Andres Oppenheimer

Democratic hopefuls should reject Bernie Sanders’ view of Latin America, or they will lose Florida in 2020 | Opinion

When twenty Democratic presidential hopefuls meet in Miami for their first debates on June 26-27, they should keep a distance from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ absurd fascination with Latin American leftist dictators and populist demagogues.

If they don’t, they’ll lose Florida, and may lose the 2020 elections.

Florida is once again shaping up as a key swing state for next year’s elections. It may be no coincidence that President Trump is reportedly planning a visit to Miami on June 18, hours before kicking off his re-election campaign at a rally in Orlando. Nor is it a coincidence that the Democrats are holding their first national debates in Miami.

Most likely, because of South Florida’s large Hispanic population, Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico will come up during the debates. And most likely, Sanders — who is No. 2 in the polls behind former vice-president Joe Biden among Democratic hopefuls — may once again show a soft spot for Latin America’s leftist populist leaders.

On June 12, Sanders tweeted a statement in support for former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is jail on corruption charges. Lula’s supporters are asking that he be freed following leaked messages between a judge and prosecutors which they say tainted the investigation.

”I stand with political and social leaders across the globe who are calling on Brazil’s judiciary to release Lula and annul his conviction,” Sanders tweeted.

But, perhaps unbeknownst to Sanders, it was during Lula’s 2003-2011 presidency that Brazil suffered its biggest corruption scandal in history. Brazil’s giant Odebrecht construction company paid at least $349 million in bribes to Brazilian officials between 2003 and 2016, much of it to top officials of Lula’s Workers’ Party.

Sanders’ support for Lula is just the latest example of the Democratic hopeful’s naive romanticism — and ignorance — about Latin America. He is stuck in the 1960’s. His rightful criticism of U.S. interventions in Central America in the mid-20th Century — at the time when he was a student — seems to drive him to automatically side with most anti-American presidents in the region, no matter how ruthless or corrupt they are.

In a Feb. 22 interview with Univision’s Jorge Rarmos, Sanders typically deflected a question on whether Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is a dictator. Earlier, in January, when the United States and most Latin American democracies recognized Venezuelan National Assembly president Juan Guaidó as his country’s interim president, Sanders refused to back Guaidó.

Sanders’ refusal to call Maduro a dictator goes against the stand of most Latin American and European leaders, including the left-of-center presidents of France and Spain, who also reject a U.S. intervention in Venezuela.

Maduro re-elected himself last year after banning Venezuela’s top opposition candidates from running, and rigging the vote afterwards.

Sanders has also been close in the past with Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega, who according to human rights groups is responsible for the deaths of more than 300 opposition demonstrators last year.

Sanders attended a 1985 Sandinista rally in Managua, Nicaragua, on occasion of the 6th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, in which the crowd chanted Aquí, allá, el Yanqui morirá (Here and there, the Yankee will die,) according to a May 17 New York Times story.

Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vt., at the time, and met with Ortega during that trip, the article said.

Not surprisingly, I recently heard a late night tv comedian quipping - in reference to a trip by Sanders and his newlywed wife to the former Soviet Union in 1998 - that “Sanders spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, and has never come back.”

For many Americans elsewhere in the country, all of this may sound trivial. But in Florida, the home to hundreds of thousands of exiles from various Latin American dictatorships, it’s a serious matter.

Unless other Democratic hopefuls publicly ridicule Sanders’ foreign policy views, they will be helping hand over Florida to Trump, and will help re-elect the most unhinged president in recent U.S. history.

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Following the results of the 2018 midterm elections, we take a look at the Democrats who could run for president in the 2020 election.