Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Sirico Parables book

Transatlantic Blog

The key to understanding Bernie Sanders

    Fresh off a stunning series of victories in Nevada, New Hampshire, and (probably) Iowa, Senator Bernie Sanders celebrated by telling the media about the political triumphs – of Fidel Castro.

    The Democratic presidential front-runner told 60 Minutes on Sunday that he’s “very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but, you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad, you know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program.”

    Sanders insists he favors Nordic social democracies, but he has sung the praises of virtually every Marxist regime of his time, including Castro’s Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. He managed only tepid criticism of their abysmal human rights records, while offering a full-throated and monochromatic condemnation of U.S. foreign policy. The pattern had become familiar enough that the crowd at Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina booed when Sanders said, “Cuba’s made progress on education.”

    The false equivalence of the country’s best-known “democratic socialist” serves to highlight the moral confusion inherent in socialism of any variety. And it allows us to identify the faulty reasoning Sanders uses to whitewash regimes guilty of history’s worst human rights abuses.

    Give him this: Sanders is nothing if not consistent. After an eight-day visit to Havana in March 1989, he said, “Cuba has solved some very important problems. I did not see a hungry child. I did not see any homeless people.” He raved about the nation’s “free health care, free education, free housing.”

    Cuba fit into Sanders’ overarching pattern of extolling Marxist strongmen. The Vermont gadfly visited Nicaragua in July 1985, six years into the Sandinistas’ dictatorship. There, he attended a rally where Daniel Ortega promised to “defend the revolution with guns in hand,” and the crowds chanted, “Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die!” When Sanders returned to Burlington, he called Ortega “an impressive guy” and fashioned a defense of the Nicaraguan strongman that eerily presaged the one he now offers for Cuba:

    Is [the Sandinistas’] crime that they have built new health clinics, schools, and distributed land to the peasants? Is their crime that they have given equal rights to women? Or that they are moving forward to wipe out illiteracy?

    In the same way, Sanders and his wife, Jane, had only positive things to say about the Soviet Union, where the newlyweds chose to honeymoon. Sanders marveled at the beauty of the nation’s subway system and its cultural programs for young people.

    Venezuela, too, became the object of Sanders’ socialist affection. In 2011, the senator’s website posted a “must read” editorial from the Valley News that averred, “These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than” the U.S. Even after Nicolás Maduro transparently rigged the last election, Sanders refused to call him a dictator, because there are “still democratic operations” in Venezuela. His remark came just days after Maduro’s forces killed four protesters, including a 16-year-old boy.

    The false equivalence of the country’s best-known “democratic socialist” serves to highlight the moral confusion inherent in socialism of any variety.

    Sanders’ rose-colored view of socialism establishes a pattern of moral deficiency that turns a blind eye to the crimes of Marxists, the suffering of their citizens, and anything that might present socialism in a bad light. His collectivism makes him eager to hold socialists to a lower standard and engage in special pleading on their behalf. And his ideological mania compels him to overlook the rights and inherent dignity of Marxism’s victims to maintain his faith in collectivism.

    Of course, the reason Sanders did not see any homeless people in Cuba is because his minders did not let him see any. Communist regimes ran a tidy business in the 1980s escorting credulous Western leftists through Potemkin villages like the ones Sanders toured. But Castro’s crimes against humanity were scarcely a secret to those curious enough to inquire about them. The Communist government in Havana has killed nearly 11,000 innocent people, according to the Cuba Archive database.  

    Even Sanders’ beloved “literacy campaigns” were merely another form of indoctrination, which replaced genuine education. Cuban exile Fabiola Santiago, a Democrat, wrote in Wednesday’s Miami Herald of her mother’s participation in literacy campaigns in the Cuban countryside in the early 1950s. Her mom, a teacher in pre-Castro Cuba, “drove a Jeep … part of the way, then she rode a horse that was brought to her so she could reach the one-room school house” in the remote countryside. 

    That ended when Castro initiated the putative social work Sanders so admires. Santiago lost her academic standing, because she refused to wear a red scarf, signaling her support of Castro – when she was eight years old. Her family fled the island. “Yes, they taught us to read and write. And then they forbade us to read what we want and write what we think,” said another Cuban exile, Tania Bruguera, who is described as a progressive lesbian.

