With Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy wobbling on weary legs heading into a crucial stretch of primary contests, former Secretary of State John Kerry aimed a finishing blow at the self-described democratic socialist last Monday morning.
“Senator Sanders has never failed to be saying a nice thing about some socialist country or another dictator somewhere,” said Kerry, a top surrogate for former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders’ chief rival for the Democratic nomination. Kerry blasted Sanders for insufficiently supporting democracy and freedom in Latin America, particularly after Sanders offered some qualified praise for certain policies of Fidel Castro, the late Cuban Communist leader, during an appearance on “60 Minutes” last month.
“Bernie thinks by putting the word ‘democratic’ in front of socialist, he can deal with the challenge of being socialist,” Kerry told the Miami Herald. “He wasn’t a democratic socialist most of his life. He was just a socialist. Now he’s running for president, so he tries to take the mantle of ‘democratic,’ but in my judgment socialism is socialism.”
Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, shot back on Twitter, calling the comments “dishonest and disgusting red-baiting” that “should be beneath Kerry.”
“Bernie has been clear in criticisms of authoritarian regimes,” Duss tweeted. “He’s also been clear in opposition to right wing coups, such as in Bolivia, which has led to a wave of violent repression. Biden has remained silent.”
Latin America policy has simmered just beneath the surface of this Democratic primary from its beginning, thanks to the two most prominent figures in the race. Few people in American politics have so forcefully denounced U.S. interventionism in Latin America for so long as Sanders. No one in the field, meanwhile, had as much direct experience with the region as Biden, who visited Latin America more than a dozen times as vice president.
It was inevitable the two would clash, especially before Tuesday’s primary in Latino-heavy Florida. But the manner in which they have has also obscured a plain truth: Sanders and Biden don’t appear as far apart on how they would approach Latin America’s triumvirate of leftist authoritarian leaders ― in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua ― as the heated rhetoric would have people believe. Although their experiences in and worldviews toward Latin America vary significantly, the primary differences between how they’d engage are strategic and nuanced.
Still, the battle is evidence of a problem that has plagued Sanders over the last two weeks, as he has plummeted from clear front-runner to beleaguered challenger. While his positions aren’t necessarily as radical as his rhetoric might make them seem, he has struggled to convince the media and many Democratic voters that’s the case.
No Regime Change In Venezuela
Take Venezuela, which has become the most notable foreign policy struggle in the region under Trump. Both Biden and Sanders have each called Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has become increasingly authoritarian as his country has spiraled into chaos, “a tyrant.”
And they have both said they oppose, in Sanders’ words, Maduro’s “use of violence against unarmed protesters and the suppression of dissent,” and, in Biden’s, “violent oppression” and “dismantling [of] the last vestiges of Venezuelan democracy.”
But they’ve also both said that the United States should “not be in the business of regime change,” a phrase Sanders first used in January 2019, when Trump recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader and imposed new rounds of sanctions on the country. Biden used the exact same verbiage in an Americas Quarterly survey published this week.
Neither of their policy agendas toward Venezuela and Cuba are as radical as Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy ― a plan, devised by hardline anti-Cuba and Venezuela advisers within the administration, that has so far involved ramping up round after round of sanctions on both countries. That “maximum pressure” strategy now includes what is effectively a full embargo on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and its economy. But much like it has in Cuba, the strategy, such that it is one, has so far failed to cripple Maduro, who has continued to preside over a worsening economic collapse and a millions-strong refugee crisis. Widely regarded as an overtly political ploy to drive out voters in Florida this November, the strategy has few fans or defenders in Latin American policy circles or anywhere else, except among the hardest of the hardliners.
Both Sanders and Biden have been critical of that strategy, and both argue that blatant contradictions in Trump’s approach ― for instance, his claims that he cares about alleviating the plight of ordinary Venezuelans even as he refuses to offer temporary protected status to its fleeing migrants ― make it clear that the president doesn’t care enough about the humanitarian aspect of the Venezuelan crisis. Both say they would support extending TPS to Venezuelan migrants, a suggestion that both see it more as a humanitarian crisis than a purely political one.
