Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made a stunning outsider run for the Democratic nomination in 2016, winning 43% of the primary vote, or around 13.2 million votes, in the hotly contested nomination contest. He adamantly refused to disown the label of democratic socialist, which gave both Hillary Clinton and his Republican opponents in the general election, plenty of fodder for launching broadsides on his insurgency campaign. But Sanders’ long relationship with Daniel Ortega shows his infatuation with totalitarian leadership is nothing new.
As mayor of tiny Burlington, VT, for most of the 1980s, Bernie Sanders oversaw the efforts of the progressive city to enact its own foreign policy, a rarity at local city halls. He honeymooned in Moscow (before the collapse of Communism, of course), and maintained close relations with Communist governments throughout Latin America, including Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba.
So close was the relationship with Nicaragua that Sanders enthusiastically accepted an invitation by Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government in July 1985. The visit was financed by the Nicaraguan government, except the airfare, which Sanders paid for.
Sanders was an ambitious mayor. For the head of a tiny city of 40,000 inhabitants, he did not merely relegate himself to fixing potholes. Sanders had an eye on national policy, and American foreign policy, and was terrified of the prospect of an invasion of Nicaragua by US Marines. During his visit to the country, the Mayor of Burlington even had a 75-minute personal audience with Daniel Ortega; which Sanders claims to have used to avert the threat of war.
On his return, he wrote to Reagan: “At a time when your administration has imposed horrendous cutbacks to the American people in such areas as housing, aid to education, environmental protection and healthcare, I am appalled that you are using taxpayers’ money to destroy the government of a small nation.”
In Burlington, Sanders was greeted by reporters at the airport and peppered with questions. He subsequently sat down with the Burlington Free Press for an interview, in which he addressed the subject at length.
The then Mayor got some of his facts completely wrong. Sanders refers to Daniel Ortega as a political prisoner, serving a lengthy prison sentence for opposing the government. The fact of the matter is that Ortega was in prison for robbing a Bank of America branch in 1967, for which he served 7 years in prison.
As Sanders proceeds to outline his wondrous time in Nicaragua, surveying all of Ortega’s accomplishments, his rose-tinted glasses are apparent. Sanders had little to say about the environmental destruction of the government, the persecution of Miskito indigenous peoples, violent mob attacks on the Catholic Church, the 2,000 military advisers and $200 million in aid provided by the Soviet Union, or the machinations of the global Communist movement to use Nicaragua as a springboard to mount Marxist revolutions throughout the region.
Today, decades after the 1985 trip, the people of Nicaragua are rising up against an Ortega government turning from authoritarian to totalitarian. Ortega, like the hated Somoza before him, has turned Nicaragua into his own personal fiefdom, accumulating an unprecedented fortune of USD $400 million, through lucrative self-dealing and insider contracts.
The Nicaraguan ruler has used every means at his disposal to eliminate checks and balances on his undisputed power. He’s even made his wife Rosario Murillo vice president. Many suspect that she will attempt to take over the political dynasty one day.
And, of course, Ortega has had an antagonistic relationship with a free and independent press. The Nicaraguan government has used heavy-handed government censorship to squelch dissent and manipulate the public through government control of major print and broadcast media outlets.Such is the extent of his malfeasance, both private and public, that a substantial number of former supporters of the Sandinista Revolution, have now turned against him.
Ortega, like Castro before him, has betrayed revolutionary ideals for greed and personal profit. Whereas Fidel Castro accumulated an estimated USD $800 million fortune, largely through drug trafficking, Ortega’s fortune comes through government corruption, bid-rigging, and manipulating the awarding of government energy contracts.
At the very least, despite all of his ideological foibles, Sanders has used his career for public service, not personal enrichment.And yet he still respect figures such as Castro and Ortega, who have so blatantly done what their arch-enemies Somoza and Batista did before them.
Can Bernie Sanders dispute that it is the height of hypocrisy to praise Daniel Ortega, when his rule has led to the very economic, social, and political conditions that he and the Sandinistas (with the rhetorical support of Bernie) denounced 30 years ago?