In 1985, Bernie Sanders defended Nicaragua's 'suspension of certain civil liberties'

Yesterday the Washington Post published a story headlined “Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy is a risk for Democrats against Trump.” If you’re a regular reader then you’ve already seen some of the material cataloged in this story but there were several eye-popping things I hadn’t seen before, all of which were given to the Post by a rival Democratic campaign. One of those was a 1983 letter from a Soviet spy:

A Democratic official associated with a rival campaign — and concerned that Sanders’s foreign policy record will be a liability in the general election — sent me a batch of documents from the Sanders archive at the University of Vermont about his foreign policy activity as mayor of Burlington in the 1980s.

One issue involves Sanders’s stance toward the former Soviet Union, a record that could undercut Democrats’ ability to criticize Trump for being too close to Russia today.

The documents from the Sanders archives include a letter from Soviet Embassy First Secretary Vadim Kuznetsov in March 1983, congratulating Sanders on his reelection as mayor and thanking Sanders for receiving him in Sanders’s office. Kuznetsov had been in Burlington to attend a conference on nuclear disarmament at the University of Vermont a few days earlier. Neither Sanders nor conference organizers appear to have read a 1976 Time magazine article that identified Kuznetsov as a member of a “Soviet intelligence squad” posing as diplomats to infiltrate U.S. politics.

The fact that Sanders was cozy with a Soviet spy just a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union is almost too perfect and yet it’s true. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing this appear in a general election campaign ad.

The other letter given to the Post is even more worrisome. In Nov. 1985 a Burlington, Vermont resident named Edward Pike wrote Sanders about the Sandinista’s suspension of human rights. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Mayor Sanders, this is the same government which invited you to visit, and which you declared was governing its citizens in accordance with basic human and civil rights, rights that were recently revoked by Daniel Ortega.” He continued, “If you consider yourself a true civil libertarian, and I presume that you do, I think that it is high time for you to eat crow, and realize that this government is but another in a long line of dictatorships whose only true concern is the length of its stay in power.”

Bernie’s response doesn’t deny that human rights have been abridged in Nicaragua. “It’s my view that the point you make regarding Nicaragua and the temporary suspension of certain civil liberties is considerably more complex than your letter indicates,” he wrote. “Nicaragua, a tiny and impoverished nation of three million, is today fighting a brutal war—with their enemy being totally financed by the most powerful nation on earth. The democratically-elected government of Nicaragua has made the decision that, like many other countries engaged in war, they will not allow their enemy the total freedom to defeat them and destroy their government.”

Sanders went on to say the situation was comparable to Japanese interment in WWII: “As you’ll recall—in a totally unconstitutional manner—thousands of Japanese Americans on the west coast were herded into concentration camps as a war time protection measure—amd the war was being fought thousands of miles from California.”

Bernie really seems to be trying to have it both ways here. He’s saying internment was wrong and unconstitutional but he’s also saying that what Nicaragua is doing is justifiable. Shouldn’t he just say what Nicaragua is doing is wrong? But he can’t bring himself to do that.

Back in 2016, Sanders was asked about the crisis in Venezuela and essentially said he was too focused on campaigning to spare a thought on that. He was asked about it again nearly a year ago and refused to call Nicolas Maduro a dictator. Even more recently he has said he does not regret his support for the Sandinistas.

I guess you can give him points for consistency, but I think most Americans would agree Sanders was wrong to support the Soviet Union and that there’s really no doubt that Daniel Ortega and Nicolas Maduro are tyrants. What’s worrisome is that even now Sanders can’t admit it. Here’s what I wrote about this last year:

This is one of the most worrisome things about the modern American promoters of socialism. They are unwilling or unable to recognize the degree to which the examples of “bad socialism” they seek to disassociate themselves from started out as the “good socialism” they support. For instance, Hugo Chavez started with the goal of creating a more equal society. He promised, in a televised speech back in 2008, that his revolution would avoid the mistakes made by the Soviet Union. “No, we’re not going to fall into those same mistakes. Those mistakes that dogmatized that proposal and at the end of the Stalin era even tyrannized it,” Chavez said. Jump forward 11 years and Venezuela is a tyrannical hellhole where opposition figures are jailed and starving people who don’t support the revolution don’t get the food doled out by Nicolas Maduro. It all happened in the span of about 15 years. Why can’t Bernie Sanders admit it?

If Bernie Sanders wants to embrace European Social Democracy, which it seems he does these days, why can’t he admit he went too far as a younger man promoting the nationalization of entire industries and excusing socialist dictators. Why can’t he call out some of the more extreme voices on the left who have made it clear that Denmark and Sweden are not their goal and would still be too capitalist to suit their taste? If he really wants to put this behind him there’s a Sister Souljah moment waiting to happen with AOC. The fact that it hasn’t happened suggests he’s still taking a ‘no enemies on the left’ approach to socialism. But that’s not good enough when the potential consequences, like the ones in Venezuela and Nicaragua, are so dire.

The fact that Sanders has been consistently wrong on communist states run by tyrants is not charming and should not earn him points. If he had any sense he’d be ashamed of himself or, at a minimum, explain that he’s matured a lot since his mid-30s.