Going Against the Bern: Perspectives of a Cuban-American Progressive

Admittedly, I never felt it. I’ve always admired the egalitarian ideology of this man who hails from the cool, rural state of Vermont. I also admire his tremendous courage and persistence, never really diminishing since 2016 but becoming more apparent after a heart attack. I mean…a heart attack. How many others go right back to work? That can’t have been physically easy.

But I never caught the fever. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, as former Secretary of State, was the best candidate by that sole definition. For me, logic wouldn’t take me anywhere else; years ago, I would have been equally enthusiastic for Madeleine Albright or Colin Powell.

And in 2020, I caught the fire of Elizabeth Warren’s fight for smarter economic policies that fully support free enterprise and capitalism, while appropriately protecting consumers from exploitative practices and ensuring basic levels of human support through education and health care.

I love Senator Warren’s smart, sassy, no-fuss but hardly evasive handling of questions. She has plans…with numbers, and more detail than any other candidate. Because of these things, and her experience leading to the formation of the CFPB and current senatorship, in my view she was the best candidate. I was hooked.

Hooked…and not even “because I’m progressive”. When did progressive become a bad word? Who’s not for the progress in the word progressive? Moderates might not admit it, but anyone actively against “regressive” policies is a progressive. In other words, you’d have to be a real jerk to be actively unprogressive. Right?

I always liked Senator Bernie Sanders and his neat, no-nonsense idealism. He’s definitely not a regressive politician. But now that Warren has backed out of the 2020 race, despite my apparent progressive tendencies, I still possess no Bern, and this is why: off-hand remarks about Cuba’s education and health care system, covered broadly by a number of news outlets including NBC.

His remarks seem innocent enough, but as discussed by Carlos Gomez during an NPR interview, the educational “good” done by Castro’s regime was more about Marxist indoctrination by an authoritarian, repressive regime that effectively regressed Cuba. Through economic stagnation, this island nation maintains 1950’s classic cars by necessity, not as a trendy retro move. The plight of the population is like the cars: there are not enough parts and people desperately make do with what they are given (which is not enough).

For Sanders, comments about education and medicine in Cuba might seem like benign facts, but by even giving these things a mention, he exposes a serious flaw: being out of touch. There’s no reason he needs to praise what little good has been done by socialist regimes as they venture further towards communist authoritarianism. This scares people, namely: naturalized U.S. citizens from Cuba and Cuban Americans. And Venezuelans. Et alia.

With the casual statements he later defends, he alienates a chunk of Latinos who simply will not have it: those who have lived through revolution-then-socialism-then-communism. Let’s be clear: these regime changes are full of hope, and followed by confiscated property and businesses, along with vanishing freedom of speech.

For me and the Cubans and Cuban Americans I know, we don’t imagine education and health care when we think of Cuba. Instead, we think of our parents and other family fleeing for freedom and a future. We think of them having to leave their beloved homeland, and how lucky they must have felt for America to grant political asylum. We think of their heartbreak, broken dreams, and doing what it takes for a better life. My family story, as for countless others, is about this perseverance.

I write these things not from first-hand experience, but a highly biased perspective based on trusted and truthful personal testimonies. Parents of friends were jailed for saying the wrong things. Cousins had to keep their opinions to themselves, even around friends. Families made decisions to defect in secret, with lies to authorities and at great risk. Defecting could only be done with enough clothing for a short vacation.

We can’t expect every American politician to have first-hand knowledge of these personal stories. But, we do expect they will figure there’s a good reason the U.S. grants political asylum, and that sometimes (at least for Cuba) “progress” in education and health comes with great regress. And displaying this apparent ignorance — if not just lack of sensitivity to immigrants from repressive regimes — as a proud democratic socialist? Dude, just…no.

Ok, reality check. Do I really believe that if Sanders is elected, that our U.S. government will “go communist” and human rights (and new cars) will disappear? Of course not. Sanders doesn’t stand for that, and the other branches of government should be able to ensure balance of power. I’m not promoting any propaganda that dismisses socialist policies simply because they are “socialist, therefore communist”, or what they could become in the hands of a corrupt government. Guaranteed health care and education should be part of U.S. progressive policy, and we absolutely should be moving in this direction.

However, Senator Sanders: words matter. They matter for you as much as they matter for all our elected officials. Perhaps the Cuban contingent is too small (or conservative) for you to fully realize these deep-rooted sentiments, not only in the people who left, but their children and grandchildren. But this particular progressive, as for many Cuban Americans, are listening very carefully to not only what you say, but how you speak of your intentions for embracing historical accuracy, compassion and flexibility in a contentious political climate, above and beyond your progressive ideology.

Chemistry professor and yoga teacher, with interests in science connection to spirituality, wisdom and transformation. marylunayoga.com/yogic-earth