CubaBrief: Rebuttal to Senator Bernie Sanders statements on Castro regime in Cuba, and praise for Communist China

Over the past two days Senator Bernie Sanders has defended past statements supportive of the Castro regime, and doubled down also praising Communist China. This should be cause for concern, and for setting the record straight.

Havana, Cuba 2020

Havana, Cuba 2020

Castro’s communist regime destroyed Cuba and today it is a place where a balcony falls and kills three little girls, Cubans are not surprised by the deaths, but that the news was able to make it past the censors.

However, it is also important to remember that large numbers of Cubans resisted the dictatorship and paid a high price.

Senator Sanders argued in the 60 Minutes interview broadcast on February 23rd that the reason Cubans did not rise up against Castro in 1961 was because “he educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society, you know?” This is wrong on two counts, Cubans did rise up and many were killed for doing so, and the above narrative erases this history.  

Cubans did rise up against Castro. 

Between 1960 and 1966 there was an insurgency in the mountains of the Escambray that fought the Castro regime made up mostly of farmers and Revolutionary Directorate rebels that had fought the Batista Regime demanding a democratic restoration. The dictatorship called it the “War against the Bandits.” The guerrillas were eventually exterminated and the uprising was crushed by 1966, but the Castro regime had to obtain outside assistance to destroy the resistance,  and they obtained it from hundreds of  Soviet counterinsurgency “advisors.  It was described by Mary O’Grady in The Wall Street Journal in 2017 as a “Soviet cleansing.”

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Tens of thousands of Cubans were killed

Castro executed thousands of Cubans, locked up hundreds of thousands of Cubans, built a police state, with the assistance of the KGB and the East German Stasi, and imposed revolutionary terror to consolidate power. Credible and conservative estimates of the Castro regime’s death toll against Cuban nationals ran from 35,000 to 141,000, with a median of 73,000. In the beginning executions were televised in Cuba to terrorize the populace.

Che Guevara addressing the United Nations on December 11, 1964 did not mince words: “We must say here something that is a well-known truth and that we have always asserted before the whole world: executions? Yes, we have executed people; we are executing people and shall continue to execute people as long as it is necessary. We know what the result of a losing battle would be and the worms also have to know what the result of the lost battle is today in Cuba.”

Castro lied his way into power because communism was unpopular in Cuba

Fidel Castro lied and claimed not to be a communist, because he knew that if he had told Cubans the truth he would never have taken power. On December 2, 1961, he explained his reasoning.  “If we had paused to tell the people that we were Marxist-Leninists while we were on Pico Turquino and not yet strong, it is possible that we would never have been able to descend to the plains.” Years later on March 26, 1964, after announcing that he had always been a Marxist Leninist, Castro explained: “I conceive the truth in terms of a just and noble end, and that is when the truth is truly true. If it does not serve a just, noble and positive end, truth, as an abstract entity, philosophical category, in my opinion, does not exist.”

Killed by Castro while engaged in search and rescue for refugees in the Florida Straits

Killed by Castro while engaged in search and rescue for refugees in the Florida Straits

Over the next six decades Cubans continued to struggle for their freedom and human rights, and we do not have a full accounting of how many have been killed. However on February 23rd we observed the 2010 martyrdom of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and on February 24th the 1996 shoot down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes over international airspace that led to the deaths of  Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre Jr., Mario de la Peña, and Pablo Morales.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, martyred on February 23, 2010 by the Castro regime.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, martyred on February 23, 2010 by the Castro regime.

Equally troubling was Senator Sanders repeating his positive appraisal of aspects of Castroism while mounting a positive defense of communist China at the CNN Townhall the following night explaining, “China is an authoritarian country, becoming more and more authoritarian,” Sanders said. “But can anyone deny, the facts are clear, that they have taken more people out of extreme poverty than any country in history?”

The Vermont Senator left out that under Mao over 45 million people were starved to death during the Great Leap Forward. That at least another million were killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and that the brutality of the system continues to the present day with the descendants of that first generation of communist leadership trafficking in human organs today.

At the same time the Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate in an effort to allay fears, seeks to focus on what are popularly perceived to be successes of the economic model that he prefers, but finds pushback from Scandinavian countries.

