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As mayor, Bernie Sanders condemned American interventionism but also defended undemocratic governments abroad

·White House Correspondent
·14 min read
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In November 1983, less than a month after U.S. forces invaded the Caribbean nation of Grenada, Bernie Sanders, the mayor of Burlington, Vt., wrote a letter to one of the state’s U.S. senators, Patrick Leahy. Sanders had some questions about the invasion, which came after a coup against the small island’s leftist prime minister.

“I am curious about the role the C.I.A. had in the overthrow of Maurice Bishop. Certainly, the whole Grenadian operation had all the ingredients of a C.I.A. scenario. There was the required disruption, murder, confusion and, finally, the military action to restore ‘law and order,’” wrote Sanders.

The invasion cemented new leadership in Grenada. While the operation was requested by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and some Grenadian politicians, the legality of the attack was questioned, and foreign governments, including France and Britain, criticized the operation.

In his letter to Leahy, Sanders, who is currently running in the Democratic presidential primary, suggested the situation in Grenada was reminiscent of the CIA-backed coup that precipitated the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973.

Sen. Bernie Sanders with archived clips. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; clips via University of Vermont Libraries)
Sen. Bernie Sanders with archived clips. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; clips via University of Vermont Libraries)

“Not quite like Chile — but close,” Sanders wrote, adding, “I have heard the C.I.A. was active in Grenada before the invasion. Is that true?”

On Sunday, Sanders will debate former Vice President Joe Biden in a forum that could be his last chance to demonstrate why he is the better person to lead the country. Yet in a race that has been largely defined on domestic social issues, like health care and education, Sanders’s foreign policy views also distinguish him from leading Democrats.

The documents, including his letter to Leahy, contained in the University of Vermont archives of Sanders’s mayoral papers, shed light on the foreign policy views he held at the start of his political career. Sanders was deeply skeptical of U.S. military intervention abroad, and committed to starting dialogue he believed was vital for hopes of world peace. But the documents also show an American politician who was, at times, willing to provide at least a tepid defense of leftist foreign governments that were accused of human rights abuses.

Sanders’s early interest in foreign policy — and specifically trips he as mayor took to Nicaragua and the Soviet Union — have previously drawn attention during his presidential campaigns, both this year and in 2016.

Then Burlington, VT Mayor Bernie Sanders in 1983 and his letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy. (photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, via University of Vermont Libraries)
Then-Burlington, Vt., Mayor Bernie Sanders in 1983 and his letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, via University of Vermont Libraries)

Sanders, who was elected Burlington’s mayor in 1981 on a socialist platform, boasted that his administration was “more radical” than any other in the country and made efforts to expand social programs and affordable housing even as he attempted to cut spending during a financial crisis. But while he focused on his city, Sanders also engaged in his own brand of international diplomacy.

In an April 1981 letter to a supporter who wrote to congratulate him on his mayoral election, Sanders made it clear he saw Burlington as part of the progressive vanguard — and that he hoped to have an impact far beyond the city’s borders.

“We now have Berkeley on the west coast, Burlington on the east coast, and all we have to do is get the rest of the country in between,” Sanders wrote.

Sanders went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and became a senator in 2007 before mounting his first presidential bid in 2016. Foreign policy has not been central to Sanders’s national brand; instead he has focused on efforts to provide universal health care and free public education and to eliminate income inequality.

On Sanders’s campaign webpage, “responsible foreign policy” is preceded by a list of 21 other issues. However, his current platform does broadly align with some of the values he expressed as Burlington’s mayor. It is critical of “endless war” abroad and the “forces of militarism” while calling for “a foreign policy which focuses on democracy, human rights, diplomacy and peace, and economic fairness.”

Sanders’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Sanders outlined his early foreign policy views in typed remarks dated May 26, 1988, where he described his visit to the Soviet Union to establish a sister city relationship between Burlington and Yaroslavl. Sanders said the program would include “a variety of exchange programs” aimed at “getting to know our ‘enemies.’”

“Today, the United States is spending over $300 billion on defense,” Sanders said. “At the same time, the federal government this year will have a deficit of $150 billion, three million Americans will be sleeping out on the streets, tens of millions of Americans are unable to afford health insurance, and higher education is becoming an unobtainable dream for the children of low and moderate income families.”

