Bernie Sanders was Wrong to Defend Fidel Castro

In their current form, the fruits of Fidel’s movement are rotten

Fidel Castro and Bernie Sanders. Photos: The Sun Best

By Chris Vazquez

HAVANA TIMES – Unaware of what was to happen a week ago Sunday, I tweeted that “The fruits of the Cuban Revolution are rotten”. Then, on an episode of 60 Minutes, Bernie Sanders defended positive comments he had made in support of Fidel Castro and the 1959 Cuban Revolution in a 1980’s interview, telling journalist Anderson Cooper, “I’m very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s simply unfair to say everything is bad.”

Sanders then touted the laurels of Castro’s mass literacy program and the free education and healthcare that were implemented in Cuba as the reason why there was no popular uprising against the Cuban government in the early years of the Revolution. One would think the Cuban American backlash to Bill de Blasio proclaiming Viva la Revolución after landing in Miami a few months ago would be enough to dissuade any candidate hoping to win Florida from making such egregious comments in support of the movement that forced them into exile in the first place, apparently not.

The way I see it, there are two issues at play here: Sanders’ praise for and clear admiration of Fidel Castro and his defense of the social merits of the Cuban Revolution that he mentioned. Although extremely difficult to do given the emotional reactions they elicit for so many refugees who fled Castro’s Cuba, I’d like to examine the issues separately. The reason is that the former is more so a subjective matter of opinion, while the latter can be assessed objectively and ties directly to my tweet about the fruits of the Revolution being rotten.

 

1) Bernie Defends his Praise for Fidel Castro

I remember back during the 2016 presidential race, a finch landed on Bernie Sanders’ podium at his rally in Portland. Bernie commented on the bird to his supporters in attendance, saying that the finch was actually a dove in disguise and that there was symbolism at play. It’s likely he could have been referring to the dove that landed on Fidel Castro’s shoulder during his 1959 speech in Havana just seven days after the triumph of the Revolution.

Superstitious by nature, the crowd of tens of thousands of Cubans erupted into cheers, Castro had achieved god-like status among his followers. It’s no secret that Sanders has mirrored this admiration for the Revolutionary leader, commenting on it several times over the years and defending his position on 60 Minutes.

People will form their own opinions on Bernie’s admiration of Fidel, so I realize there is not much room for debate here. In my opinion, nevertheless, to idolize a narcissistic and authoritarian dictator who reneged on promises, withheld free elections, nationalized businesses, executed innocents in the name of “revolutionary justice” and imprisoned thousands more without due process is reprehensible and insulting to the 1.5 million Cuban Americans living in a state Sanders hopes to win, the majority of whom are there as political refugees from a regime led by the man Bernie was praising. Given the subjective nature of the topic, there’s not much more I can say here.

2) Bernie Lauds the Social Merits of the Revolution

To this I say that the fruits of the Cuban Revolution exist, but they are rotten because they no longer serve the people they were created to serve. What is the point of free education and healthcare if neither translate to a higher quality of life?

Castro’s Revolution advocated for progressive reform, but the absolutist nature of his movement tainted its social contributions.

As codified by the rebels in the Sierra Manifesto, the Cuban Revolution was incredibly progressive for its day and massively popular among the populace, mainly because of the corruption within the Cuban government at the time.

Fulgencio Batista, the dictator whom Castro ousted, was in bed with both the United States government and with the American mafia. He empowered government officials to abuse the authority of their offices for financial gain, and unless you were benefitting directly from the rampant corruption, you wanted a change.

So, contrary to the constrained quasi-official narratives that have been formed in exile about Cuba in the 1950’s, the island was not without its problems. The Cuban Revolution, therefore, was seen as both a symptom of and a widely-supported antidote to the issues Cuba was facing. Castro’s Revolution advocated for progressive reform, but the absolutist nature of his movement tainted its social contributions.

Photo: cubaencuentro

Literacy Campaign

The fact is that Fidel Castro cared more about himself than about the social advancement of his people. In April of 1961, he closed all schools in the country for eight months so that the curriculum could be “re-tooled” to conform to revolutionary ideals, private schools would never reopen on the island.

Castro then instituted and weaponized the literacy campaign praised by Bernie Sanders to indoctrinate the Cuban youth into his Revolutionary ideology. The students were to be pioneros de la Revolución, aspiring to “be like Che” in all they did, even if that meant spying on their parents in the name of the Revolution.

The increase in Cuban literacy after 1959 came at a high price indeed. Individualism and critical thinking were sacrificed for social conformity, and personal effort and achievement took a back seat to devout loyalty in the new Cuba.

Fearing that the Cuban state would assume legal guardianship over their children, many Cuban parents scrambled to get them out of Cuba in what would come to be known as Operation Pedro Pan. Throughout 1961, the same year the literacy campaign was implemented, approximately 14,000 children were boarded on planes bound for the United States in what would come to be the largest exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.

If this still isn’t enough to demonstrate the corrupt nature of Castro’s literacy campaign and the reorganization of the Cuban education system, let’s examine literacy data prior to the 1959 Revolution.