Senator Sanders makes the argument that the Socialism he advocates for the United States, is the same that is being applied in Nordic countries, like Denmark. The trouble with that argument is that Danes will tell you that they are not socialists, but have a market economy, i.e. capitalism.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

According to the World Bank, unlike socialist countries, the Nordic States rank competitively with the United States on the ease of doing business with Denmark (3), and Norway (7) ranking higher than the United States (8) and Sweden (12) and Finland (17) ranking lower but in the same ballpark.

However they are nowhere near Mainland China (46), Vietnam (69), Nicaragua (132), and Venezuela (188). Neither Cuba or North Korea made the listing. 

The Nordic states are capitalist welfare states that protect private property rights more than the United States does. When Senator Bernie Sanders made the claim during the last election cycle that these governments were socialists, the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government respectfully disagreed:

“I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy,” Rasmussen said. “The Nordic model is an expanded welfare state which provides a high level of security for its citizens, but it is also a successful market economy with much freedom to pursue your dreams and live your life as you wish,” he added.

The Nordic countries also beat the United States in an important metric that communist regimes are hostile to, and that is private property rights. Finland (1), Norway (4), Sweden (6), and Denmark (12) rank higher on the annual International Property Rights Index than the United States (14). Unlike China (52), Vietnam (76), Venezuela (123), and Nicaragua (111) that all fall far behind the United States. Cuba, and North Korea didn’t make the list. 

In the articles below from The Wall Street JournalThe Daily SignalNational Review and the American Enterprise Institute are rebuttals on the claims about Cuba.

The Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2020

Bernie’s Cuba Illiteracy

The Vermont Senator finds a silver lining to the Castro revolution.

By The Editorial Board

As Bernie Sanders advances closer to the White House, his beliefs and policies may finally get the scrutiny they deserve. An example was an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday when the 78-year-old socialist waxed effusive over Cuban literacy.

Correspondent Anderson Cooper showed a video of Mr. Sanders, in the 1980s, explaining why in his view the Cuban people didn’t side with the U.S. and overthrow Fidel Castro. The young Sanders said on tape it was because the bearded dictator in army fatigues “educated the kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society.”

Mr. Sanders responded to Mr. Cooper: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Mr. Cooper gently insisted: “There’s a lot of dissidents imprisoned in Cuba.”

Mr. Sanders answered: “That’s right and we condemn that. Unlike Donald Trump, let’s be clear, I do not think that Kim Jong Un is a good friend. I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator. Vladimir Putin, not a great friend of mine.”

That’s nice to know. But Mr. Sanders still flunks Cuban literacy 101. Before the 1959 revolution, some 80% of Cuba could read. That put the island’s education level far ahead of most of its Latin American neighbors. In the ensuing six decades, many countries in the region have moved to near-universal literacy.

The difference is that countries like Ecuador and Colombia, both of which came from much further behind, did it without having “totally transformed the society” with firing squads, dungeons, torture and exile. They did it without stealing private property and driving Cubans into poverty or rafts to escape to America.

Cuba has gone from being one of the more advanced countries in the region in the mid-1950s to one of the most impoverished, and the reason is its economic socialism and political tyranny. The issue for voters today is what it says about Mr. Sanders that, even after so many years of cruel evidence, he still feels compelled to insist there is a silver lining in the Cuban revolution.

The Daily Signal, February 24, 2020

Cuban Americans Tell What Life Under Castro Was Really Like 

By Fred Lucas

When Sebastian Arcos and family members tried to travel from Cuba to the United States, authorities stopped them in what turned out to be a sting operation to arrest one of his uncles, who had advocated and fought for Fidel Castro’s revolution more than 20 years earlier. 

That was Dec. 31, 1981, and for trying to leave the island nation, Arcos was jailed for a year. 

His uncle spent seven years in jail. His father, also a political supporter of the communist revolution and like many other citizens soured on the broken promises of democracy, was imprisoned for six years. 

“For the sake of argument, let’s say both the [Cuban] health care system and education system are perfect, which they are not. There have been thousands of political executions, tens of thousands of political prisoners, and 3 million Cuban exiles,” said Arcos, 58, today associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. 

“So, the question to ask when we are told to consider the good things is: What is the price for the good?” Arcos told The Daily Signal.

Arcos said that he is “surprised when talking heads in the United States will give Fidel Castro the benefit of the doubt.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a professed democratic socialist, has defended comments he made in the 1980s, when he said of Castro: “He educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society.”

