CubaBrief: Sanders ignored how Cuba tramples worker rights, failed to lobby for Alan Gross’s release, but could advocate for human rights now

On Sunday night’s debate with Vice-President Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders once again took time to praise dictatorships in China and Cuba. The Vermont Senator argued that it “would be incorrect” to say that nothing done by authoritarian regimes “had a positive impact.”  Pinochet apologists credit him for a dynamic economy that lifted millions out of poverty in Chile, but one cannot say that he was “not all bad,” because his regime killed thousands of political opponents. Under China’s communist regime tens of millions were killed, at least 35 million through starvation, and the same regime covered up an outbreak that has become a pandemic threatening the lives of millions around the world. Under the Castro regime tens of thousands were killed  by the dictatorship, and the Cuban government also has a history of covering up epidemics, endangering unknown numbers of people, with Zika being a recent example. Senator Sanders argued,” but to simply say that nothing ever done by any of those administrations had a positive impact on their people would, I think, be incorrect.”

The problem with Sanders’s argument is twofold, first he overstates the “positive impact” in Cuba by the Castro regime, because he does not take into account that pre-1959 Cuba was already doing very well in literacy, healthcare, and other indicators. Secondly, he calls these communist regimes authoritarian, when in reality they are totalitarian, and have engaged in crimes against humanity on a scale difficult to imagine.

Furthermore, how Senator Sanders dealt with the imprisonment of fellow American, Alan Gross, should be cause for concern. He turned his back on him. Furthermore, despite being an advocate for workers rights in the United States, Senator Bernie Sanders fails to address the trampling of workers rights in Cuba.

However, there is still time for Senator Sanders to use his influence with the Castro regime, they gave him a de facto endorsement with front page coverage in the communist daily Granma, to request the release of all Cuba’s political prisoners, and especially prisoners of conscience Josiel Guía Piloto, Silverio Portal Contreras, Mitzael Díaz Paseiro, Eliecer Bandera Barrera, Edilberto Ronal Arzuaga Alcalá, and Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces.  

Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders debated on March 15, 2020

Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders debated on March 15, 2020

Houston Chronicle, March 15, 2020

Bernie and Cuba

Regarding “Letters: Side with human rights,” (A13, March 9): Seth Rock’s letter to the editor urging Sen. Bernie Sanders to ask Raul Castro to free political prisoners comes not a moment too soon. Cuba is engaged in a roundup of dissidents and kangaroo trials, hoping that the world, preoccupied with the coronavirus epidemic, will not notice.Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper,wrote approvingly of Sanders in a front page article a few days ago. Although he visited with the Cuban leadership when they held Alan Gross, an American, political hostage, the senator did not ask for his release, Gross said.Amnesty International can provide information on Cuban prisoners of conscience. There are almost 100 political prisoners in Raul Castro’s jails today.

John Suarez, executive director for the Center for a Free Cuba

The Miami Herald, March 13, 2020

Not all politicians overlooked Alan Gross

Perhaps the most shocking thing in Nora Gamez Torres’ article “Former political captive says [Senator Bernie]Sanders questioned  Cuba criticisms during prison meet” is not his surprise at the criticism of the Cuban government that held USAID subcontractor hostage, but that neither Sanders nor Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-  ) and Jon Tester (D- ) had no contact with Gross “before that time or after.”

They are not the only prominent politicians who turned their backs on an American whose trial according to human rights organizations was lacking in minimal judicial standards.  Gross was charged with spying, although nobody else was similarly charged.

When former President Jimmy Carter was preparing his visit to Cuba, I called the Carter Center in Atlanta to urge him to obtain Alan Gross’s freedom, but I was told that Carter would not raise the issue because it was not on his agenda.

Another opportunity arose when a Cuban spy serving a prison sentence for his role in the murder by Cuban MIGs of Cuban American pilots searching for refugees on the Florida Straits asked President Obama to allow him to travel to Cuba to visit a sick relative.  Obama approved the request. At the time, Alan Gross asked Castro to allow him to visit his seriously ill mother in the United States.

It is difficult to believe that Havana would have turned down a request from Obama to permit Gross to visit his mother, while the President authorized a similar request from the Cuban spy, particularly since Cuba was seeking normalization of relations with the United States at the time. Unfortunately, the Cuban government denied Gross request, and his mother died without ever seeing him.

But some Americans did try to help. More than 100 small framed photographs of Alan Gross with a petition were distributed to Senators and Congressmen.  The photos were an effort to keep reminding them about the American’s plight. Former New Mexico governor and American Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson had negotiated with North Koreans the release of American hostages and favored improving ties with Cuba. He knew that years earlier the Reverend Jesse Jackson met with Fidel Castro and obtained the release of more than twenty long term political prisoners. Richardson flew to Havana but the Cuban leaders he had met previously would not receive him and he came back empty handed

Gross, whose crime was to take to Cuba satellite communication equipment and computers for Cuba’s small Jewish community, was released when President Obama returned three Cuban spies to the island.

