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Maria Cardona: Sanders’ Socialism Does Not Resonate with South Florida Voters

The author analyzes why Democratic Socialism is not a concept embraced with open arms within Latinos in Florida.
15 Mar 2016 – 11:23 AM EDT
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By Maria Cardona, Democratic strategist, former adviser to the 2008 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton

This past week, Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Clinton met in Miami, Florida for another spirited and passionate debate about the issues that face our country. Much of the discussion focused on the Latino community, who makes up more than 14% of the vote in the state, and was moderated by Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, popular anchors from the national Spanish language network Univision.

As expected, we heard about the plans of both candidates to improve the lives of Latinos living in the United States. From the economy, to health care, to education, to immigration, the candidates spoke passionately about the importance of the Latino vote, and the immense contributions of Latinos to this country. One of the most important questions of the night came from a Guatemalan mother of five whose husband had been deported three years ago for simply not having a driver’s license. She asked the candidates what they will do to stop deportations of non-criminal undocumented immigrants and reunify families. Both candidates promised to stop the deportation of children and people with no criminal record.

But there was one issue where the candidates strongly diverged. While Sanders’ political revolution and his adherence to a self-described ideology of Democratic Socialism may go over well with many voters in other parts of the country, in South Florida, where many Latinos have dreadful memories of socialist-inspired revolutions that they fled from their own home countries, it is not a concept embraced with open arms.

One of the crucial moments of the debate occurred when Univision’s Maria Elena Salinas played a taped interview from 1985 in which Senator Sanders appears to praise the Nicaraguan Sandinista Daniel Ortega and the Cuban leader Fidel Castro categorizing them as “ very impressive” people for what they were able to achieve with their respective revolutions. Ms. Salinas then gave the Senator the opportunity to address his decades-old comment and change his characterizations of the Castro’s and the Sandinistas. Senator Sanders declined to do so.

The question was part of a larger one in which they asked the Senator to compare and explain what the difference is between the “democratic socialism” he is touting to the American people, and the socialism of Hugo Chávez or Daniel Ortega. The Senator again refused to answer the question.

This is very troubling to many Florida voters. In escaping the socialist regime of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan population in South Florida has grown more than 135% since 2000, many fleeing political persecution, a crumbling economy, violence, and all seeking a better life for themselves and their families. The influx of Venezuelans escaping the current Venezuelan Maduro Socialist regime continues to this day.

When you ask a Venezuelan that fled their country what socialism means to them, it is equated with expropriations of private property or commandeering of private, small or medium sized businesses. Their memories are of vivid violence, scarcity of every day products like diapers, milk and eggs, violations of human rights, and no freedom of the press — all things they share in common with the memories of those who fled the Sandinistas and the Castro regime.

For Cubans, ever since Fidel Castro’s revolution, hundreds of thousands have made the 90 mile journey to the state of Florida, many of them in boats, as they fled the oppressive communist regime. This still happens to this day, though with the historic rebuilding of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, there is hope for the dawn of real democracy for the island nation.

Today, more than a million Cubans live in the state of Florida and even though public opinion among many of the younger Cubans has changed regarding the embargo, many of the older ones have dark memories of what it was like getting on a boat and never looking back.

Similarly, since 2007, more than 50,000 Argentines left their homeland after the failures of the socialist government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, just like many Nicaraguans fled the socialist Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega during the Nicaraguan revolution between the Contras and the Sandinistas in the 1980s.

While it is admirable that Senator Sanders tries to intellectually explain that he is not like Chávez or like the Sandinistas (and I agree that he is not), the explanation falls on deaf ears. This issue is emotional, guttural and goes beyond a simple socialist economic theory for people who left their countries behind, trying to avoid the violent uprisings sparked by a political revolution in the name of socialism.

Too many voters here in South Florida, and in other areas of the country where Latin Americans have settled, talk of socialism — democratic or otherwise — only brings back memories of misery. This is an issue that has touched many lives and has caused many families to make one of the most difficult, personal and painful decisions there is; to stay in the country you love and be oppressed by the government or move to a new land of opportunity, with a new language and a new culture, with nothing in their pockets and start from scratch to build new lives. Many have chosen the latter.

To these voters and residents, Senator Sander’s populist message is not a refreshingly honest assessment of where the U.S. economy is today. For them, there is no nuance in it. It is a message that raises red flags, brings back dark memories, and moves them to dismiss Senator Sanders as an unserious candidate not ready for the highest office in the land.

Disclaimer: We selected this Op-Ed to be published in our opinion section as a contribution to public debate. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author(s) and/or the organization(s) they represent and do not reflect the views or the editorial line of Univision Noticias.