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Socialism and Tsuris in Miami

During Wednesday’s democratic debate, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders was given the chance to explain his version of socialism, but he missed the mark

Paul Berman
March 10, 2016
Gaston De Cardenas/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during the democratic presidential debate with Hillary Clinton in Miami, Florida, March 9, 2016. Gaston De Cardenas/AFP/Getty Images
Gaston De Cardenas/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during the democratic presidential debate with Hillary Clinton in Miami, Florida, March 9, 2016. Gaston De Cardenas/AFP/Getty Images

The trouble with Bernie is that even now he stumbles over the word socialism.

At Wednesday’s debate in Miami with Hillary, María Elena Salinas of Univision asked him for clarity: “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.” She quoted an interview with Bernie from 1985, in which he said nice things about Fidel Castro: “He educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed their society.”

Salinas posed her question in a friendly way. There is, in fact, a difference between the socialism that Bernie professes and the version of it that can be found in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela. His response should have fallen easily from his lips. The socialism that he professes is a political tradition that descends from the old Socialist Party of America from the days of Eugene Debs, which is a tradition that can be found in Western Europe in our own time—a tradition that is entirely democratic, without the slightest impulse to establish dictatorships. The socialist tradition, in this version, is an anti-communist tradition—a political tradition that, during the Cold War between the democratic West and the Soviet bloc, sided openly with the democratic West. Still, it is true that another definition of socialism does exist, which is the Soviet Union’s. Lenin established the Soviet Union as a dictatorship, but he called it the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which meant dictatorial republics under the rule of Lenin himself, and his successors.

A Latin American version of Western European socialism does exist—in Costa Rica, for example. In Cuba, though, socialism means Communism. Nicaragua in the past and Venezuela more recently have resembled Cuba in this respect, in populist style. In Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, alternative definitions of socialism did exist, at one time. But the alternative definitions were defeated and crushed.

Bernie was clear enough in his support for democracy. “Cuba is, of course, an authoritarian undemocratic country, and I hope very much as soon as possible it becomes a democratic country,” he said, winning applause from the Miami audience. He couldn’t help himself, though. He continued. “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.”

Only, why on “the other hand?” Why today, 30 years after the interview that Salinas quoted? No one denies the communist achievements in public health and public education. Many people have achieved commendable things, however, without meriting a phrase that begins, “on the other hand.” In Nicaragua, the Somoza dictatorship ruled for more than 40 gruesome years and succeeded in building highways, hospitals, and a potable water system for certain of the big cities, which was commendable, sort of. But those achievements ought not to mean that, in speaking about the Somozas, we should invoke a forgiving phrase along the lines of saying, “But, on the other hand, it would be wrong not to state that the Somoza dictatorship….”

The pity of it is that, in south Florida, substantial portions of the population—the exiles from Cuba, together with exiles from Nicaragua (a large number of people) and from Venezuela—are more sophisticated than Bernie on these points. He could have acknowledged the sufferings of those people. And he could have clarified his principles by saying, “The socialism of Costa Rica, yes! The communism of Cuba, no!” And a large public would have understood him.

Hillary was clearer: “And I just want to add one thing to the question you were asking Senator Sanders. 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.” She, too, won applause—in this instance, my own applause.

Here is one more sign of Bernie’s incapacity in foreign affairs. Here, too, is a challenge for Barack Obama. When he travels to Cuba and meets Raúl Castro, will President Obama be able to hold Hillary’s points in mind? Or will he be thinking Bernie’s thoughts? I am hoping for the former.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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