer,” he said. “One wonders if the war didn’t claim another victim; a person who couldn’t deal with the tremendous grief and suffering in her own country.”

(Sanders often lurched toward conspiracy theory to make banal historical events conform to an ideological narrative. He argued that Ronald Reagan was as Manchurian president created by millionaires who run corporations: “Some millionaires in California said ‘Ron, we want you to work for us. We want you to become governor.’ They sat around a table. A dozen millionaires. They made him governor. And then they made him president. And he did his job effectively for those corporations.”)

The conflict in Nicaragua exacerbated Sanders’s more extreme positions. He asked a group of University of Vermont students to consider how “we deal with Nicaragua, which is in many ways Vietnam, except it’s worse. It’s more gross.” His answer was to raise money and civilian materiel for the revolution, establish a sister city program in Nicaragua, and act as a mouthpiece for the Sandinista government.

The local Vermont journalist corps, with whom Sanders had an extraordinarily contentious relationship, occasionally questioned Sanders on Nicaragua’s increasingly dictatorial drift.

In 1985 Sanders traveled to New York City to meet with Ortega just weeks after Nicaragua imposed a “state of emergency” that resulted in mass arrests of regime critics and the shuttering of opposition newspapers and magazines. While liberal critics of Reagan’s Nicaraguan policy rounded on the Sandinistas (talk-show host Phil Donahue told Ortega that his actions looked “fascist”), Sanders refused to condemn the decision. He was “not an expert in Nicaragua” and “not a Nicaraguan,” he said during a press conference. “Am I aware enough of all the details of what is going on in Nicaragua to say ‘you have reacted too strongly?’ I don’t know…” But of course he did know, later saying that the Sandinistas’ brutal crackdown “makes sense to me.”

What “made sense” to Sanders was the Sandinistas’ war against La Prensa, a daily newspaper whose vigorous opposition to the Somoza dictatorship quickly transformed into vigorous opposition of the dictatorship that replaced it. When challenged on the Sandinistas’ incessant censorship, Sanders had a disturbing stock answer: Nicaragua was at war with counterrevolutionary forces, funded by the United States, and wartime occasionally necessitated undemocratic measures. (The Sandinista state censor Nelba Blandon offered a more succinct answer: “They [La Prensa] accused us of suppressing freedom of expression. This was a lie and we could not let them publish it.”)

To underscore his point, Sanders would usually indulge in counterfactual whataboutism: “If we look at our own history, I would ask American citizens to go back to World War II. Does anyone seriously think that President Roosevelt or the United States government [would have] allowed the American Nazi Party the right to demonstrate, or to get on radio and to say this is the way you should go about killing American citizens?” (It’s perhaps worth pointing out that La Prensa never printed tutorials on how to kill Nicaraguans. And it’s also worth pointing out that in 1991, Sanders complained of the “massive censorship of dissent, criticism, debate” by the United States government during the Gulf War.)

Or how about the Reagan counterfactual: “What would President Reagan do if buildings were being bombed? If hospitals were being bombed? If people in our own country were being killed? Do you think President Reagan would say, ‘of course we want the people who are killing our children to get up on radio and explain to the citizens of the country how they are going to kill more of our people?’”

Or perhaps Abraham Lincoln can convince you: “How many of you remember what happened in the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s feeling about how you have to fight that war? And how much tolerance there was in this country, during that war, for people who were not sympathetic to the Union cause?”

While Freedom House and Amnesty International agitated on behalf of La Prensa, Sanders was making excuses for the government that censored its articles, prevented it from buying newsprint, harassed its staffers, and arrested its journalists. “The point is,” he argued, “in American history the opposition press talking about how you could kill your own people and overthrow your own government was never allowed…Never allowed to exist.”

The Burlington Free Press mocked Sanders for playing the role of internationalista dupe and lampooned him for expressing, after just a brief, government-guided tour of Nicaragua, “such approval of the Sandinistas on the basis of what was at best a cursory inspection,” an instinct that “says more about his naïveté in the foreign policy field than anything else.”

Sanders countered that he was free to quiz real Nicaraguans on their political allegiances, but they “laughed” when he asked which party they backed because “of course they are with the government.” When asked about the food shortages provoked by the Sandinistas’ voodoo economic policy, Sanders claimed that bread lines were a sign of a healthy economy, suggesting an equitable distribution of wealth: “It’s funny, sometimes American journalists talk about how bad a country is, that people are lining up for food. That is a good thing! In other countries people don’t line up for food: the rich get the food and the poor starve to death.” When asked about Nicaragua’s notoriously brutal treatment of the Miskito Indians, the Free Press noted that Sanders “attempted to cut off” the line of questioning. (Ted Kennedy called the Sandinistas’ crimes against the indigenous Miskitos “unconscionable,” “intolerable,” and “disturbing,” commenting that they were relocated at gunpoint to “forced-labor camps which resemble concentration camps.”)

