Sanders' Cuba comments leave out crucial parts of the nation's history, Cuban Americans, scholars say

“The most important social progress happened parallel to the worst crackdown in civil liberties," according to a political analyst.
Image: Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Houston University in Houston, Texas on Feb. 23, 2020.Mark Felix / AFP - Getty Images

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By Carmen Sesin

MIAMI — Carmen Peláez, a Cuban American playwright and filmmaker — as well as an active Democrat — said she was “gobsmacked” when she heard presidential candidate Bernie Sanders praise Cuba’s education and health care system during a "60 Minutes" interview Sunday night.

“I was amazed he was arrogant enough to equivocate on behalf of a Communist revolution, considering he needs Florida to win,” said Peláez, who's also a writer and has been previously published in NBC Latino.

“The more power Sanders gets, the more he parrots Trump's behavior," Peláez, whose parents fled Cuba in the 1960s, said. "I don't see the point in replacing one authoritarian with another."

Sanders’ comments on Cuba have created uproar and outrage in Florida, one of the most important battleground states in the country.

Many Cubans in the United States say Sanders’ portrayal of 1960s Cuba does not paint the entire picture of what was really unfolding in the country at the time.

During the "60 Minutes" interview, Sanders defended comments he made in 1985 saying Cubans did not join the U.S. in overthrowing Castro during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion because he educated kids, gave them health care, and “totally transformed society.”

At a CNN town hall Monday night, Sanders was asked if he wanted to respond to the criticism, but he doubled down on his previous comments.

Repression was tied to revolution

Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution overthrew an unpopular dictator with overwhelming support from the population. But it wasn't until 1961 that he declared himself a Marxist-Leninist.

During this time, a young Castro set off on an ambitious plan to offer education, health care and the redistribution of wealth to the poor, mostly in rural areas. But it came at a cost — a repressive system that punished virtually all forms of dissent and expropriated private property. The literacy campaign that taught many Cubans to read and write also included political indoctrination.

“The 1960s were a paradox in Cuba,” said Arturo López-Levy, a Fulbright visiting professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid and an assistant professor of international relations at Holy Names University. “While they were making progress in education and expanding opportunities for the poor, there was a civil war. The government arrested thousands and executed, by far, the largest number of people in post-1959 history.”

“The most important social progress against racism, illiteracy and abject poverty happened parallel to the worst crackdown in civil liberties,” said López-Levy, who is also a former analyst with Cuba’s interior ministry.

As recently as 2003, executions in Cuba were still taking place. Three men faced a firing squad for hijacking a ferry in an attempt to reach the U.S., which the government called “very grave acts of terrorism.”

Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban history at the University of Florida, says Sanders’ comments about why Cubans did not join the U.S. in overthrowing Castro are misleading.

“Citizens willingly supported the revolution and a lot of the radical changes, but they were almost immediately left with no other choice than to obey,” Guerra said, noting that strikes, protests and nongovernmental organizations were outlawed in the early 1960s.

“That’s the reality of an authoritarian state that allows for no civil society,” Guerra said.

Island was not at bottom on health, education

Although Cuba has improved education and expanded health care after the revolution, the island was already in the top tier when compared to other Latin American countries before 1959.

The last literacy estimate for pre-revolutionary Cuba is from 1953 when 76.4 percent of the population was literate, making it the fourth in the region, according to data analyzed by Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and a leading expert on the Cuban economy. It moved to third place between 2005 and 2007.

Cuba also led the region in low infant mortality rates pre-1959. It was ranked fourth in the 1950s and moved to third place in 2005 through 2007. After the revolution, the government implemented universal health care by expanding on the public health system. They seized private practices, as well as health care cooperatives, and banned the private practice of medicine. It reduced the gap between urban and rural areas.

Mesa-Lago says Sanders is basing his comments on figures from the 1980s when Cuba was heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed, subsidies dried up, and the economy shrank by around 35 percent.

“Sanders does not have updated information and should consult with experts before making public comments of this nature,” Mesa-Lago said.

Although there were improvements in health care and education, the overall living standards, measured by gross domestic product, have declined during the past 60 years.

An analysis of Cuba’s GDP throughout recent history and published in the Journal of Economic History in 2012 states that “Cuba was once a prosperous middle-income economy.” Before the revolution, incomes were 50 to 60 percent of European levels and among the highest in Latin America. The authors wrote that the levels of income per capita are now below their pre-revolutionary high point.

In a statement sent to NBC News, Bernie 2020 Communications Director Mike Casca said that "Sen. Sanders has clearly and consistently criticized Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism and condemned his human rights abuses, and he's simply echoing President Obama’s acknowledgment that Cuba made progress, especially in education.”

But Obama's comments were made as part of a historic speech in Cuba after the countries normalized relations. During his campaign in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama sought to reassure Cuban American voters, saying he would keep the embargo against the country if Cuba didn't release all political prisoners.

As Sanders’ comments reverberated in Florida on Monday, Democrats scrambled to try to contain the damage his comments may have caused among Cuban Americans and other Latinos who have fled repressive, left-wing governments. Throughout the day, there was a constant flow of condemnation from members of Congress to presidential candidates.

The Florida Democratic Party released a statement distancing itself from Sanders’ comments without mentioning his name.

The topic is sure to come up in Tuesday night’s debate, but it might be too late for an overture, says Fernand Amandi, a pollster and Democratic consultant in South Florida.

“When given the opportunity to repudiate the comments, he has doubled down and in the process probably written off any chances he has of winning Florida in November if he is the Democratic nominee,” Amandi said.

Asked if he would support Sanders if he were the nominee, Amandi said “it would be impossible for me to publicly support him. Having said that, I would never, ever vote for Donald Trump.”

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