In 1950, nearly a decade before Fidel’s rise to power, Cuba boasted one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America according to UNESCO. At nearly 78%, Cuba was on par with Costa Rica and Chile, two of the most successful countries in Latin America today that currently also boast nearly 100% literacy, without the loss of basic human freedoms, economic strife, and communist indoctrination.

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera summarized it best when she said, “Yes, they taught us to read & write, and then they forbade us to read what we want and write what we think.”

Photo: Sven Creutzmann/Polaris

Healthcare

While Cuba did have its fair share of problems before the Revolution, it cannot be refuted that the island had already been leading the region in key healthcare metrics prior to 1959, just as it had been in literacy, the numbers don’t lie.

Research done by Cuba specialist Carmelo Mesa-Lago shows that Cuba led Latin America in low infant mortality through most of the 1950’s. Cuba also led nearly all countries in the region in life expectancy in 1959. Based on official statistics published by the Cuban government, whose credibility is often questioned, life expectancy in Cuba today is essentially the same as it is in flourishing Costa Rica and Chile, two countries that Cuba exceeded in life expectancy by two years & seven years, respectively, in 1960.

The unfortunate reality is that today doctors in Cuba are not valued for their skills. They lack incentive to show up to work as they will be paid regardless, and their meager state wages encourage the acceptance of bribes for seeing patients. Though not necessarily the norm, the dystopian nature of the Cuban system further incentivizes doctors to steal from their practices and sell what they can in the black market, which in Cuba consists of toothpaste and tampons rather than drugs and arms. If they are assigned to a medical mission abroad, doctors must leave their families behind; they must surrender up to 70% of their salaries; and they are often used to advance the political aims of the Cuban government and its host ally.

Based on the information presented, it’s clear that there are many issues with the current state of education and healthcare in Cuba. However, let’s not lose the forest from the trees, Fidel Castro did what he did to ensure the preservation of his movement and to promote Cuba’s image internationally, attempting to mask the heinous human rights abuses that came as a package deal with the reforms.

To this day, Cuba continues to tout its excellent ability to develop human capital through its education system. It then squanders this capital by suppressing it at home through the removal of incentives, forcing it to either move abroad or go to waste.

So again I ask you: What good is free education if your degree doesn’t help you feed your family? If your crumbling house could still implode at any moment? What good is free healthcare if the hospitals lack beds and basic supplies? If you have to pay to make ten trips on overcrowded public buses before you can finally see your doctor?

Don’t get caught up in the minutia. In their current form, the social advancements of Fidel Castro’s movement do not serve the people they were intended to serve, the fruits of the Cuban Revolution are rotten.

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“Chris wants to hear from you!  To connect with Chris and see more of his content, follow @cubanochris_ on Instagram & Medium.com.”

16 thoughts on “Bernie Sanders was Wrong to Defend Fidel Castro

  • Castro closed all the private schools not only to indoctrinate the children but to have control of the students, independent groups in high schools and universities in fear of students leaders . The FEU I= UJC everything is control by the dictatorship. Castro took the island turned it in to his on ranch and gave to his slave “free” indoctrination.

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  • Sanders is right; it’s not all bad. All bad was what Batista’s regime was, and the reason the revolution happened. The idea that since then, the education ordinary Cubans get, and the healthcare they are offered – none of which existed for the poor before Fidel – can just be dismissed as propaganda tools is facile. The USA has 27 million poor people with no access to healthcare with the exception of charity. Don’t tell us that is a better system. It;’s a disgrace among all developed nations.
    Sending Cuban doctors to where they are needed may offer some propaganda value, but this is far exceeded by its value to the people in need; are you so mean-spirited you cannot see this?
    And those ‘heinous human rights abuses’? Have you forgotten that Guantanamo Bay prison still exists; America’s way of breaking every international convention to hold and to torture people it says are its enemies without ever having to offer them a defence? What human rights did poor people have under Batista, when they were shot in the street?
    And bringing up Operation Pedro Pan is laughable; Castro had nothing at all to do with that; it was driven by an American priest, against the wishes of the Cuban regime.
    Cuba is a very poor country, trying to spend the little money it has on the things that matter. It would be better off if the US embargo did not exist; an embargo which is wholly about crushing socialism, and nothing else. Look around the Caribbean and South America; every time a socialist leader has been elected, fairly, the CIA is in there with campaigns to murder people, to seed social unrest, to finance corruption, and install a puppet when the poorest people are starved on to the streets. Want me to list them all? Talk to Chileans about Pinochet. Research what happened to Allende. That’s why Cubans loyal to their country should be suspicious.
    There’s a lot wrong with Castro’s regime, and it is causing some of the problems Cuba has. But Cubans who leave are not opposed to socialism, they are sick of being poor, and the USA has $2 billion a year in handouts to give them; handouts which are not offered to black people born in the States. Sweeteners, there to make America look charitable. It isn’t. It loathes Cuba and Cubans because, when all hope had gone, they chose socialism.