Sanders and Biden both also favor finding a negotiated solution to the ongoing struggle in Venezuela, another view that is common ― almost consensus ― among observers in Washington, especially as Trump’s more confrontational approach has turned Venezuela into an ugly stalemate.
“Most Latin American analysts I think favor [negotiations],” said Michael Shifter, the president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “The question is really, what kind of negotiations under what conditions.”
A Different Role For The U.S.
That question hints at the biggest difference between the two candidates: While both see a need for a more multilateral approach to Venezuela, they have different views of the role the United States should play in fostering and participating in any new negotiations between Maduro and the opposition.
Trump’s strategy has relied almost entirely on economic sanctions against Venezuela, with virtually no support for negotiations between Maduro and the opposition.
Both Sanders and Biden agree that focusing so intently on sanctions is a strategic folly that has exacerbated the pain of ordinary Venezuelans. Biden, though, has been more vocal in his suggestion that sanctions should still play a key role in the effort to alleviate the crisis.
A key backer of the targeted sanctions Obama placed on members of the Maduro government in 2015, Biden has said in various questionnaires that he favors maintaining sanctions against Maduro and Venezuela. But he favors working alongside Latin American and European governments to increase the pressure through multilateral sanctions, rather than having the U.S. driving ahead alone.
“We know that unilateral sanctions don’t work,” said Juan Gonzalez, a foreign policy adviser on Biden’s campaign who also served on Obama’s National Security Council and as Biden’s special adviser in the White House.
The Trump administration has tried to ramp up pressure from other Latin American and European countries, but with only limited success ― an issue Gonzalez attributed to Trump’s lack of standing with foreign leaders. The international community, he said, has been “strong on language and weak on follow-up ... because the United States does not have credibility. They are not actually leading on this.”
“What Senator Sanders would recognize, unlike a lot of the other establishment, is that American-led intervention is going to backfire ... given our history in that region.”
Any existing sanctions Biden did leave in place, or new restrictions he might implement, would be part of a broader strategy to get Maduro to negotiate, much as the Obama administration wielded targeted sanctions against Iran in the hopes of paving the way for a landmark nuclear deal, and began lifting them once the agreement was reached.
Sanders also sees a mistake in the way Trump has approached Venezuela. The aggressive use of sanctions, threats of military force and campaign-style rhetoric on the subject have all given Maduro “a talking point to say, ‘Look, America is intervening again,’” said California Rep. Ro Khanna (D), a national co-chair on the Sanders campaign and fierce critic of Trump’s Venezuela policy.
Sanders has openly opposed the broad sanctions Trump has put in place ― including the embargo ― all of which he believes are doing more damage to ordinary Venezuelans than they are to Maduro, Khanna said last month.
But while he’d likely go farther in easing Trump’s sanctions than Biden would, Sanders might not necessarily remove all the pressure from Maduro.
Duss, Sanders’ top foreign policy adviser, told Foreign Policy magazine recently that while the U.S. has been “abusing” its use of sanctions, they remain “an important tool.”
The problem, Duss seems to believe, is similar to the one Biden’s advisers describe: Sanctions have too often been used without any broader strategy in mind.
“We need to take a hard look at where and how we use those tools and not just keep piling them on in ways that ultimately don’t advance policy goals,” Duss told Foreign Policy. Duss included Venezuela among the countries where that has been the case, suggesting that Sanders could still utilize some level of sanctions in order to punish Venezuelan officials or to incentivize negotiations.
The differing views of the United States’ role in Latin America also informs how both candidates might approach negotiations, if they were to take place.
Sanders, Khanna said, believes the United States needs to take a step back from the effort to end the crisis in Venezuela, and let actors like the United Nations, Mexico or The Vatican ― all of which, among others, have tried to act as neutral arbiters in Venezuela talks ― broker a solution between Maduro and the opposition for new elections. Letting countries without the baggage that comes with the United States’ long history of interventionism in the region take the lead, Khanna said, would make a positive outcome more likely.
