Opinion | Literacy programs were no silver lining in Castro’s horrible regime


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Last weekend, Anderson Cooper asked Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to offer a justification for controversial comments he made about Fidel Castro’s regime in the 1980s.

By Michael Clifford, Staff Columnist

Last weekend, when Anderson Cooper asked Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to offer a justification for controversial comments he made in the 1980s, he again defended the far-left government that has controlled Cuba since 1959.

“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba,” stated the self-proclaimed democratic socialist, adding that, “it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? 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?”

Much like when Sanders suggested, more than 30 years ago, that Fidel Castro’s regime was not overthrown by the Cuban people because “he educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society,” the senator’s statements are a dangerous detachment from reality. Castro and the Communist Party of Cuba ran, and have continued to run, a repressive, undemocratic regime that has presided over widespread poverty and suffering. This should not be discounted or excused for any reason — much less something as small as a literacy program.

For context, the literacy rate in Cuba is said to be very close to 100%, which is slightly higher than other nations, including the United States, where it is about 99%. However, considering the fact that literacy was already improving worldwide at the time, and that the margins of difference here are usually fractions of a percent, Cuba’s literacy rate is far less impressive. Cuba stood above its neighbors in Costa Rica, Chile and Colombia for decades before the Communists seized power.

Sanders’ other arguments do not withstand scrutiny, either. Health care in Cuba is neither of high quality nor accessible, despite internal claims from the party and left-wing politicians in the United States and elsewhere. The Cuban government does make billions exporting physicians and services around the world, but this happens while the system lacks at home. Medicine shortages are frequent and citizens routinely experience horrid hospital conditions. Even the supposed shining beacons of Cuban health care — high life expectancy and low infant mortality — are based on questionable data and are subject to politically motivated manipulation.

It would be absurd to suggest that it is worse to live in the United States — where, although perhaps 1% of the populace is illiterate, intellectual freedom is embedded in the Constitution — than in Cuba — where, in addition to having the least free press in the Americas, private ownership of media is forbidden by law and speech must “conform to the objectives of a socialist society.” In a regime where everything available to read is strictly controlled, and where imprisoning and suppressing journalists is almost a national sport, literacy became a skill that is abused for political purposes in order to enhance the power of the Communists and make the state more legitimate.

The belief that communism somehow lifted Cuba from grinding poverty under the Batista dictatorship that ruled before it is wrong. Economic study after study demonstrate that Cuba was already a developed nation by the late 1950s, and that living standards and economic progress have fallen, even today, behind where they were then. If Castro “transformed society,” it was only to drag it backward and further into the ground for the vast majority of people. 

That being said, Castro did manage to enrich himself during his rule, as he was reportedly still worth the equivalent of $900 million in 2006, according to Forbes Magazine. With Sanders being someone who has dedicated such a massive portion of his campaign to attacking income and wealth inequality — even arguing that billionaires should not exist — while dragging Americans who make themselves rich across the coals and threatening large tax increases, it is an incredible oversight to ignore Castro accumulating this amount of wealth by destroying people’s lives.

Sanders’ comfort in scoffing at the crimes of someone who was dangerously illiberal and contrary to democratic values even angers members of the Democratic Party, especially in Florida — an important swing state where so many Cuban-Americans who fled from their homeland reside.

[email protected] comments on Fidel Castro are ill-informed & insulting to thousands of Floridians. Castro was a murderous dictator who oppressed his own people. His ‘literacy program’ wasn’t altruistic; it was a cynical effort to spread his dangerous philosophy & consolidate power,” tweeted Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat, last Monday.
Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., also tweeted her criticism of the senator, stating that she hopes, in the future, Sanders will speak to some of her constituents “before he decides to sing the praises of a murderous tyrant like Fidel Castro.”
A comment Sanders made in the immediate aftermath of the statements in question was only icing on the cake.
“Unlike Donald Trump, let’s be clear, you want to — I do not think that Kim Jong-un is a good friend,” he said. “I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator. Vladimir Putin, not a great friend of mine.”
While perhaps Sanders was not “trading love letters” with the former Cuban prime minister, his argument cannot be interpreted as anything other than sympathy. Authoritarian states have always developed major national programs in order to woo the support of a mass movement and show off to other nations. Nazi Germany created and displayed massive and stunning classical architecture, while workers within the Soviet Union were virtually guaranteed to find work at all times.
Nobody would seriously suggest that these ideas were well-intentioned or made up for the horrors committed by those states, and nobody could seriously suggest that Cuban literacy programs, created mostly as a political propaganda effort to enforce state doctrines and curry generational favor toward the communist government, are some kind of silver lining.
Nobody, perhaps, except for Bernie Sanders.
Michael Clifford writes primarily about politics and economic policy. Write to Michael at [email protected].