Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tripled down on his praise for Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro in Tuesday’s Democratic Party primary debate in South Carolina. At the debate, he praised Castro’s literacy programs in Cuba and his primary opponents blasted him for his lack of awareness and lack of apology. But the media again missed a prime opportunity to correct Sanders’ comment and provide important context and details about Castro’s program.
Sanders told “60 Minutes” this week that although Castro was an authoritarian leader, “it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad.” He added, “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?” Lawmakers from both major political parties condemned his comments and yet he did not retract his praise of Castro.
In last night’s debate, Sanders defended his comments by citing former President Barack Obama. He said, “What Barack Obama said is they [Cuba] made great progress on education and health care. That was Barack Obama.” He continued, “Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran, and when dictatorships, whether the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that, but you don’t have to trade love letters with them.”
Former vice president Joe Biden, who served with Obama, fired back and said that Obama “did not in any way suggest that there was anything positive about the Cuban government.”
Sanders’ main argument was that people should separate the good from the bad under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. He said that he could praise Cuba’s government for providing health care and literacy to its citizens, but also could condemn its human rights abuses. However, Sanders failed to acknowledge that authoritarian regimes’ abuses potentially outweigh any positives or benefits from authoritarian rule. The media allowed him to defend his pro-Castro comments without having to clarify why he could selectively praise the good but not the bad from Castro’s Cuban communist regime.
Castro’s literacy programs did increase Cuban literacy over time. A United Nations report found that illiteracy rates fell from 23.6 percent in 1959 to 3.9 percent in 1961. In two years, Cuban illiteracy went down by 19.7 percent. However, Sanders and the media did not acknowledge the details of the literacy program. Castro’s program involved handing out pro-Castro and pro-communist propaganda, with lessons such as “Fidel is our Leader” and other materials that “came with a blunt political message.”
Therefore, by praising Castro’s literacy program, Sanders could have implied that he endorsed government propaganda’s involvement in government-run literacy programs. The mainstream media never clarified this potential implication and neither did any moderators at the South Carolina debate follow up on this specific point.
The media missed a clear-cut opportunity to correct the record, failed to provide additional context and information to the public, and allowed Sanders to spin his pro-Castro comment how he wanted to without a rebuttal.