Will Latinos Buy Into ‘Tío Bernie’s’ Socialism?

Bernie Sanders will have to win over voters whose skepticism of socialism has been shaped by Latin American authoritarian leaders.

by Geraldo L. Cadava

Bernie Sanders’s message has resonated with the Latino electorate, particularly young voters. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, he won big among Latinos, and he is projected to do the same in Nevada this Saturday. But whether that support will transfer to a general election if “Tío Bernie” (Uncle Bernie), as he is known, manages to clinch the nomination is the big question.

The Latino youth Mr. Sanders is rallying haven’t been reliable voters. Though he’s favored by Latinos nationally, as new Washington Post-ABC News and Univision polls show, reports of his success haven’t accounted for voters for whom socialism is something to fear.

Mr. Sanders, aware that such a label might hurt his chances, has deflected conversations about his socialism, claiming they’re just efforts to redbait him. In 1981, as the newly elected mayor of Burlington, Vt., he said he had learned to stay away from calling himself a socialist, because he didn’t want to spend “half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps.” He embraced other terms instead, including radical, independent and democratic socialist.

While he may harbor unease about the label, his actions have said otherwise. In the summer of 1985, the mayor traveled to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, for a commemoration of the sixth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. While there, he praised the Sandinistas for fighting for women’s rights and economic justice. In a 1986 speech at the University of Vermont, he claimed to be “very excited when Fidel Castro made the revolution in Cuba,” because it seemed “right and appropriate that poor people were rising up against rather ugly rich people.”

More recently, he criticized the United States-led coup against the Chilean socialist Salvador Allende, which installed the right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973. He has also said that he supports the socialism of countries in Scandinavia, the ones that President Trump wishes more immigrants came from.

To Mr. Sanders’s supporters, past statements and associations aren’t things that need to be hidden from view. They’ve long been critical of U.S. military interventions in Latin America and admired efforts to redistribute wealth and property, and build universal, state-funded health care and educational programs. It’s what they would like to see happen in the United States. But the specter of socialism and communism in Latin America will haunt Mr. Sanders in a face-off with Mr. Trump.

Like other Republicans before him, Mr. Trump hasn’t distinguished among the various brands of socialism. He’s betting that Latino voters won’t see the nuances, either, and he may be right. Prominent Republicans like Ted Cruz and others I’ve talked to have in a single breath drawn a straight line from Mr. Castro to Nicolás Maduro to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On the debate stage last night, Mr. Sanders bristled when Michael Bloomberg claimed his policy proposals amounted to “communism.” He dismissed the remark, calling it a “cheap shot.” But will voters appreciate the difference?

In his State of the Union speech this month, Mr. Trump welcomed the “true and legitimate” president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, and said his administration has supported the “hopes of Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans to restore democracy” in their countries. These were nothing if not appeals to Latinos in the battleground state of Florida.

Mr. Sanders may be able to fend off these attacks, as he and other Democrats have done in the past. As the potential Democratic nominee in a general election, he will have to persuade voters of Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan origin, who fled socialist regimes. For them, it will be inconceivable to support a candidate who has praised the likes of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Mr. Castro and Mr. Allende, and whose supporters have been called Sandernistas.

Last fall, the head of a South Florida chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly asked me, “Can you believe it’s 2019 and we’re still talking about socialism?” To her, it was obvious that we’d decided as a country that Mr. Castro and others of that ilk were villains. And yet, here we are, with one of the major parties contemplating the nomination of a self-proclaimed socialist.

The gamble of the Sanders campaign has been that he can transform the electorate and rally enough first-time or nontraditional voters to defeat President Trump. Or that he can pull voters who supported Barack Obama, and then abandoned Hillary Clinton, back into the Democratic camp. But if he doesn’t address past praise for the Latin American left and what socialism means to him head-on, voters may be unwilling to back a candidate who has supported leaders who have uprooted their families and torn their countries apart.

To recruit these voters, Mr. Sanders will have to confront the issue directly, perhaps with a speech on socialism like the one Mr. Obama delivered in 2008 on race, which The Washington Post said “saved Obama’s candidacy” after fallout from the Jeremiah Wright controversy. Ideally, a contest between Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump would lead to a more nuanced debate about United States-Latin American relations and their influence on Latino politics domestically.

In 1986, an article in The Guardian predicted that Mr. Sanders “will be around for the foreseeable future, reminding Vermont and anyone else willing to listen that there are more ways to run a democracy than Mr. Reagan’s.” Mr. Sanders will have to persuade Latinos that there are more ways to run a democracy. He will have to explain that what he admired about Latin American leaders was their efforts toward social, political and economic equality. That this is what he has stood for his whole career. Many Latinos may still be unwilling to listen, but perhaps enough will.

Geraldo L. Cadava (@gerry_cadava) is a professor of History and Latina and Latino Studies at Northwestern University.

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