As Senator Bernie Sanders began his media tour during the first week of his 2020 Presidential campaign, questions about his position on Venezuela began to dog him as the political crisis in the Latin American nation deepened.
In an interview with Univision’s Jorge Ramos on February 19th, Sanders refused to join other Democrats in condemning Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro as a dictator, which triggered a rebuke from Florida Democrats who called his response “clueless.”
Later in the week, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, in discussing Sanders’ belief in socialism, asked the candidate to address its failure in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and Maduro. Sanders dodged the question by saying, he did not think they “had time to get into it.”
It certainly was a more artful dodge than the one he gave Univision’s Lèon Krauze in 2016 when he dismissed a similar question by saying he was running for President of the United States and was “focused on my campaign.” (Of course, last I checked the President is the Commander of Chief and directs our foreign policy, so I tend to think this might be relevant nonetheless).
This latest dodge continues a pattern from 2016 where Sanders refused to disavow his past praise for Communist leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
This led Univision’s Krauze to write a piece last week warning “Sanders Has a Soft Spot for Latin American Strongmen: And it could hurt him in the election.”
If he wins the nomination, Sanders’ old (and not so old) videos praising failed socialist experiments and tiptoeing around recent cruelties in Latin America will surely resurface, playing on a loop while Trump warns about the long-dreaded socialist takeover of the United States of America. This may be fearmongering, but Democrats dismiss its effectiveness at their own peril.
Krauze echoed a theme I wrote of in 2016 in “The Importance of Sander’s Refusal to Recant on Castro.”
Sanders’ current and past statements on Latin America demonstrates three disqualifying characteristics of his candidacy that remarkably mirror that of President Trump. First, it demonstrates a certain náivete and lack of foreign policy gravitas. President Trump has demonstrated how dangerous this can be.
Second, it demonstrates a stubbornness or intelligent rigidity under which he can only see things through his narrow ideological prism and refuses to abandon positions that are no longer defensible (if they ever were). This is no different than President Trump who refuses to abandon his beliefs when faced with facts demonstrating they are wrong.
Finally, while other Democrats have been critical of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, only Sanders has praised Castro and Ortega even after many on the left abandoned them over human rights issues. His continued refusal to recant his embrace of dictators suggests he may well be a dangerous ideologue too willing to cozy up to leftist strongmen, just as President Trump has been eager to cozy up to right wing autocrats.
The answer to beating Trump in 2020 is not to offer a left-wing version with the same flaws, but to offer a new vision that reflects our shared values but which protects our national security and global leadership.