During the Miami Democratic debate (3/9/16), Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked about sympathetic comments he had made in 1985 about the left-wing leaders of Cuba and Nicaragua. Despite repeated questioning, Sanders refused to retract his remarks:
MARIA ELENA SALINAS, UNIVISION: Senator, in retrospect, have you ever regretted the characterizations that you made of Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro that way?
SANDERS: The key issue here was whether the United States should go around overthrowing small Latin American countries. I think that that was a mistake …
SALINAS: You didn’t answer the question.
SANDERS: … Both in Nicaragua and Cuba. Look, let’s look at the facts here. Cuba is, of course, an authoritarian, undemocratic country, and I hope very much as soon as possible it becomes a democratic country. But on the other hand, it would be wrong not to state that in Cuba they have made some good advances in healthcare. They are sending doctors all over the world. They have made some progress in education. I think by restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba, it will result in significant improvements to the lives of Cubans and it will help the United States and our business community invest.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up moments later:
You know, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere.
Clinton’s sudden—and hypocritical—support for “human rights” notwithstanding, the moment was predictable as it was routine. It’s been 25 years since the end of the Cold War, so younger voters may not be used to these types of loyalty rituals. But whenever the issue of socialism—or communism, its more fear-inducing cousin—comes up, the press must attempt to compel those who have previously expressed support or sympathy for red politics to “denounce” their prior statements. Sanders’ refusal to do so caused noticeable agitation among the moderators.
It’s to be expected that this line of questioning would be advanced by Univision, which has deep ties to anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Miami. Lead debate moderator Jorge Ramos—who, to his credit, is open about his “point-of-view journalism”—has long been a harsh critic of socialist governments in Latin America. In addition to his standard on air and online editorials, Ramos and Univision partnered with media giant Disney to create Fusion, a nominally left media publication that frequently criticizes the leftist government of Venezuela and communist Cuba. (Univision is owned by an investment group led by Haim Saban, Clinton’s single-biggest financial backer.)
A handful of Clinton partisans jumped at the chance to paint Sanders as a far-left loony who likes to cozy up to “dictators.” Salon’s Amanda Marcotte, one of the media’s most reliable Clinton boosters, jumped right in, linking to a recent Daily Beast piece by Michael Moynihan, former senior editor of libertarian Reason magazine and current Vice/Bank of America talkshow host, who did a rundown of Sanders’ dreaded leftist past. Suddenly, a topic Marcotte had never once tweeted about, or expressed any public concern for, was of utmost importance and needed to be brought to the forefront of public discourse.
The Daily Beast’s Jonathan Alter followed suit, tweeting out after Sanders praised Cuban healthcare, “Bernie a lefty sucker for Cuban line on healthcare. If he got sick there, he’d medevac out. And where’s his concern for human rights there?” Alter’s concern about “human rights” was hard to discern when he wrote “Time to Think About Torture” for Newsweek in November 2001, imploring liberals to consider the practice so long as it didn’t involve “cattle prods or rubber hoses.” In his almost 6,000 tweets, this is the first time Alter’s employed the words “human rights.” Like Marcotte, such urgent liberal principles only seem to pop up when it serves their preferred candidate’s talking points.
A third such instance again involved the Daily Beast, which published “Hey, Bernie, Don’t Lecture Me About Socialism,” by Garry Kasparov. Kasparov, chair of the dubious Human Rights Foundation, is the author of the subtly titled book, Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. In his piece, the famous chess player-cum-neocon offered up some warmed-over capitalist bromides:
And that while inequality is a huge problem, the best way to increase everyone’s share of pie is to make the pie bigger, not to dismantle the bakery…. A society that relies too heavily on redistributing wealth eventually runs out of wealth to redistribute. The historical record is clear. It’s capitalism that brought billions of people out of poverty in the 20th century. It’s socialism that enslaved them and impoverished them.
It’s no surprise the Daily Beast would be ground zero for Sanders red-baiting; this is, after all, the publication that claimed communist Cuban troops had been deployed to Syria based entirely on one spurious Fox News report, and despite numerous requests from FAIR to do so, refused to correct this error. There’s something almost charming about the Daily Beast’s crusading Cold War posture in 2016, or at least there would be if it didn’t serve as fodder for Clinton partisans to offer tacit apologies for Reagan’s right-wing death squads.
So far, the smear doesn’t seem to have picked up much traction. Though the Washington Post, Business Insider and Talking Points Memo did straight reporting on the issue—thus helping advance the trope—generally the effect of these tactics don’t seem to have as much purchase as they used to.
Nevertheless, the enterprise of demanding those on the left “denounce” governments unfriendly to the United States, particularly socialist ones, remains a favorite pastime of centrist media—such is the function of those seeking to push Sanders on his support for the Cuban and Sandinista governments.
The Daily Beast’s Moynihan postured on Twitter: “What I learned from Twitter: The Somoza and Batista dictatorships were bad, so supporting the dictatorships that replaced them is good.” As Sanders noted, the Cuban government is undemocratic, but the Nicaraguan government that replaced Somoza is in no sense a dictatorship. The Sandinistas stood for election in 1984, winning 67 percent of the vote. Then they stepped down when they were voted out in 1990. They were voted back in in 2006, and were re-elected in 2011. This is peculiar behavior for a “dictatorship.”
In the 1980s, when Sanders was praising the Sandinistas, there were some limits on civil liberties; for example, the US-funded newspaper La Prensa faced censorship. Since the US at the time was also funding the Contras, a guerrilla army that was systematically killing civilians in an effort to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, under current US law the leadership of La Prensa would have been imprisoned for providing material assistance to terrorists.
There’s a stark contrast between the Univision moderator taking Sanders to task for 30-year-old comments about Nicaragua, and the lack of any questions about Hillary Clinton’s policies as secretary of State toward Honduras. After Honduras’ left-leaning elected president was overthrown in a 2009 coup, Clinton worked behind the scenes to legitimize the coup regime—with the result that Honduras is now one of the most violent nations on Earth.
Clinton will, no doubt, not be asked to denounce the coup she helped usher in. That’s because only Sanders had the gall to support countries under attack by the United States, and must therefore play the tedious “denouncing” game.
Sanders, as candidates for the presidency often do, has also praised the US, but he will never be asked to denounce his country for killing of millions of Indochinese in the 1960s and 1970s. Clinton, who has infamously praised Henry Kissinger, will never be asked to denounce the former Nixon aide for personally overseeing the terror bombing of Cambodia that killed at least 150,000 civilians.
Condemnations, in the centrist press, only work one way. Crimes carried out by capitalist countries, namely the US, are one-off “mistakes” or “follies” or “blunders,” while the offenses of socialist countries are existential products of an unmitigated evil that must be categorically denounced — lest one be called a dictator or commie apologist. Recalling America’s past, one gets a line-item veto—LBJ’s civil rights record, good; the carnage of Vietnam, bad—but when it’s America’s enemies, it’s all or nothing.
Such a double standard shows not a concern for human rights, but for weaponizing liberal sympathies: namely, the idea of human rights, used to muddy the waters and ultimately promote America’s imperial ends. It is an almost 90-year-long tradition—and one on full, depressing display in the latest round of Sanders red-baiting.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.