Bernie Sanders didn’t mention the dark side of education in Castro’s Cuba
Plain ignorance is the most charitable explanation for the misleading defense of communist Cuba offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on CBS News‘ “60 Minutes.” While saying he was opposed to Cuba’s “authoritarian nature,” Sanders insisted that “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. Is that a bad thing?”
Sanders correctly stated that education became universal in Castro’s Cuba, but he ignored the deeply Orwellian nature of the educational system. Literacy was not sought by the Cuban regime just for the sake of literacy. From the outset, the regime viewed education, as two experts on Cuba explained in The Atlantic, as the “key to the revolution taking hold and creating a literate population loyal to the government.”
Cuban children were taught in school that their highest loyalty is to the Communist Party. They were instructed to denounce their parents to authorities for counter-revolutionary tendencies. If parents, in the privacy of their own home, explained ideas to their children that conflicted with communist ideology, they could be jailed for three years under the Code for Children, Youth and Family.
The school system stifled private religious beliefs. Cuban children were taught that God does not exist and that religion was the “opium of the masses.” If a child mentioned God in a class, the child’s parents were called in for a stern lecture that they were “confusing” the child and given a warning.
Starting in elementary school, a student’s progress was recorded in a so-called “cumulative school file.” The file not only recorded academic progress but also measured the “revolutionary integration” of both the student and the student’s family, such as whether they participated in mass demonstrations. The file was updated throughout the life of the child, whose education and work options would be determined by what it contained.
Cubans are literate, but the regime severely constricts how they can use their literacy. Freedom House describes Cuba as “a one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties.” Only a small percentage of Cubans have access to the internet. Cubans cannot read viewpoints critical of, or disapproved by, the regime, and expressing such views means running considerable risks.
One example of political repression, among too many, is the Cuban dissident Dr. Óscar Elías Biscet, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he was awarded in absentia by President George W. Bush. Dr. Biscet has been repeatedly arrested for his non-violent political activities (as recently as last week) and held in horrific conditions. He was once sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. (Biscet was released after four years following international protests.)
But there is a less charitable explanation for Senator Sanders’ defense of an Orwellian system than simple ignorance. In 1985, Sanders visited Nicaragua and then defended the Soviet-backed Sandinista regime despite its serious human rights abuses, including the suspension of Nicaraguans’ civil liberties. He refused to call the Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro a dictator even though Maduro had rigged his election and banned the elected legislature from passing laws. After a visit to Cuba in the mid-1980s, Sanders said that he was “excited and impressed by the Cuban revolution.”
That last comment is reminiscent of what Lincoln Steffens, the famous muckraking journalist, had to say in 1921 after a visit to the nascent Soviet Union. “I have seen the future, and it works.” Evidently the heady revolutionary spirit and the glittering but false promise of a utopian society had blinded this otherwise tough-minded reporter to a nightmare. Something like that may have happened to Bernie Sanders when he went to Cuba and Nicaragua. But in refusing to acknowledge the brutal reality of these regimes, Sanders demonstrated that he is just as soft on left-wing dictators and autocrats as Donald Trump is on right-wing ones.
Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He has been on numerous fact-finding missions on behalf of international human rights organizations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.