In defending those remarks during an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Sanders said:

We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office [in 1959], you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Castro handed control of the government to his brother, Raúl Castro, before his death at age 90 in November 2016. 

Miguel Díaz-Canel was named president when the younger Castro stepped down at age 87 in February 2018, but is largely considered a figurehead. Raúl Castro, head of Cuba’s Communist Party, is said to make major government decisions. 

Sanders noted that President Donald Trump has had kind things to say about authoritarian rulers such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.    

Arcos joined the Cuban Committee for Human Rights in 1987, providing reports to the United Nations Human Rights Commission before coming to the United States in 1992.

He said people should know better than to concede gross human rights abuses in Cuba, and then point to health care and literacy. 

“That’s been the regime’s argument for decades,” Arcos said. “Whoever makes that argument is just repeating their lines.”

Cuba’s military dictatorship controls 80% of the economy. Political prisoners are common, and courts face political interference.     

The Heritage Foundation’s 2019 Index of Economic Freedom ranks Cuba at 178th among the world’s nations based on how free its economy is. 

Cuba did adopt some free market policies about a decade ago, but the government hasn’t been a strong effort to implement the reforms. Private property is allowed, but is strictly regulated by the government. 

According to Heritage’s index, low state-dictated wages increase poverty in Cuba. The state runs the means of production, property seizures without due process are common, and the top income tax rate is 50%.

Repression in Cuba is on the rise, said Janisset Rivero, 50, a human rights activist who lived in Cuba until age 14. Her family was wrongly accused of engaging in seditious speech against the Cuban government because they received a letter from family abroad. 

“Health care and education are not as good as the propaganda claims,” Rivero said. “It’s indoctrination more than education. The Cuban system doesn’t tolerate critical thinking.”

The two former Cuban citizens interviewed for this story gave similar accounts of health care in Cuba 

They said the health care system has two tiers: One is for tourists, elites, and the military, which is top rate and what people see. The other is for the general population. When Cubans go to those hospitals, they have to bring their own food, water, bed sheets, and pillows. 

Of support inside the United States for Cuba’s communist system, Rivero said, “It’s ignorance. Some people are ignorant.”

However, she suspects that in some cases, it’s worse. 

“Some people simply support socialism and communism with a big state that can take control of people’s lives,” Rivero said. “Some supporters know exactly what is going on in Cuba and believe it would be OK here because they believe they know best.” 

Frank Calzon, who retired last year as executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, was born in 1944. His parents sent him to the United States after the Castro-led revolution. He became active in human rights causes and led the center for 22 years.   

“A lot of claims the Cuban government makes should be suspect,” Calzon said. “Cuban students are not really more educated now. In 1951, the country had 75-80% of students [who] knew how to read and write.”

A strong spirit exists in Cuba for freedom, he said, pointing to the group Ladies in White as one example. 

“The Ladies in White is a group of mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of political prisoners,” Calzon said. “They try to march to Mass on Sundays, but Cuban police intercept them and take them to prisons. They release them that evening, but they take them several miles out of their city.”

National Review, February 25, 2020

Sanders Doubles Down on Defending Castro, Praises China for Lifting ‘People Out of Extreme Poverty’

By Zachary Evans

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Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) on Monday doubled down on his praise of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and added praise for aspects of the Chinese authoritarian regime.

“Truth is truth. All right?” Sanders said at a CNN town hall event when challenged on his previous praise for Castro’s regime. “If you want to disagree with me, if somebody wants to say that—and by the way, all of the Congress people you mentioned just so happen to be supporting other candidates…but you know, the truth is the truth. And that is what happened on the first years of the Castro regime.”

Sanders then expanded his comments on Cuba to include praise of China.

“China is an authoritarian country, becoming more and more authoritarian,” Sanders said. “But can anyone deny, the facts are clear, that they have taken more people out of extreme poverty than any country in history?”

In an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes aired Sunday, Sanders highlighted Cuba’s “literacy program” as an example of good done by Fidel Castro.

“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know?” Sanders said. “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

The Vermont senator’s comments have drawn bipartisan criticism, particularly among Florida lawmakers. Florida has one of the largest populations of Cuban immigrants in the U.S., many of whom fled the oppressive Castro regime.