– Frank Calzon,

Arlington, VA

Houston Chronicle, March 9, 2020

Bernie Sanders should support human rights, not praise Cuban government [Opinion]

March 9, 2020

Bernie Sanders and Cuba

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent remarks that Fidel Castro expanded education in Cuba and his history of making statements praising the Cuban socialist government have disappointed many Cuban Americans. In response to this influx of criticism, he condemned major authoritarian regimes, including that of Cuba, and the human rights abuses existent in such countries.

Today there are at least 71 people on the island that have been imprisoned on politically motivated charges and are classified by international human rights organizations as “prisoners of conscience.” They are arbitrarily detained and suffer great abuse while in prison.

If the senator wishes to dialogue with the Cuban American community and help the victims of dictatorship, he could ask General Raúl Castro to release these prisoners as an act of humanitarian goodwill.

This action would make a clear point regarding his support for human rights in countries the U.S. interacts with and put him in an excellent position when it comes to engagement with Cuba were he to win the presidency. Sen. Sanders should use his voice to help free these prisoners, an action that would surely bring great happiness to their families and communities.

Seth Rock, Houston Texas*v5p3nd*_ga*YW1wLXY4RWZxNFNKSm1CMWJNcjdzdlBDUk11b3M4S1lyb0FCQ2ZTMGxKSjdGUEV2dHFoc1djbWhNUkIwTzVsZVlYYXY.

Sun Sentinel, March 4, 2020

Sanders ignores how Cuba tramples worker rights

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is an eloquent advocate for workers and union rights in the United States.

Would it be possible for him to call attention to the lack of labor and union rights in Cuba, where strikes are prohibited and there is no collective bargaining?

And where Cubans who attempt to organize an independent labor union are sent to prison, and government labor unions are responsible for an obedient working class.

Sanders owes an apology to gays, both in Cuba and in the US. Years ago, Castro rounded up Jehovah’s Witnesses, writers, priests, nuns, and gays, in addition to young people with long hair and tight pants, and shipped them, without due process, to cut sugar cane from sunrise to sunset in concentration camps.

Fortunately, Jean Paul Sartre, Simon de Bouvier, Susan Sontag, learned about it and pressured Castro to close the camps.

Joaquin Pujol,

Boca Raton

The Miami Herald, March 4, 2020

Former political captive says Sanders questioned Cuba criticisms during prison meet


MARCH 04, 2020 04:49 PM 

Alan Gross lost 110 pounds and several teeth while imprisoned for five years in Cuba. But during a visit in prison by Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2014, Gross says the Vermont senator told him that he did not understand why the island was so harshly criticized.

“I don’t know what’s so wrong about this country,” Sanders said during a one-hour meeting with the prisoner and two other members of Congress visiting Havana, Gross told the Miami Herald.

“I thought it was a pretty insensitive thing for him to say,” Gross said. “Couldn’t he see, with his own eyes, what was going on around the country that he’s been traveling through? And I was a hostage to the government of the country that he didn’t see anything wrong with.”

Gross said he didn’t reply to the senator. Although there were no guards present, Gross suspects Cuban authorities were recording the conversation.

“I was kind of shocked,” Gross said.

Sanders’ campaign did not respond Wednesday to Gross’ comments, published first by NPR Wednesday less than two weeks before the March 17 Florida Democratic primary.

Sanders, who is running for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential election, has been criticized for praising aspects of the Soviet Union and the governments of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Recently, during an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Sanders again praised a literacy program carried out by Castro during the early years of the revolution, though he explicitly condemned Castro’s authoritarianism.

Gross said he tried to downplay his encounter with Sanders during a podcast with Politico in 2016. But he said he decided to speak out after “Sanders had that interview with CBS.”

“If he had some opinions about anything good that happened in Cuba since the revolution, then he should have framed it a little bit differently,” Gross said. “And the way he framed it shows the same lack of perspective and lack of sense that a presidential candidate shouldn’t show.”

Sanders’ comment on Cuba in 2014 came almost at the end of an hour of an “engaging conversation,” said Gross. Sanders was part of a congressional delegation that visited Cuba in February 2014. He met with Gross along with Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Jon Tester.

Sanders was not “really involved” in most of the talk, Gross said.

Gross does not remember the details of the discussion other than that the subject of U.S. policy towards Cuba came up. Being imprisoned with little food available, he said what he remembered the most was that Heitkamp and Tester brought him two bags of cookies and a “giant” package of M&Ms with peanuts.

