But as a substantive matter, the notion that Sanders’s acknowledgement of the Castro regime’s accomplishments betrays his secret sympathy for authoritarian communism is absurd. It is a fact that Cuba has one of the highest-performing education systems in Latin America, while its medical system has enabled its people to enjoy life expectancy and infant mortality rates similar to those of U.S. residents despite the island’s relative poverty. Meanwhile, with regard to Sanders’s remarks from the 1980s, the claim that Castro’s early social programs mitigated popular opposition to his government is endorsed by many historians of the region.
If offering an (accurately) positive assessment of any aspect of an authoritarian communist regime’s record is tantamount to endorsing its form of rule, then Barack Obama is an authoritarian communist:
Every modern U.S. president — and a wide array of liberal commentators — has found positive things to say about an absolutist Saudi regime that beheads gays, suppresses all dissent, and had ties to 9/11. Does that mean ObamaBushTrump, and Thomas Friedman are all secret totalitarian, anti-American Islamists? Or are those who cite Sanders’s remarks about Cuba as evidence of his closeted authoritarianism judging the senator by a fallacious standard they would never apply universally?
The socialist senator’s critics may counter that his equivocation about Castro must be read in its broader context. After all, Sanders also defended certain discrete policies of other authoritarian regimes. But again, this does not differentiate Sanders from the median major American political figure. Every Cold War–era president championed a wide array of authoritarian rulers for pursuing economic policies the U.S. favored. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan praised the murderous Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, among other anti-communist despots, far less equivocally than Sanders praised Castro or the Soviet Union.
More important, the proper context for assessing the question “Is Bernie Sanders a Denmark-style, liberal socialist who believes economic justice must not come at the expense of civil liberties and political freedom, or a communist who wants to bury bourgeois democracy beneath the dictatorship of the proletariat?” would be the senator’s actual governing record on civil liberties and political freedom. And that record is more pristine than Trump’s, Bloomberg’s, or most any other 2020 candidate’s.