Is this Bernie Sander’s “David Duke” moment? When asked to differentiate his brand of social from the communist leader Fidel Castro, Sanders had little to say. The Univision/CNN/Facebook debate featured video of then Mayor Sanders explaining why he believed the Cuban people had not staged an insurrection against Cuba, and why then President Ronald Reagan was wrong to think that Nicaraguans would do the same against the leftist government there. “They had forgotten that he educated their kids, gave them health care,” he said in the video, adding that the Castros had “totally transformed their society” but also qualifying his statement “You know, not to say that Fidel Castro or Cuba are perfect, they are certainly not.”
“In South Florida there are still open wounds among some exiles regarding socialism and communism. So please explain what is the difference between the socialism that you profess and the socialism in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela,” Univision anchor María Elena Salinas asked.
Sanders got two chances to divorce his “democratic socialist” label from 1960s Cuban communism. At first he focused on the failures of U.S. intervention in Latin America, and historical support for regime change towards brutal dictatorships. But he didn’t really answer the question. Then the moderator gave him another shot.
“Look, let's look at the facts here,” Sanders said. “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 health care. They are sending doctors all over the world. They have made some progress in education.”
Not unlike the time that Donald Trump hesitated to “disavow” David Duke while his opponents call him racist, Sanders failed to distance himself sharply from Fidel Castro while his critics call him a communist. No worse a place could he have lobbed the flub than in South Florida, in Miami, about a five-minute walk from Freedom Tower, the Ellis Island of Cubans fleeing the Castro regime.
It might not have been a fair question -- the Florida equivalent of comparing yourself to Hitler -- but it could have been easily and directly answered. Hillary Clinton seized on Sander’s blunder a few seconds later.
“I just want to add one thing to the question you were asking Senator Sanders,” she said, after a short response to a question about Puerto Rico. “I think in that same interview, he praised what he called the revolution of values in Cuba and talked about how people were working for the common good, not for themselves. I just couldn't disagree more. You know, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you 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.”
Just like that, Clinton connected the Castro regime in Cuba to Sanders calls for a “political revolution” in American politics. Sanders, in turn might have missed an opportunity to hit Clinton for her alleged role in help smooth over a Honduran coup in 2009.
After the debate, the Clinton campaign immediately seized on the David Duke/Donald Trump parallel by using the word "disavow."
"Bernie Sanders just refused to disavow his past support for Fidel Castro," the campaign said on the candidate's website.
Expect Republicans to be seizing on Sanders’ blunder too, as they too prepare for a contentious primary of their own. Cuban American GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio announced his campaign in Freedom Tower and has vehemently opposed warming relations with Cuba under the Obama administration, which both Clinton and Sanders support.
A parallel between Castro and Sanders? Well you can be sure he’ll pick up on that.
The original video of Sander’s 1985 video has been reposted and recut by both supporters and detractors. Here’s a long cut of it, below.