Just a few months ago, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders referred to Hugo Chavez as a “dead communist dictator,” after Hillary Clinton-allied groups linked Sanders’ ideas to those of the late Venezuelan leader. The accusations directed at Sanders’ were made in light of a 2005 deal with the Bolivarian government that resulted in discounted heating oil being delivered to poor families in the northeastern U.S. state.
Sanders and Clinton stand on the podium at Wednesday
By calling him a “dictator,” Sanders had ignored the fact that Chavez was democratically elected three times by the Venezuelan people. Unsurprisingly, the Vermont senator’s comments offended millions of supporters of the Bolivarian revolution, drawing criticism from the Venezuelan and wider Latin American left.
But Sanders struck a different tone in his debate with Clinton in Florida Wednesday, where he locked horns with the former secretary of state in front of a Hispanic-dominated audience.
The Vermont senator and social democrat refused to shy away from praising progressive movements in Latin America, while Clinton was at her all-out reactionary best, expressing contempt for the likes of Cuba and refusing to acknowledge her support for policies that have sown discord in the hemisphere.
When quizzed over comments Sanders made about Fidel Castro, who he once said “educated kids, gave them healthcare and totally changed society,” Sanders commented that he still believes the “U.S. was wrong to try to invade Cuba.” Predictably, Clinton disagreed with Sanders’ argument, branding Cuba an oppressive country that continues to “disappear” people for expressing their opinion.
When asked about the difference between the “socialism” he professes and the socialism of Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela, Sanders continued to reassert a position of non-intervention. “It was wrong to support people trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. It was wrong to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala,” he said.
In keeping with his position, Sanders openly rejected the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. foreign policy of 1823 that institutionalized unilateral intervention and U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere. The Vermont senator expressed complete disagreement with the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, remembered on the continent for the rise of the Augusto Pinochet regime that saw thousands killed and tens of thousands tortured.
Of course, Sanders’ moral stance on Latin America has a history - making his comments on Chavez all the more surprising. The Vermont senator once wrote to former President Ronald Reagan, condemning the U.S. leader’s intervention in Nicaragua in the “strongest possible terms.” Documents unearthed in February also point to Sanders’ support for the Sandinistas, the left-wing group that overthrew a dictatorship, while he objected to U.S. support for the Contras.
And Clinton? Her words Wednesday speak for themselves, but more than words so do her policies. Once referring to Latin American leaders as “petulant children,” in the past Clinton has sought to sow division between Brazil and Venezuela, and in 2009 the former U.S. secretary of state supported a deadly coup against left-wing Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.
For Clinton and the wider U.S. political establishment, Chavez’s success in creating free healthcare, education, housing and pensions and his achievement in cutting poverty by an astonishing 72% are anathema. And even though Sanders represents the social democracy of Europe than the socialism of Latin America, any challenge to neoliberal orthodoxy is clearly seen as a challenge too far.
Is it any surprise then that Sanders’ proposed programs of free healthcare and education have caused such a stir?