Dictatorships and Double Standards: Bernie Sanders on Castro’s Cuba
American foreign policy over the past half-century towards Latin America and its people and Cuba, in particular, have included harrowing examples of hypocrisy and indifference to human rights.
In the last Democratic presidential debate, candidate Bernie Sanders was asked about his views on Communism in Latin America. He’s made controversial statements in the past perceived by some to be sympathetic towards Left-leaning authoritarian regimes, particularly Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the former Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
The question directed at Sanders was pointed, but fair. It was appropriate given the time and place. The debate was held in Miami, home to a large number of Cuban-Americans, many of them the descendants of
gangsters and thugs so-called “political refugees” who fled the island-nation soon after Fulgencio Batista’s corrupt and brutal dictatorship was toppled by Castro-led revolutionary forces on New Year’s Eve in 1958.
As I said, the question was entirely appropriate, just as his response was unequivocally revealing. Unapologetic without being defiant, within the severely-limited time frame Sanders attempted to explain the absurd hypocrisy of America’s long and deeply-disturbing love-affair with many awful Right-wing military juntas throughout the Latin American region, while at the same time expressing our righteous indignation over a Communist regime that’s somehow lasted for 57 years (and counting). Sanders’ explanation was prefaced by a grainy three-decades-old video of a casual conversation with a reporter who captured the then-mayor of Burlington (Vermont) speaking off-the-cuff about the United States’ highly-questionable political and military interventions in Central and South America, which was a hot topic during the mid-1980s. For those too young to remember and those who might have forgotten, Central America was back then what the Middle East is now — often the lead story on the evening news and the headline in many newspapers. We must remember Sanders’s comments within the context of those combustible times.
As I watched Sanders being grilled for statements that took place 31 years ago, followed by an explosion of cringe-worthy ignorance on Twitter and other forms of social media, I began to ponder why the other presidential candidates — particularly Republicans — haven’t been asked similar questions about their views on Latin American politics and the underhanded policy of covert regime change. Without exception, every Republican presidential candidate in the race has worshiped at the holy altar of Saint Reagan, who as the president made no attempt whatsoever to hide his full support for bloody military-backed regimes which cracked down on labor unions, imprisoned political opposition, shut down media, ceased democratic elections, murdered thousands of innocents, and terrified tens of millions. Facts can be funny things, except that no one’s laughing.
Shouldn’t Sen. Marco Rubio have been asked about his fawning adoration of the Cuban exile community, which he so proudly represents — many of whom are the looters, the children, and the grandchildren of Batista’s military cutthroats and most faithful foot soldiers in Havana’s once Mafia-owned and operated casinos? How can a major presidential candidate be just one generation removed from an awful military dictatorship which subjugated the populace, while taking its grift from La Costa Nostra, while squashing workers forced into servitude picking fruit for American companies, and never once be questioned about this romantic infatuation with the pre-Castro era? So — Sanders made a few errant remarks about Cuba back when Reagan was president, and it became debate material in the year 2016. Fine. Meanwhile, Rubio who spawned from a fascist regime that’s estimated to have murdered at least 20,000 political opponents and other undesirables (with full U.S. military and economic backing during the 1950’s) somehow has nothing to explain. Double standards, indeed.
Speaking of Rubio, he’s lied continuously about his background. Since he first entered politics, Rubio has repeatedly played into the prevailing American mind-meld that Castro remains a nemesis, going so far as to falsely proclaim his parents fled the horrors of Castro’s Cuba. That would be a compelling narrative, provided it were true. Trouble is, records show Rubio’s parents immigrated to the United States in 1956, three years before Castro came into power. While Mr. and Mrs. Rubio Sr. were stepping off a boat in the Port of Miami with packed suitcases, Castro was then 2,000 miles away from Cuba living in the mountains of Mexico with a rag-tag band of revolutionaries, about as far removed from the Cuban premiership as he could be. Rubio has never once been asked about this discrepancy in any debate.
Sen. Ted Cruz, while personally removed from the evils of the old Batista regime (he’s actually half-Cuban — his father came to the U.S. in 1957 as a college student, but never returned to Cuba), nonetheless has heaped praise on an era when the U.S. backed military juntas, which became the mantle of Reagan’s foreign policy in Central and South America. By all accounts, those Right-wing dictatorships were just as brutal as any of the deeds done by Castro and other Latin American Leftists. Shouldn’t Cruz be questioned about his unapologetic support for American intervention in the affairs of other countries, which has repeatedly propped up similar dictatorial depots and caused mass misery?