“Donald Trump wins Florida if Bernie is our nominee,” warned State Representative Javier Fernandez, a Democrat whose District 114 encompasses part of Miami. “If Bernie Sanders is atop the ticket, it’s going to make it tougher for all of us to win in Florida.”

From the archives

American Enterprise Institute, February  2007

Let Cuba Be Cuban Again

By Roger F. Noriega

No. 2, February 2007

As Fidel Castro shuffles off the world stage, many non-Cubans are pondering the future of a nation that has spent nearly fifty years trapped under the rubble of the dictator’s demented experiment. Too many outsiders, however, are disoriented by the myths that the regime has spun over the past five decades to make the island seem complicated, bedeviled, dangerous, and unapproachable. Castro realized that if the world came to comprehend Cuban reality, then even the intelligentsia might notice something wrong with the way he ran the place.

After five decades of Castro’s embargo on reality, Cuba’s transition will be challenging. But several simple facts inspire optimism for the future. First, there is nothing like shedding a worn-out dictatorship to generate a burst of hope and energy. Second, Cuba is packed with Cubans–people who built a successful country before Castro tore it down. Third, the whole world wishes Cuba well, and its historic friend–the United States–is poised and eager to help 11 million people rebuild Cuba in their own image. But reaching the future requires that we shatter the grotesque myths about Castroism and the manufactured misconceptions about Cuba itself.

Myth: “Castro Has Done Some Good Things for His People”

When Castro dies, more than a handful of commentators will try to market the myth that, despite his mistakes, his revolution was driven by a desire to extend social justice, health care, and education to the poor majority of Cubans. But Castro is drawing his last breaths in a hospital bed as a poster child of Cuba’s vaunted health-care system. The fact that the dictator’s demise may be hastened by a bungled routine surgical procedure shatters the idea that the “first world” Cuban medical system is an achievement of the revolution. Castro’s shocking deterioration is just a little less surprising to those who know the reality of a health-care system under which patients have to bring their own light bulbs, bedding, and sewing thread for sutures to a typical Cuban hospital.

So why are so many squinting to see a silver lining around Castro’s dictatorship? Part of the reason is that most of the world’s media have given the anti-American crusader rather generous reviews. In December 2006, the Gallup Organization released the results of a recent poll that found, unsurprisingly, that most Cubans craved more freedom. But editors at the Associated Press ran the story this way: “Poll: 1 in 4 Cubans OK with Freedoms.”[1] This tortured construction–tyranny ain’t half bad–is a fresh example of the media and Cubanologists looking to excuse a dictator who, we are meant to believe, rescued Cuba from a wretched past. That depiction of the past is rubbish. One must at least acknowledge this before predicting where Cuba is headed without Castro.

Castro apologists have painted pre-revolutionary Cuba as a repressive backwater, a picture that is not supported by the evidence. In fact, the Cuba Castro took over in 1959 was one of the most prosperous and egalitarian societies of the Americas, near the top according to most sociodemographic indicators, behind only Argentina and Uruguay. The country’s social and economic statistics also looked remarkably like lesser-developed European countries of the day, such as Spain and Portugal. While it is well-known that Cuba’s infant mortality rate is the second lowest in Latin America today, many historians fail to mention that pre-Castro Cuba ranked thirteenth in the world, with the best rate in Latin America. It also had the third highest daily caloric intake, the fourth highest literacy rate, the second highest number of passenger cars per capita, and ranked fourth in the production of rice.[2]

The country was also culturally advanced before Castro seized power, with the third highest newspaper circulation per capita and second highest cinema attendance per capita in Latin America.[3] Although, to be sure, the country suffered from the inequalities of wealth that plagued all countries in Latin America at that time (and still do), Cuba had the largest middle class of its peers in the Western Hemisphere.

Rarely mentioned is the fact that in the 1940s and 1950s the island had progressive labor, land tenure, education, and health laws that rivaled those of many of its neighbors in the region. For example, the 1940 Cuban constitution established such labor laws as the right to work, a maximum forty-hour work week, one month of annual vacation, social security, and the rights to form and join unions. Indeed, by 1958, almost half of the Cuban labor force was unionized. A 1951 World Bank report actually criticized laws protecting Cuban workers because they were considered so generous that they discouraged foreign investment.[4] That fact hardly supports the popular image of a nation plundered by foreign exploitation until Castro rescued her dignity.