Through the Mayor’s Council on the Arts, Sanders tried to bring some revolutionary third-worldism to Vermont when he funded cable-access television that showed “films from Cuba [and] daily television fare from Nicaragua.” At a press conference, Sanders highlighted the grants that allowed the importation of “films produced in Nicaragua, that appear on Nicaraguan [state] television, on Channel 15. We have films from Cuba on Channel 15.”

Ah, yes, let us not forget the democratic socialist Shangri-La in Havana. In 1989 Sanders traveled to Cuba on a trip organized by the Center for Cuban Studies, a pro-Castro group based in New York, hoping to come away with a “balanced” picture of the communist dictatorship. The late, legendary Vermont journalist Peter Freyne sighed that Sanders “came back singing the praises of Fidel Castro.”

“I think there is tremendous ignorance in this country as to what is going on in Cuba,” Sanders told The Burlington Free Press before he left. It’s a country with “deficiencies,” he acknowledged, but one that has made “enormous progress” in “improving the lives of poor people and working people.” When he returned to Burlington, Sanders excitedly reported that Cuba had “solved some very important problems” like hunger and homelessness. “I did not see a hungry child. I did not see any homeless people,” he told the Free Press. “Cuba today not only has free healthcare but very high quality healthcare.”

Sanders had a hunch that Cubans actually appreciated living in a one-party state. “The people we met had an almost religious affection for [Fidel Castro]. The revolution there is far deep and more profound than I understood it to be. It really is a revolution in terms of values.” It was a conclusion he had come to long before visiting the country. Years earlier Sanders said something similar during a press conference: “You know, not to say Fidel Castro and Cuba are perfect—they are certainly not—but just because Ronald Reagan dislikes these people does not mean to say the people in these nations feel the same.”

There is, of course, a mechanism to measure the levels of popular content amongst the campesinos. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a democratic socialist to be familiar with the free election, a democratic nicety the Cuban government hasn’t availed itself of during its almost 60 years in power.

But Sanders has long been attracted to socialist countries that eschewed democracy. He recalled “being very excited when Fidel Castro made a revolution in Cuba” in 1959. “It just seemed right and appropriate that poor people were rising up against a lot of ugly rich people.” In an interview with The Progressive, almost 30 years later, Sanders was still expressing admiration for the Cuban dictatorship: “And what about Cuba? It’s not a perfect society, I grant, but there aren’t children there going hungry. It’s been more successful than almost any other developing country in providing health care for its people. And the Cuban revolution is only 30 years old. It may get even better.”

During his tenure as mayor, Burlington established sister-city programs in Nicaragua and the Soviet Union, and tried—and failed—to create one in Cuba.

By the 1980s, certain elements of the radical left were still defending the honor of the Cuban revolution. But few had kind words for the Soviet Union, with most political pilgrims having long since wandered to Cuba, Vietnam, China, and Cambodia. And Sanders too was routinely critical of the Kremlin, criticizing the invasion of Afghanistan and acknowledging the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union, while still managing a bit of socialist fraternity, praising Moscow for constructing the “cleanest, most effective mass transit system I have ever seen in my life…you wait 15 seconds in rush hour between trains.” He was “impressed” by the state-run youth programs “which go far beyond what we do for young people in this country.”

Sanders has long claimed to be a “democratic socialist”—the type of lefty who loves Sweden, but is offended by the totalitarian socialism that dominated during the Cold War—but he has long employed the tepid language of “imperfection” when discussing the criminal failures of undemocratic socialism. Totalitarians with unfriendly politics are correctly met with derision and thundering demands for extradition and prosecution. So Sanders succinctly described the Chilean murderer, torturer, and destroyer of democracy Augusto Pinochet as a “mass murderer, torturer, and destroyer of democracy.” And Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos is rightly tagged as a “crook and murderer.”

Perhaps at this point I don’t need to point out that Fidel Castro is likewise a crook and a murderer. Or that Sandinista strongman Daniel Ortega, while achieving none of the milestones Bernie Sanders once claimed he had achieved, stole enormous amounts of money from the Nicaraguan people and was, to name just one example, behind the infamous bombing at La Penca which killed seven people (including three journalists).

So to my fellow journalists: the next one of you who gets caught in one of Sanders’s riffs about the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh, ask him one of my questions. Ask him how consistent he has been on foreign policy. And help him answer a question posed by a Burlington Free Press journalist in 1985, who wondered if his useful idiot trip to Nicaragua would come back to haunt him in a future race.

“The answer is ‘probably.’ But I’ll be damned if I know how.”