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks about coronavirus in Burlington, Vermont, U.S. March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Caleb Kenna
Sen. Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vt., on Thursday. (Caleb Kenna/Reuters)

Last month Sanders sparked controversy with comments praising a literacy program started by the late Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro, who engaged in brutal and repressive crackdowns on dissent over his more-than-40-year reign. As he complimented the literacy program, Sanders said it is “unfair to simply say everything is bad” in Castro’s Cuba.

Sanders also weighed in on Cuba as mayor of Burlington in a May 1, 1987, letter to members of Vermont’s congressional delegation urging them to support legislation proposed by a trio of Democrats that would have loosened U.S. travel restrictions on the island.

“If we are going to be successful in improving international relations, and in moving toward a world where international disagreements can be settled by negotiations or legal proceedings rather than war ... it is absolutely necessary that there be as much intellectual and cultural exchange between nations of differing opinions as is possible,” he wrote.

Sanders said his concerns about the Cuban embargo were separate from the question of whether Castro deserved support or condemnation.

“For a number of years, I have been extremely distressed by the relationship of the United States government toward Cuba. While it is not necessary to debate the pros and cons of the Cuban government and what they have or have not accomplished since their revolution in 1960, it seems to me absurd that Americans who wish to visit Cuba are not allowed to do so,” wrote Sanders.

Though public attention has focused on his remarks about Cuba, Nicaragua was the country Sanders most extensively engaged with as mayor of Burlington. In 1979, two years before Sanders took office, Nicaragua’s dictatorial, U.S.-backed President Anastasio Somoza was overthrown by a leftist revolutionary group called the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

Pres. Daniel Ortega Saavedra (C), speaking in regards to the contra attacks.  (Photo by Cindy Karp/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega speaking about the Contra attacks. (Cindy Karp/the Life Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega became the country’s president, and his government worked to improve social mobility and literacy, while engaging in human rights abuses including mass executions and repression of indigenous groups. The Sandinistas also waged a brutal civil war against militants called Contras who were supported by the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

On Oct. 17, 1983, Sanders wrote a letter to Reagan from Burlington City Hall asking the president to “stop the CIA war” against Nicaragua.

“There are many ways in which American taxpayers’ money can be better spent than in attempts to destabilize the Sandinista government by CIA bombings,” Sanders wrote.

According to a handwritten memo included in Sanders’s mayoral papers, he visited the Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 1984, and met with a Nicaraguan official who suggested Puerto Cabezas as a potential sister city for Burlington.

The sister city relationship between Burlington and Puerto Cabezas became official on July 16, 1985, as Sanders visited Nicaragua. That weeklong trip has become somewhat infamous since it included Sanders meeting with Ortega and attending a rally where the Nicaraguan leader gave a fiery speech amid anti-American chants.

A statement Bernie Sanders wrote in Nicaragua in 1985.(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; letters via University of Vermont Libraries)
A statement Bernie Sanders wrote in Nicaragua in 1985. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; letters via University of Vermont Libraries)

Documents in Sanders’s mayoral papers show the rally, a sixth anniversary celebration of the Sandinista revolution, was the centerpiece of Sanders’s visit. He attended as a guest of the Sandinista government, which offered to pay his travel expenses within the country. It is unclear whether Sanders accepted the offer, and his campaign did not respond to a query about the issue.

The Sandinista rally took place on July 19, 1985, in Plaza Parque Carlos Fonseca. As mayor of Burlington, Sanders was the highest-ranking American official to attend.

Sanders’s mayoral papers include a copy of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada from the following day that detailed the event. According to the paper, the rally drew a crowd of about 400,000 and featured displays of weapons as well as a person dressed in costume as Uncle Sam who was “ridiculed” onstage. Barricada also included a full copy of Ortega’s speech.

“We will keep defending this truth that is called revolution, with rifles in the hands of the people,” Ortega declared, later adding, “Who are the ones who are ready to grab the rifles to combat the aggressors who are being sent by the imperialism and the Yankee intervention?”

“We won’t let them!” the crowd chanted.

