The small-town U.S. mayor flew to Cuba for an eight-day visit with his wife, back when those trips were rare. The year was 1989. The goal was to meet Fidel Castro.
No meeting took place. The American had to make do with the mayor of Havana instead. He returned home calling the Cuban revolution “far deeper and more profound than I had understood it to be.”
He represented the town of Burlington, Vermont. His name was Bernie Sanders.
Now Sanders, a U.S. senator and democratic socialist, is running for the Democratic presidential nomination and still talking revolution — “political revolution,” that is.
“What began last week in Iowa, what voters here in New Hampshire confirm tonight, is nothing short of the beginning of a political revolution,” Sanders said when he won the New Hampshire primary over Hillary Clinton. “It is a political revolution that will bring tens of millions of our people together.”
In a place like Miami-Dade County, the cradle of Latin American political exile, his words might carry more meaning than anywhere else in the nation — and probably not the meaning Sanders hopes to convey.
“For us Cuban Americans, we have this baggage,” said Bernadette Pardo, who hosts a Spanish-language morning show on Radio Mambí and writes a column for el Nuevo Herald. “For us, ‘socialism’ is always going to be something to fear.”
For us, ‘socialism’ is always going to be something to fear.
Bernadette Pardo, Miami Spanish-language radio host
Not so for Sanders, who traveled abroad quite a bit as Burlington mayor. His ideological trips were chronicled in small Vermont newspapers, some of which mocked the local politician’s penchant for foreign affairs in the anti-Communist Ronald Reagan era.
When Sanders came back from Havana in 1989, a trip he paid for himself and attended as part of a research group organized by a New York outfit, Sanders suggested a sister-city relationship between Burlington and Havana. Such relationships already existed, and continue to this day, between Burlington and Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and Burlington and Yaroslavl, Russia.
Cuba “is not a perfect society,” Sanders acknowledged to the Rutland Daily Herald upon his return. But Cubans told him Americans couldn’t truly be “free” amid homelessness and hunger. “I think there’s some truth to that point of view,” Sanders said.
“The question is how you bring both economic and political freedom together in one society,” he added, lambasting the U.S. for banning Americans from freely traveling to Cuba. The paper also paraphrased Sanders as explaining the Cuban revolution as one “in which people, instead of working for their own personal wealth, work for the common good.”
“In a Third World region where thousands of peasants in most Latin countries are oppressed and starving, Cuba is a model of what a society could be,” the March 28, 1989, paraphrased Sanders as saying.
An editorial in the Daily Herald later called Sanders “a long-time admirer of Fidel Castro and what he has done for the Cuban people” and dismissed suggestions about rampant U.S. misery as “anti-American propaganda.” Before the trip, the paper had noted, “Sanders said he would like very much to meet Fidel Castro but did not know if that would happen.”
Sanders’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
More Denmark than Cuba
As a presidential candidate, Sanders stresses that his brand of democratic socialism — which has attracted thousands of people to his rallies and energized the youth vote — is very different from the communism Cuba exiles left behind. Earlier this month, Miami-based Cuban-American NBC News and Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart posed Sanders that explicit question.
“You’re a democratic socialist,” Díaz-Balart said in a moderated town hall on MSNBC. “When some Latinos hear those words, they think Venezuela and Cuba, [Hugo] Chávez and the Castro brothers, 57 years of dictatorship. Talk about the people who escaped those regimes today and hear you use those words.”
“When I talk about democratic socialist, I’m not looking at Venezuela. I’m not looking at Cuba,” Sanders said. “I’m looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.”
When I talk about democratic socialist, I’m not looking at Venezuela. I’m not looking at Cuba. I’m looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.
Bernie Sanders, Democratic presidential candidate
He wants Medicare — government-run healthcare for the elderly — for everyone. He wants free college tuition. He wants better child-care and retirement benefits. He wants money out of politics and less economic power for big banks.
But will voters who fled countries run by socialists be able to put aside Sanders’ rhetoric and give his policies real consideration?
“There’s something about the words ‘socialist,’ ‘revolution’ and ‘redistribute wealth’ — when I hear them all together I just want to bury my money in an undisclosed location, hide under the bed and suck my thumb... after I dip it in whiskey,” said Ana Navarro, a Nicaraguan-born Miamian who works as a Republican commentator on CNN. “Call me melodramatic, but sometimes the Sandernistas remind me a little too much of the Sandinistas.”
Miami Democrats sound far more open to Sanders’ proposals, even if they don’t plan to vote for him.
“When you come from somewhere where there is actual socialism, you see that this is not exactly socialism. He’s definitely more extreme than Hillary, but I’m not terrified by him the way we were terrified by Chávez,” said Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan-American strategic communications director in Miami who backs Clinton. (People assume she’s a Republican “every day” because she’s not a chavista, Poleo said, when her family actually has a long history with Venezuela’s social-democratic party.)
She praised Sanders for forcing a discussion on Wall Street and reminding Democrats of the importance of universal healthcare and public education. “But there are a lot of other things that sound like hot air to me — those things that cannot be backed by a real plan and real economics are hot air and pipe dreams and false promises,” Poleo said.
Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, holds a vast lead over Sanders in Florida, according to recent public-opinion surveys. A Real Clear Politics poll average shows her ahead by a staggering 29 percentage points. Sanders hasn’t campaigned at all in Florida ahead of the March 15 primary.
If he had, said former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, Sanders might sound more sympathetic to exiles.
“It’s easy to be really liberal in a state like Vermont, which last time I checked was like 95 percent white,” said Diaz, a Cuban-American Democrat who supported former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s short-lived presidential bid. “I’m not sure that he’s been exposed to issues dealing with foreign policy generally that would require that you also hear all sides, and that you be sensitive to the family divisions that have occurred in Cuba and Venezuela and so much of our hemisphere.”
“If he had spent any time in Florida or Miami or other places, and sat down with people and understood some of the pain these people had gone through, you hope, you’d like to think that he would recant a lot of those types of statements, or think differently of what he’s saying,” Diaz said. “But he hasn’t had to.”