Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) praised Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro in a 60 Minutes interview, and his comments were met with outrage and condemnation from both sides of the political aisle.
Critics blasted Sanders’ claim that Castro’s education policies raised literacy rates in Cuba. In a CNN town hall, Sanders doubled down on his previous praise of Castro, despite evidence that he omitted relevant context and information.
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” Sanders told 60 Minutes. “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?”
Although Sanders condemned Castro’s history of human rights abuses, multiple politicians chimed in and criticized Sanders for his alleged tone-deaf remarks.
At CNN’s South Carolina town hall, Sanders maintained his 60 Minutes interview comments and said, “The truth is the truth.
“There were a lot of folks in Cuba at that point who were illiterate. He formed the literacy brigade. He went out and they helped people learn to read and write. You know what, I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing.” Sanders added his objections towards authoritarian regimes, “I have been extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes all over the world including Cuba, including Nicaragua, including Saudi Arabia, including China, including Russia. I happen to believe in democracy, not authoritarianism.”
Although Sanders’ claim rang true, both he and the media whiffed on providing the context behind Castro’s education policy. PolitiFact cited a United Nations 1984 report which found in 1959, 23.6 percent of the Cuban population over the age of 10 were illiterate and by 1961, the percentage fell to 3.9 percent. PolitiFact reported that Castro raised literacy rates, but his education program was inundated with pro-Castro and pro-communist propaganda. It noted that the “teaching materials came with a blunt political message” that included the likes of a lesson entitled, “Fidel is Our Leader.”
No one asked Sanders whether government-issued propaganda was worth raising the country’s literacy rate, adding to other issues with Castro’s governance. Some of the issues ranged from human rights abuses, lack of democratic governance and free speech, and a struggling and less-modern economy.
Also, Sanders’ selective choice to only highlight Castro’s education policy ignored a plethora of issues that affected Cubans.
According to Freedom House, an organization that tracks democratic freedoms across the world, Cuba scored poorly on political rights, civil liberties, freedom of assembly, and rule of law. None of their scores came close to democracies such as the United States, whose scores were the opposite of Cuba’s.
The mainstream media covered the controversy adequately, but it failed to explain why Sanders’ claim was widely criticized. The media should have explained that although Castro raised literacy rates, it was at the expense of basic human rights and civil liberties. It also failed to address the implications of having government propaganda’s inclusion into literacy programs, which Sanders’ praise could have implied.