    Sanders’ ability to ignore socialism's worst outrages seemingly extends to every workers’ paradise. Katya Sedgwick, who grew up in the USSR, recalled attending cultural events for young people, such as those Sanders lauded. They took place in a children’s facility “named after Stalin’s henchman Pavel Postyshev,” who “presided over Red Terror, purges, and Holodomor.” What should it signal that the Soviets named their buildings after mass murderers, or that Sanders finds the matter unworthy of discussion?

    Sanders has balked when citizens questioned him about his comrades' human rights abuses. Characteristic is a letter then-Mayor Sanders wrote to a constituent in Burlington, dated November 8, 1985. The citizen asked how Sanders could stand by Ortega’s Sandinista government, which censored the media and bombed a press conference in La Penca, killing three journalists.

    Sanders replied, in effect, that different rules applied. “Nicaragua, a tiny and impoverished nation of three million, is today fighting a brutal war – with their enemy being totally financed by the most powerful nation on earth,” Sanders wrote. “The democratically-elected government of Nicaragua has made the decision that, like many other countries engaged in war, they will not allow their enemy the total freedom to defeat them and destroy their government.” He likened the Sandinistas’ crackdown to President Lincoln’s actions “to preserve the Union” during the Civil War.

    Ultimately, socialist utopianism devolves into situational ethics, idolatry, envy, scapegoating, and disregard for human life.

    This specious moral reasoning rings a deep, discordant bell among all those who encountered or are conversant with the Left during the Cold War. Western fellow travelers justified Stalin’s show trials, Castro’s persecutions, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution as, perhaps regretful, but necessary to defend the greater good of the socialist revolution. The noxious notion that the ends justify any means is as endemic among Marxism’s defenders as it is within socialism itself. 

    One by one, the socialists’ idols came crashing down. Secret speeches exposed their crimes. Dissidents smuggled out undeniable evidence. Socialists found themselves caught in a moral and practical conundrum. Economic collectivism concentrates power in the hands of the government, which may then exert its will on a powerless populace.

    To cope, democratic socialists created an interpretive hermeneutic that is key to understanding Bernie Sanders’ moral equivalence. It explains why Sanders cannot condemn any Marxist dictator without simultaneously praising him. Western socialists claimed that “the Cold War polarized capitalist and communist countries into East and West, with each emphasizing different types of rights,” wrote David Shiman, a Burlington-based activist and former professor at the University of Vermont. The West secured “civil and political rights,” while the Eastern Bloc allegedly guaranteed “economic and social rights.”

    Western socialists accorded these competing sets of “rights” equal value. This renders socialists incapable of criticizing totalitarian regimes of the Left. Instead, Sanders and others attempt to give each nation a box score: On the one hand, Marxism killed 100 million people in 100 years; on the other hand, Castro (purportedly) provided “literacy campaigns” and national healthcare. In this reckoning, Marxism’s surplus of good intentions about “economic rights” compensate for its dearth of “political rights.”  

    For true believers, the impossible, earthly utopia promised by socialism displaces true religion and, with it, traditional morality. Their new interpretive tool – call it “the hermeneutic of equivalence” – devalues the West’s traditional belief in inestimable human dignity and asserts that humanity's social nature can be entirely fulfilled by the state. Yet it is only "from the Christian vision of the human person" that "there necessarily follows a correct picture of society," wrote Pope John Paul II. Ultimately, socialist utopianism devolves into situational ethics, idolatry, envy, scapegoating, and disregard for human life. But as long as Western observers may point to the choreographed “public services” offered by Marxist dictatorships, they cannot in good conscience condemn the generalissimo whose ubiquitous image hangs in every public square and classroom.  

    After his visit to Cuba, Sanders said, “the people we met had an almost religious affection” for Fidel Castro. Perhaps this is because Castro so regularly exercised the divine prerogative to end life. But their faith, and his reasoning, lacks justification.  

    (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

    Most Read

    Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is an Eastern Orthodox priest and served as Executive Editor of the Acton Institute (2016-2021), editing Religion & Liberty, the Powerblog, and its transatlantic website. He has extensively researched the Alt-Right. Previously, he worked for LifeSiteNews and, where he wrote three books including Party of Defeat (with David Horowitz, 2008). His work has appeared at DailyWire.comNational Review, The American Spectator, The Guardian, Daily Caller, National Catholic Register, Spectator USA, FEE Online, RealClear Policy, The Blaze, The Stream, American Greatness, Aleteia, Providence Magazine, Charisma, Jewish World Review, Human Events, Intellectual Takeout,, Issues & Insights, The Conservative, Rare.usand The American Orthodox Institute. His personal websites are and His views are his own.