The sad fact is that Castro transformed a country that was among the most successful and progressive in Latin America into a nation in which “greater equality” means that almost everyone is destitute. Castro’s development strategy was based on an asymmetrical relationship with the former USSR: bartering Cuban agricultural products for Soviet financial and technical aid and military hardware. When the Soviet Union fell, the Cuban economy imploded. According to national statistics, only in 2005 did Cuba return to pre-1990 gross domestic product levels.[5]

With no one left to purchase its goods, Cuba cannot generate enough income to meet domestic demand for the most basic consumer goods. As a result, a country that once set the pace for the region has come to rely upon foreign largesse (with over $12 billion in foreign debt in 2002), must depend on over $1 billion in remittances from the United States (equal to 84 percent of its exports[6]), and–most tragically–has resigned itself to deteriorating living standards in order to resolver, or “make ends meet.”

While Castro boasts of certain health and education indicators that are actually rather modest, Cubans have paid a dramatic cost for his “achievements.” According to the United Nations Statistical Yearbook, pre-Castro Cuba ranked third out of eleven countries in per-capita daily caloric consumption. Today, Cuba takes last place for consumption, and in fact suffered a decrease in calorie intake during a period in which most countries improved. Furthermore, the vast strides made by other Latin American countries–including those that are demographically and economically similar but behind Cuba in pre-1959 data–temper any claims of notable progress during Castro’s rule.[7]

Anyone who really wants to understand Cuban reality should start by understanding that Cubans managed to build a relatively successful nation before Castro wrecked the place. The sooner the world recognizes the terrible cost of Castro’s revolution, the greater the resolve will be to help Cubans recover from the nightmare of dictatorship by casting aside every vestige of a regime that distinguished itself only by its cruelty. Moreover, a fair assessment of pre-Castro Cuba gives plenty of reason to be optimistic about her future once the dictatorship is cast aside. Making that assessment requires debunking the myths about how post-Castro Cuba is likely to evolve.

[Read full report here]


1. Foster Klug, “Poll: 1 in 4 Cubans OK with Freedoms,” Associated Press, December 14, 2006. Gallup’s website headlined these findings on its own website,, under the headline “Just One in Four Urban Cubans Satisfied with Personal Freedoms.”

2. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, Zenith and Eclipse: A Comparative Look at Socio-Economic Conditions in Pre-Castro and Present Day Cuba, (Washington, DC: February 9, 1998, revised June 2002), available at

3. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Statistical Yearbook (New York: 1961).

4. Castro kept many of the socioeconomic rights of the 1940 constitution in his Fundamental Law of 1959 and even in the most recent Cuban constitution (1992), although his disregard for the rule of law has diluted the enforcement of these rights. See Aldo M. Leiva, “Cuban Labor Law: Issues and Challenges,” Cuba in Transition: Volume 10 (papers and proceedings of the tenth annual meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy [ASCE], Miami, Florida, August 3-5, 2000).

5. Ernesto Hernández-Catá, “Output and Productivity in Cuba: Collapse, Recovery, and Muddling through to the Crossroads,” Cuba in Transition: Volume 13 (papers and proceedings of the thirteenth annual meeting of ASCE, Coral Gables, Florida, August 7-9, 2003); and Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas (Cuba), Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2005 (Havana: 2006).

6. Manuel Orozco, “Remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues and Perspectives on Development” (report commissioned by the Organization of American States, Washington, DC: September 2004).

7. When compared to Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico (the three most appropriate “sister” countries in the region), pre-Castro Cuba was on par with or superior to the other countries in terms of infant mortality, energy production, primary students per capita, and number of radio receivers–but the revolution stunted Cuba’s progress. Chile and Costa Rica made bigger improvements in infant mortality and were almost on par with Cuba in 1990. All three “sister” countries made greater strides in life expectancy than Cuba from 1960-90. The past four decades have been a period of development for all of Latin America, but Cuba has been running in place under Castro. For more information, see Jorge Luis Romeu, “More on the Statistical Comparison of Cuban Socioeconomic Development,” Cuba in Transition: Volume 5 (papers and proceedings of the fifth annual meeting of ASCE, University of Miami, August 10-12, 1995).