“Senator Sanders shares the belief that the world would be better off if there were liberal democracy that supported human rights [in Venezuela],” Khanna said. ”And he shares the belief that Maduro is a bad actor who has harmed his own people with failed economic policy, with corruption, with preventing aid in some cases from getting it to his own people.”
“But the United States cannot be going it alone in these countries,” Khanna added. “What Senator Sanders would recognize, unlike a lot of the other establishment, is that American-led intervention is going to backfire ... given our history in that region.”
By comparison, Biden, who was part of administration that in 2009 promised its own reset of American relations with Latin America, is more likely to seek out a leading role for the U.S. in negotiations between Maduro and the opposition, under the view that the presence of the U.S. is necessary to set the table for legitimate talks.
“We understand that history,” Gonzalez said. “But I think what [Biden] also knows ― because he has governed, he’s not just opining from afar ― is that often without the United States, things do not get done.”
“That doesn’t mean that you’re telling everybody what to do,” Gonzalez said. “We are equal players at this table, and everybody has a say. But if we’re not actually at the table and putting skin in the game, things don’t happen.”
Bernie’s Problem Is Political
There’s no question that Sanders sits to Biden’s left when it comes to his historical view of Latin America and the United States’ role in it, or that he’s still more dove-ish on foreign policy than the former vice president now. And there are obvious differences between them in the region. Sanders, for instance, was quick to suggest that the November resignation of Bolivian President Evo Morales, a socialist, was a coup, even as most Democrats, Biden included, did not. Sanders has also come to the defense of other leftist leaders across the region more quickly and vocally than most Democrats do, a fact he has used to differentiate himself during this campaign.
But it also wasn’t that long ago that Obama and Biden broke with U.S. foreign policy orthodoxy in Latin America. The Obama administration took steps to recognize and apologize for the United States’ role in Argentina’s dirty wars and its backing of death squads in El Salvador, and he routinely faced accusations from the right that its efforts to normalize relations with Cuba amounted to nothing more than appeasement of an authoritarian enemy. (Obama and Biden, notably, still faced plenty of criticism around the region over how the U.S. handled a 2009 coup in Honduras, accusations of meddling in Venezuela and Bolivia, and revelations that the U.S. spied on leftist Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.)
So it might make more sense, given Sanders’ policy platform, to see him less as a clean break from the mainstream in Latin America and more as an evolutionary step in Obama’s proposed reset ― similar to the one other leading progressive senators and even Ben Rhodes, a top former Obama adviser, have suggested the U.S. should take, at least in Venezuela.
It’s noteworthy, too, that Sanders has faced criticism from his left on Latin America policy and Venezuela in the past, and while Sanders and his advisers have been more hesitant than Biden to recognize Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, experts on the region are skeptical he’d alter U.S. policy toward Guaidó the way new leftist leaders in Spain and Argentina have. Even Sanders and Biden’s varying positions on Guaidó are rooted in strategic differences about how to approach potential negotiations, said Michael Paarlberg, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who has served as the Sanders campaign’s main Latin America adviser.
“Declaring Juan Guaidó the legitimate leader of Venezuela doesn’t make it so,” said Paarlberg, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank. “We may prefer him to a corrupt kleptocrat but it doesn’t by itself do anything. Maduro is the one in power.”
But the problem Sanders has when it comes to Latin America is that no one seems to believe his condemnations of the region’s authoritarians, or his insistence that the policies he favors for dealing with them aren’t that far adrift from the Democratic mainstream.
He has repeatedly been pressed over his reticence to call Maduro “a dictator,” and for his allegedly soft positions on leftist autocrats, even as he has included them in his laments about the rising tide of authoritarianism in the Americas, a problem he says he wants to combat. No matter what Sanders says, an air of suspicion follows — that even if Sanders wants to negotiate with leaders in Cuba and Venezuela, he’d be too friendly in doing so.
Some of that is down to Sanders’ positioning of himself as an anti-establishment candidate, and some to his willingness to buck the status quo in a region where the U.S. position is so often treated as the only acceptable one.
