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Then-U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to a meeting in the Oval Office on June 9, 2016 at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid Right-Wing Effort to Smear Sanders Over Cuba Comments, Campaign Issues Reminder That Obama Said the Same Thing

"If offering an (accurately) positive assessment of any aspect of an authoritarian communist regime's record is tantamount to endorsing its form of rule, then Barack Obama is an authoritarian communist."

Julia Conley

Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign defended the 2020 presidential candidate's recent comments on the late, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Monday as as right-wingers and corporate Democrats whipped up outrage over Sanders' praise for the high literacy rates in Cuba under Castro's leadership, which lasted from 1959 to 2008.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, Sanders said that while he is "very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba" during Castro's regime, "it's unfair to simply say everything is bad."

"When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did?" Sanders said. "He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing?"

The Vermont senator's comments were consistent with ones he made during his 2016 presidential campaign. While Castro oversaw an "authoritarian, undemocratic country," he said during a debate, "it would be wrong not to state that in Cuba they have made some good advances in healthcare, they are sending doctors all over the world."

Several of Sanders' 2020 opponents seized on his comments from Sunday. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg tweeted, "We can't risk nominating someone who doesn't recognize" the need to hold foreign leaders accountable for human rights violations while former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg mocked Sanders for praising Cuba's literacy rates. 

Sanders campaign organizers and other progressives, however, pointed out that the senator's remarks couldn't have been particularly radical—as they echoed comments made by former President Barack Obama when he was in office.

Sanders' speechwriter, David Sirota, tweeted a video of the former president saying in 2016 that the Cuban government had "made great progress in educating young people" and praising its healthcare system.

"Every child in Cuba gets a basic education," Obama said. "Life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to that in the United States because they have access to healthcare."

"If offering an (accurately) positive assessment of any aspect of an authoritarian communist regime's record is tantamount to endorsing its form of rule, then Barack Obama is an authoritarian communist," wrote Eric Levitz at New York magazine.

Others on social media also pointed out the similarity between Sanders' and Obama's comments and slammed the criticism from Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and many in the corporate media—pointing out that Cuba's strong education and healthcare systems under Castro's government are hardly a secret.

"The notion that Sanders' acknowledgement of the Castro regime's accomplishments betrays his secret sympathy for authoritarian communism is absurd," wrote Levitz. "It is a fact that Cuba has one of the highest-performing education systems in Latin America, while its medical system has enabled its people to enjoy life expectancy and infant mortality rates similar to those of U.S. residents despite the island's relative poverty."

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