It’s not exactly clear where Chris Cuomo intended to go with this question in last night’s CNN town hall, but it’s perfectly clear where Bernie Sanders went. The new Democratic frontrunner ardently defended his positive gloss on Fidel Castro’s regime on 60 Minutes, and decided to double down by praising communist China as well. Sanders then claimed that pushback from House Democrats over the last two days was only motivated by their own electoral ambitions.
Well, yeah, but not in the way Bernie suggests:
CUOMO: Let’s take one more step down the road of the stigma that’s coming from some of your fellow Democrats. You said on “60 Minutes” this weekend it is unfair to simply say everything is bad with the way Fidel Castro ruled in Cuba. Now Democratic members of Congress who represent Cuban Americans in Florida — obviously you’ve got to win there — they’re attacking your comment as “absolutely unacceptable,” singing the praises of a murderous tyrant. Response?
SANDERS: The response was, when Castro first came to power, which was, when, ’59? Does that sound right?
CUOMO: ’59, ’60.
SANDERS: OK. You know what did? He initiated a major literacy program. There was a lot of folks in Cuba at that point who were illiterate. And he formed a literacy brigade — you may read that — he went out and they helped people learn to read and write. You know what? I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing. I have been extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes all over the world, including Cuba, including Nicaragua, including Saudi Arabia, including China, including Russia. I happen to believe in democracy, not authoritarianism.
But, you know, you can’t say — China is another example, all right? China is an authoritarian country, becoming more and more authoritarian. But can anyone deny — I mean, the facts are clear — that they have taken more people out of extreme poverty than any country in history? Do I get criticized because I say that? That’s the truth. So that is the fact. End of discussion.
Would that be the same communist China that keeps rounding up dissident groups into gulags, which at the moment are millions of Muslim Uighurs? The same one that forced women for a generation to get abortions to service its one-child policy, a policy that was an explicit part of the Communist Party’s poverty agenda? Let’s not forget that one method of fighting poverty they also employed was to starve tens of millions of people to death. But yay, income equality, or something.
As for Fidel’s literacy program rescuing a backward nation, that’s almost entirely PR. For that matter, so is the praise Bernie heaps on Fidel for Cuba’s national health system. We will have to see whether the Washington Post fact-check team revisits these claims in this cycle, but they’ve already done most of the work after Justin Trudeau’s similar blather about Fidel in December 2016.
Cuomo still tried to rescue Bernie from the moment, but Bernie wasn’t having it. “The truth is the truth,” Sanders declared, still defending Fidel as the patron saint of literacy:
CUOMO: So to the Democrats who say you don’t say good things about Fidel Castro, he destroyed freedoms in that country, he played — picked winners and losers and killed them and put them in prison forever. You don’t give him a pat on the back for anything.
SANDERS: You don’t — it’s not a — truth is truth, all right? Now, if you want to disagree with me, if somebody wants to say that — and by the way, all of those congresspeople that you mentioned just so happen to be supporting other candidates, just accidentally, no doubt, coincidentally. But, you know, the truth is the truth. And that’s what happened in the first years of the Castro regime.
Perhaps they just happen to be, accidentally, trying to keep their own jobs. The Hill reported just before the CNN event that Democrats see their House advantage evaporating faster than a faithful rendition of Guantanamera with a Fidel apologist at the top of the ticket:
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came under heavy criticism from Democrats on Monday after he suggested in a new interview that it was “unfair to simply say everything is bad” under the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s rule.
The uproar underscored Democrats’ fears of how Sanders would fare in the key swing state of Florida, where even remote praise of Castro is anathema to the hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who live there.
And it offered the latest example of why many Democratic lawmakers, particularly those in swing districts, worry that the self-described democratic socialist would alienate voters in some of the most competitive parts of the country.
And well they should be. Bernie’s crankery might play well on college campuses, but praise for the Socialist Heroes of Yesteryear will remind everyone else that Bernie’s serious about socialism — and that will repel most everyone else. If Democrats actually do nominate Bernie, they will pay the price for that choice in November. And likely for a long time after that, too.
Update: Just to re-emphasize — let’s remember, while Bernie praises China’s work on poverty, that Mao and the communists allowed 45 million people to starve to death in just four years.