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  • Bernie , it is a fact that literacy and morbidity rates improved with Castro but you do not mention this man’s name while campaigning. You know little of Cuban life as do most of Americans. This article puts it all in perspective. If you want to get social democratic changes then refer to democracies in the world where it has for the most part functioned to raise health and literacy standards in that country.
    I thought you were smarter than this Bernie. Also you cannot beat Trump, Biden has an outside chance. My favourite is Elizabeth, Kamala, Amy, Pete and Mike are out of the race so Biden must be supported if there is to be a respected America again.

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  • David VS Goliath ?

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  • Mr Williams why the only choice you offering to us Cuban is between Batista and Castro. They both are dead. Batista was a horrible dictator but trust me Castro’s family dictatorship has no comparison 15000 ppl dead in the shooting squad, 20000 under the Atlantic Ocean dead in search of Freedom, concentration Camp for homosexuals. (UMAP) lack of free press, political Parties, freedom of speech, prohibition of travel abroad. Until 2012 , prohibition of reunions for more the 18 ppl if not Is sponsored by Any government institutions, opposition to the government is ILLEGAL and on, and on. In exchange for free medical care, and free education ? And every Latin America country education is free till high school. For you it’s very easy to defend a horrible human rights violator dictatorship and living in Freedom in the west. But please ask the Germans,Polish, Russian, and others from the ex Soviet block if they would go back to socialism

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  • My mother in law is one of those young girls who left high school for a year in 1961 to travel solo around the countryside setting up temporary schools and teaching peasants to read and write. Those participants were not some generic “they” to us but Mariaelena and her contemporaries. We are proud of her and her accomplishments. We do not take well to those who disparage her.

    La Alfabetizaticion, referred to as the literacy brigade in English, was not Fidel’s but Vilma Espin’s and the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas.

    Bernie Sanders did not “praise some brutal dictator” as was reported in various presses. He merely said the literacy brigade was something good. I know, I have listened to his statement many times. It was Trumpesque to classify everything as totally black or totally white and classify his statement as
    “praise for a brutal dictator”.

    I totally agree that it was illogical to make any comment about the RevolucÍon in a US political campaign. That was one of many reasons I did not vote for Bernie Sanders in the recent Democratic presidential primary election.

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  • You refer to the “Peter Pan” episode, failing to mention that this was a CIA-organised operation. and that the fears of the population you are referring to were largely instilled by a propanda and desinformation campaign of the same CIA.

    As much as I like independent and critical views, you way of representing the “Peter Pan” episode makes me very suspicious of the objectivity of the rest of your article.

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  • Mark Williams comments above: “They chose socialism “. Cubans chose no such thing. Indeed, the only choice they had and, to this day, still have, is to live under the Castro dictatorship or leave Cuba. And leaving Cuba has never been an easy choice to make because of the obstacles that the Castro regime has put in the way.

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    • Batista also took power in Cuba in March 1952 by non-electoral means. (Most experts on pre-Castro Cuban history forget that Batista first entered Cuban politics in 1940.)

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  • Only 15,000 dead by firing squad (after trials and to enormous public clamor “al paradon !” for justice for these Batistiano esbiros) ? Dale, Olga, you can do better than this ! You and your ilk normally say Fidel was a mass-murder who slaughtered 100s of thousands. C’mon, give us your best “Tropical Gulag” speech…

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  • Alex Slaets, the article wasn’t about Pedro Pan – or else I would have gone more in depth. But nothing I said was false. Think about this logically: With all of the controls that Cuba was putting in place, why would a group of 30 unaccompanied minors who showed up at José Martí airport be allowed to board a plane and leave hassle-free? The CIA may have organized the operation and stoked (already present) fears of state guardianship of children – but make no mistake that the Catholic Church, Cuban parents, & the Cuban government all supported the operation as well. The state realized that getting the children out of Cuba would make it easier for the transformation of Cuban society to run smoothly. I highly recommend a book called “The Back Channel.” Feel free to fact check the rest of the article – As any writer does, I am using arguments to make a case and support my point, but I said nothing that wasn’t factual.

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  • I agree with every word of this article. Two things:
    When this topic comes up in an interview or debate, Bernie should say, “would you like to talk about Saudi Arabia for a couple of minutes?”
    While Bernie made some naive remarks (this article didn’t mention the one about how he was impressed that there are taxis everywhere in Cuba), the BIG problem is Bernie’s followers. I saw an article last week about how one of the Sunday morning talking heads said that the Democrats could write off Florida if Bernie were the nominee. This brought out comments from Bernie Bros along the lines of “those Cuban refugees were all Batista supporters”. REALLY? All 1.1 million of them? You don’t get people to vote for your guy by insulting them. And some of the Bernie Bros are Stalinists.

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    • Thanks Ron for the thoughtful comment that so well addresses the issues posed by the article at hand.

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  • This article is completely lacking in balance or context. It simply says that everything is very bad.
    Whoever it is who comes up against trump (regardless of any admiration they may have for Cuba’s literary campaign etc), it is preferable for the human race that they succeed.
    The crazed liar-in-chief currently in charge in the USofA is infinitely more dangerous to the world at large than any Cuban leader has ever been or ever will be.

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  • Obama said the same thing as Sanders. People are making a mountain out of a molehill

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