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Biden is wrong about Sanders on Cuba

| Thursday, March 19, 2020

You might not have been aware, given the ongoing pandemic, but the two remaining major candidates in the Democratic primary debated this past Sunday. The mood of the debate differed drastically from that of its predecessors due to the national health crisis, the lack of a live audience, the small number of combatants on stage and the presumption that former Vice President Joe Biden will be the nominee. Nevertheless, the debate managed to make itself interesting, focusing attention on certain key differences between the two septuagenarians. The occasion even prompted Biden to announce that he will choose a woman as his running mate, assuming he wins the nomination. 

The debate featured an intriguing exchange on the topic of Senator Bernie Sanders’ comments regarding Fidel Castro. Specifically, Sanders recently defended comments he had made in the 1980s regarding the effectiveness of the public literacy program Castro implemented in the early years of his dictatorship. In the midst of the debate, Biden stated the following: 

The idea of occasionally saying something nice about a country is one thing. The idea of praising a country that is violating human rights around the world is, in fact — makes our allies wonder what’s going on.” 

To me, this amounts to believing that we can ‘say nice things’ about other countries, but we are not allowed to ‘praise’ the political operations of countries that deal with human rights abuses. This sounds all well and good until one considers this: Do we apply this principle to America?

Let’s take a straightforward example. I, like many Americans, am pro-life; I believe the American government permits the murder of children in the womb. To call this an abuse of human rights would be a profound understatement. It is the vile product of a casual disregard for the most basic dignity each human person deserves.

Does this mean I am in some way, politically or morally, prohibited from praising the positive actions of the federal government? Can I not support anything on Biden’s agenda because he does not plan on curbing this immense infraction on human rights? I don’t believe so. We should call out all leaders, movements and systems, in our own country and in others, when they commit atrocities. We also should recognize when those same leaders, movements and systems produce positive outcomes for their respective peoples. Of course, it must be taken into account whether these outcomes were the result of exploitation and abuse. That does not preclude commentators from recognizing how certain beneficial programs might shed light on the American experience, as I understand Sanders’ comments to do. 

For those who may not appreciate my condemnation of the left’s position on abortion, another example might be helpful. There was a sustained criticism of former President Barack Obama during his term in office based on his willingness to use military drone strikes. I would be shocked if any of these commentators, largely though not exclusively on the American left, were unwilling to praise any of President Obama’s actions or programs because of a perceived string of human rights abuses. Those people were not wrong to criticize certain actions of a president they may otherwise have agreed with; in fact, they were right to allow for at least a small bit of nuance in politics.

As a nation, I believe we have to recognize that our politicians are human persons, and the systems and ideologies they represent are based on the lives of real people. Like all of us, politicians are individually and collectively capable of both good and evil; we have not only a right but an obligation to celebrate the former and denounce the latter. This obligation transcends party affiliation, national loyalty or any other reason why one might hesitate to comment on the negative actions taken by someone they generally support. 

Of course, I do not mean to condone the actions of Fidel Castro; I am not even sure that Sanders’ comments were strong enough in their condemnation of the dictator. I take issue most fervently with the response Biden, the presumptive nominee, had to Sanders’ comments. American political commentators in today’s world frequently decry a mindset of blaming “both sides” for America’s woes, instead choosing to focus their scorn on one side or another. It is certainly true that there are circumstances in which one ‘side’ is clearly in the wrong; one need only be reminded of President Donald Trump’s comments in the wake of Charlottesville to understand that, sometimes, “both sides” rhetoric is harmful. However, we do need to appreciate the fact that people with whom we disagree are capable of producing both good ideas and beneficial actions. This applies not only to our neighbors, and colleagues, but to our most despised politicians and even to despots and tyrants. Politicians, of all sorts, are simply people, with strengths and flaws; to treat them any differently is to make a fundamental mistake.

Vince Mallett is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in philosophy with a minor in constitutional studies. He is proud to hail from Carroll Hall and northern New Jersey. Vince can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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