During the CNN town hall event Monday night Bernie Sanders was challenged about his support for socialism by a student whose parents had fled Soviet Russia in the late 1970s. Sanders attempted to sidestep the question but the answer he did give was not an accurate representation of his past beliefs (at a minimum). From Fox News:
Samantha Frankel-Popell told Sanders about how socialism impacted her family’s life and grilled him on how his version of Democratic socialism will aim to be different from the socialist regimes of other countries.
“My father’s family left Soviet Russia in 1979 fleeing from some of the very same socialist policies that you seem eager to implement in this country,” the young woman said during the CNN event. “How do you rectify your notion of Democratic socialism with the failures of socialism in nearly every country that has tried it?”
Sanders smiled as Frankel-Poppel asked her question, which was met with mixed applause from the crowd.
“Thank you for asking that question,” Sanders said, before responding with a question himself. “Is it your assumption that I supported or believe in authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union? I don’t. I never have, and I opposed it. I believe in a vigorous democracy.”
Sanders may believe in vigorous democracy but he hasn’t been averse in the past to praising governments that were not vigorous democracies. It’s well known that he traveled to Russia on his honeymoon in 1988 as part of a sister-city program set up in Vermont. When he returned he and his wife praised the public transportation and culture of Russia they had experienced. This was prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Sanders has also been an outspoken fan of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. From the Daily Beast:
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…
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.”
Sanders was also a fan and defenders of Castro’s Cuba. From Slate:
Three years ago, during a primary debate against Hillary Clinton hosted by Univision and the Washington Post in Miami, Sanders was shown a video shot in 1985 while he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in which he spoke about Nicaragua and enthusiastically described how Fidel Castro had “totally transformed” Cuban society, providing education and health care. After Univision anchor María Elena Salinas followed up, Sanders acknowledged Cuba as an “authoritarian, undemocratic country” but then proceeded to praise the Castro regime, again, for its “advances in health care” (a dubious claim at best).
A few days after the debate, Sanders appeared on CNN. When Anderson Cooper brought up the exchange in Miami, asking Sanders if Castro’s revolution had indeed benefited the Cuban people, Sanders tried to dismiss the question, pivoting toward the (admittedly immoral and tragic) history of American intervention in the region. When Cooper tried to get a straight answer, Sanders promptly accused him of “redbaiting” and repeated his condemnation-praise routine of the Castro government.
In fact, if you go back to the 1970s, you’ll find Sanders himself calling for the nationalization of major industries. Sanders was asked about that a bit later in the evening last night. As host Chris Cuomo quotes some of Sanders socialist preferences, Sanders interjected, “When did I say that?”
“In the 70s,” Cuomo replied.
“Okay, right. What did you say in the 70s,” Sanders said. He went on to say, “I was the mayor of a city for eight years, did I nationalize any of the industry in the city of Burlington, Vermont?”
A mayor doesn’t really have the power needed to nationalize anything. The point is that at one point he genuinely thought it was a good idea. At the same time that Samantha Frankel-Popell’s family was fleeing the Soviet Union, Bernie was hoping to bring the glories of full communism here.
It’s certainly fair for Bernie to argue he has mellowed over the years but has he? In an interview with Jorge Ramos a couple of months ago, Sanders refused to condemn Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela as a dictator. The worst he would say was that Maduro had been “very abusive.”
If Democrats choose to let him shrug off his past statements as if it’s nothing that’s up to them, but he has always had an ideological sympathy for communist dictators and it appears to some degree he still does.