By Jason Hopkins and Mary Margaret Olohan
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was questioned about his past sympathetic comments about socialist, authoritarian regimes, such as in China and Cuba, during the South Carolina Democratic debate on Tuesday.
Sanders, who is the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential contest, was asked by a debate moderator on Tuesday night about his history of “expressing sympathy” for a number of dictatorial governments across the world, such as Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Communist China, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The question came after Sanders attracted widespread criticism for lauding Castro’s “massive literacy program” during a previous interview.
“You’ve praised the Chinese Communist party for lifting more people out of extreme poverty than any other country,” CBS host Margaret Brennan asked Sanders. “You also have a track record of expressing sympathy for socialist governments in Cuba and in Nicaragua. Can Americans trust that a democratic socialist president will not give authoritarians a free pass?”
Sanders responded by claiming he has opposed authoritarian governments across the globe and attempted to deflect ire at former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s past statements about China.
“I have opposed authoritarianism all over the world, and I was really amazed at what Mayor Bloomberg just said a moment ago. He said that the Chinese government is responsive to the Politburo, but who the hell is the Politburo responsive to? Who elects the Politburo? You have a real dictatorship there,” the self-described democratic socialist said.
“Of course you have a dictatorship in Cuba. I said what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba, that Cuba made progress on education,” he continued.
Following a back-and-forth with former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sanders went on to criticize U.S. foreign policy.
“Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran, and when dictatorships, whether the Chinese or the Cubans do something good, you acknowledge that, but you don’t have to trade love letters with them,” Sanders said.
Later on the in exchange, Buttigieg suggested the 2020 elections would not bode well for Democrats if the person at the top of their ticket is someone who has noted the “good side” of the Castro regime.
“We are not going to survive or succeed, and certainly not going to win by reliving the Cold War,” Buttigeg said. “And we’re not going to win these critical, critical House and Senate races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime. We’ve got to be a lot smarter about this,” he went on.
Sanders responded by asking if health care for all and raising the minimum wage were “radical” ideas.
Bernie, Biden spar over Obama’s compliments of Cuba
Meanwhile, Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred over remarks Obama made in 2016 regarding Cuban education.
“Every child in Cuba gets a basic education,” Obama said in 2016. “Life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to that in the United States because they have access to health care.”
Sanders said: “What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba, that Cuba made progress on education.”
His words were met with boos from the audience.
“Really? Really?” Sanders questioned the audience, adding: “What Barack Obama said is they made great progress on education and health care. That was Barack Obama.”
Biden chimed in to defend Obama from Sanders’s assertions.
“Barack Obama was abroad. He was in a town meeting,” Biden said. “He did not in any way suggest there was anything positive about the Cuban government. He acknowledged they did increase life expectancy, but he went on and condemned the dictatorship.”
“He went on to condemn the people who had run that committee,” Biden added. “The fact of the matter is he did not, has never embraced an authoritarian regime and does not now.”
“This man said he did not condemn what they did,” the former vice president added, referring to Sanders.
Sanders responded: “That is untrue, categorically untrue. I have condemned authoritarianism.”
“That’s different than saying the governments occasionally do thing that is are good,” the senator said.
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