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Bernie Sanders’s Dumb Defense of Fidel Castro

The late Cuban strongman was everything the Democratic front-runner has long railed against: a grifting plutocrat from the top one percent.

Cengiz Yar/Getty Images

Earlier this week, after he’d become the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders slipped and fell face-first on a series of comments he’d made when he was decades younger—and which, for some inexplicable reason, he decided to defend on his march to taking on Donald Trump for the presidency. Having previously offered qualified defenses of Fidel Castro’s brutal, decades-long regime in Cuba, Sanders told CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday that Castro’s “literacy program” was praiseworthy. “It’s unfair to simply say everything [under Castro] is bad,” Sanders added, noting that “the truth is the truth.”

In fairness to Sanders, there is some truth to the truth. Literacy rates under Castro skyrocketed, as they did across many of the vicious Communist regimes in places like Albania or the Soviet Union. That truth, however, elides an important fact: A litany of other governments have overseen substantial improvements in literacy or health care outcomes without simultaneously suffering through decades of dictatorship, disappearances, and disastrous economic reforms that have immiserated an entire island.

Castro’s accomplishments—a common talking point among the leftist milieu the Vermont senator emerged from in the late Cold War period—came alongside a raft of barbaric policies that, at least in the Americas, were without compare. Castro, for instance, “imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands more of his own people than any other Latin American dictator,” as one Yale history professor recounted after the Cuban tyrant’s 2016 death. That makes a certain, facile sense: Castro was the longest-ruling dictator the twentieth century saw, after all.

But that lone figure hardly captures the depravity Castro’s regime brought to bear in Cuba. As one analysis in Foreign Policy noted, Cuba collapsed under Castro’s regime into one of the poorest countries in the Americas, crumbling into an economic basket case despite tens of billions of dollars in subsidies from the Soviet Union. The economic implosion came amid Castro’s edicts that Cubans could no longer join any independent unions or go on strike—all as Castro continued imprisoning political prisoners by the tens of thousands, including placing LGBTQ Cubans in what Amherst political science professor Javier Corrales described as “concentration camps.”

None of these policies had a direct impact on the literacy rates Sanders has praised. But what’s a remarkable literacy rate worth when the only things on hand to read are state-sponsored paeans to Castro’s enduring despotism? Not only was everything from libraries to mass media neutered and censored under Castro, but when he formally stepped down in 2008, Castro’s Cuba was the only country besides China that had more than 20 journalists jailed for the crime of plying their trade. The post-Castro regime has only continued this legacy: In Reporters Without Borders’ most recent Press Freedom Index, Cuba ranks dead last among all nations in the Americas—good for 169th out of 180 total countries worldwide; coming in behind fellow dictatorships like Azerbaijan and Equatorial Guinea.

Sanders’s comments, while true, miss the dictatorial forest for the trees. But what’s far more surprising is the way they glide past the fact that Castro and his family are no different from any of the other dictatorial claques Sanders has previously criticized in other instances. That is to say, Castro’s rule was no different from the other regimes ransacking their populations and hoovering up massive wealth for themselves and their inner circles—all the while taking full advantage of all the innovations that modern kleptocracy offers both authoritarians and blood-soaked brutalists.

Forbes, which remains the go-to for those trying to calculate the mountains of ill-gotten boodle amassed by scheming oligarchs the world over, estimated that Castro grew his net worth into the hundreds of millions during his 50-year reign. Much of this staggering wealth stemmed from Castro’s oversight of a range of state-backed concerns, including retail and pharmaceutical conglomerates, as well as Havana’s convention center. Castro’s former bodyguard wrote a 2014 book outlining much of the dictator’s extravagance, from private islands to 85-foot yachts to a luxurious compound with, oddly, a personal dairy cow for every member of the Castro family.

Castro repeatedly denied that he had risen to the ranks of the kleptocratic one percent, routinely claiming that he subsisted on just under $40 per month. To take Castro’s denials at face value (as some on the American far left continue to do), you have to believe he’s the first decades-long dictator in the history of decades-long dictatorships to not amass a colossal personal fortune.

But you don’t have to have all the details of Castro’s regime-sponsored thievery to get a glimpse of how he and his family have profited. Just look at his progeny and those who’ve enjoyed the fruits of Castro’s regime. A few years ago, Castro’s son, Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, was spotted snapping up a number of the most opulent suites in a Mediterranean resort in southern Turkey, hopping aboard a luxury yacht, and sunning in Mykonos for good measure. (When a Turkish journalist started taking photos of Antonio’s indulgences, one of the bodyguards for Castro’s son started beating up the reporter.)

And the kleptocratic apple didn’t fall far from Castro’s tree. Castro’s grandson, Antonio’s son Tony, maintains an Instagram account dedicated to capturing all the affluence he’s enjoyed the past few years. As The Miami Herald recounted, it displays vacations in Barcelona and Mexico’s luxe Maya Riviera, yacht-chartered journeys, and succulent meals that most Cubans can only dream of. As one Instagram commenter noted, “All the animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” a nod to George Orwell’s Animal Farm—a book that is, ironically enough, banned in Cuba, in spite of the country’s considerable literacy.

All of which is to say that Castro’s regime is, just like any other ruthless dictatorship of the past few decades, as kleptocratic as any other—no different from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijan, or Xi Jinping’s China, or any of the other regimes dedicated to the pillage of the many for the profit of the few.

This is how Sanders should be describing Castro’s regime. Instead of praising Cuba’s literacy rate, he should be likening Havana directly to the kinds of regimes he’s assailed elsewhere for swindling their populations and parking their illicit wealth abroad. Sanders, in fact, has one of the strongest anti-corruption and anti-kleptocracy planks that any major presidential nominee has ever put forth. His proposals range from ending anonymous American shell companies to criminalizing the actions of those demanding bribes of Americans abroad. These are the precise policies that would disembowel the kinds of regimes still exploiting modern kleptocratic mechanisms, including nominal “leftist” autocracies like those in Havana or Caracas.

Sanders has not previously evinced any reluctance in calling out these kinds of kleptocratic regimes brutalizing their own populations. His commentary on Serbian genocidaire Slobodan Milošević still resounds after 20 years. When announcing his support for the NATO bombing of Milosevic’s genocidal forces, Sanders pronounced, “What do you do to a war criminal who has led for the first time in modern history the organized rape, as an agent of war, of tens of thousands of women? What do you do to a butcher who has lined up people and shot them? Do you say to them, ‘You have won, Mr. Milosevic. We are not going to stand up to you. We are going home’?”

At the time of Sanders’s comments, Milosevic was simultaneously trying to whisk hundreds of millions of dollars out of Serbia, finding a safe home in the West—using the same mechanisms that kleptocratic rulers like Putin or Xi or, yes, Castro used to strip their countries bare and accrue mountains of private wealth, the better to pass down to their descendants to continue the grift. Sanders has some of the best policies to end this circle of mass, internationalized graft—but he needs to link his principled response to these thieving aristocrats to the regimes that he has somehow felt a need to occasionally praise. That might alienate members of decades-old leftist salons who still natter on about Castro’s accomplishments in literacy, but that constituency cannot swing an election.