“I appreciated the visit,” Gross said. “Each one of them wanted to see me free. I had no contact with any of them before that time or after.”

Sarah Feldman, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tester of Montana, said the senator does not remember the exchange described by Gross. Former Sen. Heitkamp of North Dakota did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In statements after his visit to Cuba, Sanders described the conversation with Gross as “interesting.”

Gross said he has made donations to several congressional and presidential campaigns, including Joe Biden’s, but said he is not linked to any of them. Gross divides his time now between Washington and Tel Aviv.

NPR first reported Gross’ anecdote about Sanders after Gross published a comment on Facebook.

At the time he was imprisoned in Cuba, Gross was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development in a project to expand internet access for the Jewish community on the island. He was not the only one sneaking in internet technology banned by the Cuban authorities. Radio and TV Martí, two US government stations broadcasting to Cuba, also introduced satellite communication equipment into the country.

But Gross, a U.S. citizen, was the only one arrested in 2009 and charged with espionage. He was sentenced to 15 years. He was finally released on Dec. 17, 2014, in a prisoner exchange in which the Barack Obama government returned three Cuban spies to the island.

Gross’ story drew a sharp rebuke from Florida members of Congress, some of whom condemned Sanders’ remarks about Cuba’s literacy program last month. “You know what my reaction was?” Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala said. “There he goes again,” .

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

Sun Sentinel, March 1, 2020

Bernie Sanders gets facts wrong about Castro’s literacy, health care programs. Let’s set the record straight. | Opinion


On the 24th anniversary of the February 24, 1996, Brothers to the Rescue shootdown when Fidel Castro’s MIG’s destroyed two civilian aircraft in international airspace engaged in the search for Cuban refugees killing four Americans, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, argued in a CBS 60 Minutes interview that there were good things about the Castro regime: “It is unfair to simply say everything is bad. When Fidel Castro came into office you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program.”

He was doubling down on statements that he had made in the 1980s when he claimed in recorded interviews that Cubans did not rise up and help the U.S. overthrow Cuba’s dictatorship because he “educated the kids, gave them healthcare, and totally transformed the society.”

The facts indicate otherwise. In 1959, the island already had decent educational and healthcare systems, according to U.N. statistics, and its rising literacy rates tracked with the rest of Latin America. Costa Rica achieved the same results without dictatorship and firing squads.

“According to the 1953 Cuba census, out of 4,376,529 inhabitants 10 years of age or older 23.6% were illiterate, a percentage lower than all other Latin American countries except Argentina (13.6%), Chile (19.6%), & Costa Rica (20.6%) … Factoring only population 15 years of age or older, the rate is lowered to 22.1%.”

This means that 77.9% of Cubans fifteen years and older were literate six years prior to the Communist takeover.

An appraisal of Castro’s literacy efforts should Include the politicization of Cuban education. To this day, teachers and students continue to be expelled from universities due to their ideas. Cubans have been sentenced to prison for reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm and many books are banned. Writers, gays and religious believers were sent to concentration camps until Jean Paul Sartre and other intellectuals denounced the situation.

Paul Hollander’s “Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society” cites Professor Maurice Halperin, a Castro supporter who came across a “confidential public opinion poll made by the Communist Party in 1987” in Holguin province. “Of those polled (over ten thousand) 87 percent had unfavorable views of the health care they received. Most of the complaints “as summed up in the report concerned ‘lack of attention, negligence and abuse of patients.’”

There were also many complaints “about the chronic absenteeism of both doctors and nurses and about favoritism in the treatment of well-connected patients.”

These were not the reasons Cubans did not overthrow Fidel Castro.

The regime broadcast firing squad executions in a campaign of political terror to consolidate its rule. With the help of the KGB and East Germany’s Stasi, Castro quickly built an effective police state. In the days prior to the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, he rounded up 200,000 disaffected Cubans in Havana alone.

Sanders, also ignores the thousands of peasants killed by Castro and Soviet counter insurgency forces between 1959 and 1965. Their rebellion, took place over six years in the Escambray Mountains, with many guerillas who had fought alongside Castro against Batista, now fighting against the new regime. They had supported him to restore democracy, but when the new leader turned to Communism, they revolted.

Unlike Fulgencio Batista, who had to endure an arms embargo from the United States, and its ambassador telling him to leave power in 1958, Castro had the full backing of the Soviet Union and its counter-insurgency forces.

The argument that Sanders made, even if wrong, is morally objectionable. Apologists for Augusto Pinochet credit him for a dynamic economy that lifted millions out of poverty in Chile, but one cannot say that he was “not all bad,” because his regime summarily executed and tortured thousands of political opponents.

John Suarez is the executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. Frank Calzón is a former executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.