If we’re talking about human rights and democracy, why does discussion about Cuba not lead to a more thorough inquiry? American foreign policy over the past half-century towards Latin America and its people has included harrowing examples of hypocrisy and utter indifference to human rights. While we now rightfully ponder U-S.-Cuban relations and debate the efficacy of ending the economic embargo and reopening full diplomatic relations with the Castro regime, let’s also reflect on a bigger, far more disturbing portrait of duplicity throughout the hemisphere:
Nicaragua (1930’s-1979) — The U.S.-backed Somoza family ruled Nicaragua as a murderous puppet state for 43 years before being overthrown by Leftists known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front, in 1979. The FSLN began as a Leftist dictatorship but then did hold national elections in 1986 which were judged to be fair and legitimate in which they won 67 percent of the popular vote. Nevertheless, the Sandinistas were detested by the Reagan Administration, which actively backed the opposition Contras (who were old Somoza loyalists). These Right-wing rebels spent most of the 1980s attacking, bombing, and creating economic chaos while trying to overthrow the duly-elected leadership of Nicaragua. Reagan despised Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega so deeply that his Administration actively engaged in illegal arms dealing and trading which became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
Chile (1973-1990) — Socialist candidate Salvador Allende was democratically elected in 1970 and was overthrown by the CIA.-backed Chilean military coup three years later which then resulted in the bloody 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who tortured and killed tens of thousands of his own people. It’s unlikely Pinochet would have come to power without the support of the Nixon Administration, and specifically the actions of Henry Kissinger. Recently declassified documents reveal just how atrocious Kissinger’s deeds were. Check out this source from the National Security Archive, a smoking gun if there ever was one. No wonder Henry Kissinger is now considered a war criminal by some countries and risks being arrested if he were to travel abroad to certain nations.
Guatemala (1950s-1980s) — The U.S. has supported a long line of harsh military dictatorships in Guatemala, all beholden to the United Fruit Company. When farmers tried to push for agrarian reforms in 1954 and elected a president sympathetic to workers named Jacobo Arbenz (who won in a landslide), a coup orchestrated by the State Department and CIA. resulted in nearly four decades of military juntas. Thousands of Guatemalans were massacred by government death squads with the full political and military support of the United States, through foreign aid and cozy trade agreements which enabled the United Fruit Company to exploit workers and pluck resources from the country.
El Salvador (1979-1992) — During a bloody 13-year civil war, the United States provided full military support to a brutal Right-wing dictatorship that actively used death squads to terrorize normal Salvadorans, and resulted in a mass flood of new immigration to the U.S. from those fleeing the crisis. Priests, missionaries, and even American citizens were rounded up and executed by the regime, which became a public relations nightmare for the Reagan (and later Bush) Administrations, who had an impossible task explaining why there was a crippling embargo on Cuba while bands of murderers armed with American weapons trained by “advisers” were roaming El Salvador, killing thousands of those suspected to be enemies of the state.
One could also make a compelling case that Argentina (1976-1983), Bolivia (1971-1977), and Paraguay (1954-1989) were the beneficiaries of unwavering American military, political and economic support — even though these fascist dictatorships were among the very worst offenders of human rights. Each of those regimes killed thousands and imprisoned and tortured far more. Oh, and then there’s the horrible Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, which was given massive aid for years, the U.S. Marines invading the Dominican Republic in 1965, and America’s full support for Noriega in Panama before invading and overthrowing the regime. The evidence of these crimes and inconsistencies and the role of the U.S. in this complicity is irrefutable. Where’s the historical reckoning? Where’s the re-examination of the terrible costs of meddling in the affairs of other sovereign nations?
This brings us full circle, back again to Castro’s Cuba, a revolutionary regime that didn’t begin espousing Communism until it nationalized American property holdings some 19 months after coming to power (recall that Castro came to the U.S. on a diplomatic visit for an 11-day tour in 1959, and even met cordially with then-Vice President Richard Nixon — much to the chagrin of outraged Batista exiles). Cuba’s nationalization of foreign assets, including everything from mob-run casinos to agricultural lands once owned by American fruit companies led the American government to freeze all Cuban assets in the U.S. and severe diplomatic relations. The die was cast then for Cuba’s cozy shift towards the Soviet Union, an economic embargo, and a half-century of pointless discontent.
Meanwhile, just as it had done so many times elsewhere throughout Latin America, the United States used its muscle (quite unsuccessfully) to overthrow the Castro regime. The Kennedy Administration approved and then launched the highly-embarrassing Bay of Pigs Invasion, which next led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, an act of national self-defense. Indeed, the world reached the brink of nuclear war because Castro was so fearful of another invasion that he requested Soviet ICBM’s on Cuban soil. Moreover, in violation of all international accords and protocols, American intelligence agencies conspired to murder Castro several times, using secret devices ranging from poison pens to exploding cigars. Read “Ten Ways the C.I.A. Tried to Kill Castro.”
If we’re going to ask presidential candidate Bernie Sanders about his views 31-years ago on Castro and Cuba, that’s perfectly fine. At the same time, we should be asking ourselves some very serious questions about our complicit role in numerous illegal activities and America’s irrefutable support for a far larger number of brutal Right-wing dictatorships, as well. Let’s be fair. Let’s call this charade what it truly is — a double standard on the subject of dictatorships.
Note: This column’s title is intentionally lifted from Jeane Kirkpatrick’s infamous 1979 article from “Commentary” magazine, later a 1982 book of the same name, which was widely used to justify the Reagan Administration’s intervention and aggression throughout Latin America during the 1980s.
Postscript: Former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton could also be asked a few questions about her role in the affairs of Honduras and Haiti, as this article from The Washington Post explains.