Sanders, Standards and Sandinistas: Line-Item Vetoes in Political Morality

One of the more curious sideline elements in the 2016 Democratic Party primary came in a debate conducted by Univision on March 9, 2016, between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, wherein many of the questions were focused on issues of specific concern to that network’s Spanish-speaking viewer base. As one might predict, the candidates’ positions on immigration and border policy were heavily featured, as was the Obama administration’s recent openings to Cuba.

The most curveball moment, however, came when Sanders was asked to explain comments he had made in the 1980s which praised certain aspects of both the Cuban government and the rule of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

The relevance of this line of questioning was, at best, spurious (especially given that Sanders has recently described controversial former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as a “dead communist dictator”), but it does bring up a more interesting question by virtue of its being asked. Sanders’ response, which did not exactly disown the comments whilst making a broader point about contemporary US policy in Latin America, generated a particularly vociferous reaction from The Daily Beast’s Michael Moynihan, liberally peppered with “useful idiot” accusations. Whatever one may believe about the nature of the Cuban government, or indeed the Sandinistas, this impulse to shut down openings for nuanced discussions about the rest of the world makes our debate intellectually much poorer.

Consider that, in this same debate, Hillary Clinton was pointedly not interrogated over her support for the post-coup Honduran government (which has led to a mass destabilization earning the country the dubious distinction of the highest per capita murder rate in the world), or her State Department’s controversial actions in Haiti. Though some more astute reporters noted this contradiction, especially in light of the recent killing of Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres, for the most part, Clinton, along with most of the US foreign policy establishment has been allowed to slide. The honest, skeptical mind must ask a series of questions about why, exactly, it is that Sanders is asked to account for the questionable governments he chooses to, in some fashion, ally himself with, whilst Clinton and other more mainstream figures are not.

One may note that the Cuban government is deeply repressive and has been cited for human rights abuses, particularly related to speech and political thought, by a laundry list of respected human rights organizations. This is, of course, true, and no one besides a few aging Stalinists denies it. Even in the cited controversial remarks, Sanders notes that Cuba is “an authoritarian undemocratic country.” The points of praise he offers center on the performance of Cuba’s health and education systems, as well as its success in reducing extreme poverty since the end of the Batista government. These are, whatever one may think of the rest of the Cuban government’s actions, confirmed as true by multiple independent sources. It is entirely possible to state that these advances have been at an intolerably high cost to personal freedom, or to suggest that a different developmental model would have produced better results. Not grappling with the point at all, though, simply smacks of evasiveness.

The point about the Sandinistas is even stranger. Mainstream Democratic opinion during the 1980s was more or less where Sanders is: noting the Nicaraguans have the right to determine who rules them; recognizing that previous US meddling in the region had created a powder keg of anti-US sentiment; and supporting the push to cut off funding for US actions in the country via the Boland Amendment (the Iran-Contra affair, of course, came out of President Ronald Reagan executive attempts to subvert this). Furthermore, independent analysis of the civil war that followed the Sandinistas’ overthrow of the ancient regime has consistently found that the lion’s share of the human rights abuses were committed by anti-Sandinista forces that the US backed.

When speaking of the administrations of various presidents or prime ministers, we allow ourselves what might be called a “moral line-item veto.” Someone like Sanders would, for instance, say that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society domestic legislation was a good — even morally necessary — policy, whilst also condemning the Vietnam War as hugely destructive. It is not necessary in that instance to condemn the totality of the US system of government, or even the totality of the LBJ administration, in order to make the distinction and oppose a particular policy.

Yet, when it comes to Cuba, Nicaragua or any other government that expresses anti-US or anti-Western sentiment, all nuance flies out the window. One cannot, it seems, note the achievements of the Sandinistas in health and education without being accused of supporting their crackdowns on the free press. Even if one explicitly states that they are making a distinction, words like “apologist” are furiously brought to muster. Insofar as it goes, the “apologist” tag quickly reveals itself as actually being “traitor” or “un-American” by another name.

If we are going to ask for a moral reckoning as to the overseas governments that candidates for office have expressed support for at various points, we must at least be consistent in the exercise. Ask Sanders, or anyone else, about their support for Latin America’s leftists; but, equally, ask others about their support for Honduran military juntas and El Salvadoran death squads. If the point were actually about human rights, rather than a media desperate to police the bounds of “acceptable” discourse on the United States’ standing in the world, anything else would be a dereliction of journalistic duty.