Some, too, is that the media and many observers have too willingly adopted Trump’s framing of the clash with Maduro by buying into the idea that aggressive rhetoric and confrontation is the only way forward. Skepticism of leftist leaders is also baked into the American polity and media establishment in a way that it never has been for similar figures on the right, the United States’ willingness to have normal relations with them, or America’s own actions in the world and at home.
Even though they aren’t ardent leftists, that’s a phenomenon Biden and Kerry should know well. Their efforts in Cuba and Iran were often painted as attempts to cozy up to the enemy, as if diplomacy doesn’t count as foreign policy ― even, and especially, when aggressive confrontation and hardline sanctions regimes have failed. Duss, the Sanders foreign policy adviser, chastised Biden and Kerry over their attacks on Twitter, saying that “repurposing bad faith right wing attacks against opponents to his left only serves to make diplomacy with problematic regimes more politically costly.”
And Biden may find himself facing the same sort of criticism he’s leveling now in a general election or once he becomes president and tries to alter Trump’s approach to Maduro. The Trump campaign has already accused him of being too friendly to the Venezuelan leader during the Obama years, and will continue to do so whether Biden describes himself as a socialist or not.
But Sanders also shoulders some blame. Not all of the concerns his past stances on Latin America have generated are cynical and politically motivated, and Sanders hasn’t, at times, adequately addressed them. Part of the reason his critics don’t believe him is that his condemnations of leftist authoritarianism can feel like an obligatory step before he moves on to specific aspects he wants to praise.
“Bernie triggers the inner hardliner of Cuban Americans, even those who are moderate, like no other American politician does.”
Sanders’ answer when 60 Minutes pressed him on his past praise for Cuba under Castro was a perfect example. He condemned Cuba’s authoritarian overreach before praising Castro’s literacy programs and insisted that “it’s unfair to simply say that everything was bad” there. Whether he was right on the merits about the literacy program is up for debate; regardless, it was a bad political move that provided catnip to his detractors, did nothing to ease the worries of those who do have ugly memories and legitimate fears of socialist regimes, and never advanced the conversation to what he’d do as president (The answer: Sanders has said he’d reinstate Obama’s normalization efforts, and he supports lifting the Cuba embargo, a position well within the mainstream in Democratic politics.)
At a time when Sanders was at the front of the pack and looking to consolidate support, he generated another news cycle about his supposed radicalism. And while most Americans aren’t choosing their candidate based on their policy preferences in Latin America, it’s possible that the comments damaged the perception of Sanders among voters, particularly at a time when so many Democrats are hyper-focused on “electability.”
That’s been a particular issue for Sanders in Florida, where Cuba and Venezuela are actually salient issues. Trump and the GOP have circulated Sanders’ old comments on Cuba and Nicaragua around south Florida for more than four years now, in an effort to tie the entire Democratic Party to socialism. There are some indications Trump’s nakedly political strategy toward Cuba and Venezuela has had at least some success in reigniting hardline views toward Latin America’s socialist leaders. Support for the embargo has increased among Cuban-Americans in Miami over the last four years, according to polls, and Cuban-American voters swung hard toward statewide GOP candidates in Florida last year.
Winning those voters will be difficult for any Democrat. It may be even harder for a democratic socialist who has appeared to embrace Castro and other leftist leaders from across the region, said Ricardo Herrero, the executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a D.C. advocacy group that supports normalization and opposes the embargo.
“Bernie, as a self-identified democratic socialist, triggers the inner hardliner of Cuban Americans, even those who are moderate, like no other American politician does,” Herrero said.
Comments like those Sanders made on “60 Minutes,” he added, “only give ammunition to those who argue that a policy of engagement toward Cuba is a policy of appeasement toward the system Castro created.”
“I’m not in the business of predicting anything, and no one is beyond redemption. But he has a lot of work to do,” Herrero said.
With Biden holding a big lead in Florida and Sanders on the ropes, it might already be too late.