“They say, some of the Strategists of the Yankee intervention, Pentagon specialists or CIA analysts say, that ending with the Sandinistas, to end the revolution, would be easy,” Ortega said. “What do you think about this? Will it be easy to finish off the Sandinista revolution?”

“No!” the audience shouted at the hypothetical American invaders before breaking into a chant:

“Here! There! The Yankee will die!”

Nicaraguan newspapers featuring then Mayor Bernie Sanders. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; clips via the University of Vermont Libraries)
Nicaraguan newspapers featuring then-Mayor Bernie Sanders. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; clips via University of Vermont Libraries)

Sanders was asked about the rally and whether he heard the “Yankee will die!” chant in an interview with the New York Times last May after the paper published a report on his trip. Sanders said he had a clear memory of the rally with Ortega and suggested the crowd’s anger was justified.

“The United States at that time — I don’t know how much you know about this — was actively supporting the Contras to overthrow the government. So that there’s anti-American sentiment? I remember that, I remember that event very clearly,” he said.

Sanders’s archives contain a handwritten statement from the trip.

“I have been in Nicaragua five days — claim no great expertise on the problems of Nicaragua or Central America. ... I am the mayor of one small city in the U.S.,” Sanders wrote. “Within the U.S. and around the world there are many people who are strongly supportive of the policies of the Sandinista government — and who believe that the government here is doing an excellent job under very difficult circumstances.”

Sanders credited the Sandinistas with ending the “Somoza dictatorship” and said “the Sandinista Government has developed many new programs which are of benefit to the vast majority of Nicaraguans — especially the poorest people.”

Back in Vermont, Sanders continued to comment on the situation in Nicaragua. In a draft of remarks from a week after his trip, Sanders called it a mission to “prevent the tragedy of another Vietnam.”

“My primary purpose in going to Nicaragua was not to determine in seven days how good or bad the Nicaraguan government is, or this or that nuance,” Sanders said. “My major concern is that I believe the United States is about to enter a Vietnam-type war in Central America.”

Sanders called for diplomatic efforts and implored President Reagan to “sit down and talk to these people.”

In July 1985, Sanders invited Ortega to visit Burlington when he came to the U.S. for the United Nations General Assembly. Ortega’s office declined the invitation.

Sanders was also involved in an effort to provide a shipment of goods to Nicaragua, according to documents in the archive. The papers indicate that a “sister city ship” stocked with supplies for Puerto Cabezas set sail in February 1986. Officials from Puerto Cabezas wrote letters thanking Sanders for the cargo, which they received in September 1988. A Nicaraguan report said the shipment included medical supplies, gardening tools, bicycles and clothing.

The shipment came after Reagan imposed a trade embargo on Nicaragua, which included limited exceptions for humanitarian supplies. An undated and unsigned memo in the archive noted the effort might need to resort to drastic measures to evade U.S. restrictions.

“The Reagan trade embargo with Nicaragua obviously poses major obstacles for the solidarity movement,” reads the memo, whose author is unknown. “It would seem that locally we have two options. ... Being close to Canada, shipments can be made via Montreal. Another possibility is more involved ... finding an address or series of addresses in Mexico City (real of [sic] fictitious) to which we could send packages. They would then be reboxed, or at least carefully re-addressed, and sent to destinations in Nicaragua.”

There is no evidence that Sanders condoned or used this approach.

Pres. Daniel Ortega Saavedra (C), speaking in regards to the contra attacks.  (Photo by Cindy Karp/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Daniel Ortega. (Cindy Karp/the Life Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Sanders also engaged with Nicaragua’s critics. He monitored reports of the Sandinistas’ mistreatment of indigenous groups. And in October 1985, a man named Edward Pike wrote a letter to Sanders asking him to revoke Puerto Cabezas’ sister city designation. Pike accused Sanders of “supporting a regime with no concern for civil rights.”

“I think it is high time for you to eat crow, and realize that this government is but another in a long line of dictatorships,” Pike wrote.

Sanders responded with a letter of his own wherein he argued that the “temporary suspension of civil liberties” in Nicaragua was “considerably more complex” and justified by American aggression.

“Nicaragua, a tiny and impoverished nation of three million, is today fighting a brutal war — with their enemy being totally financed by the most powerful nation on earth,” wrote Sanders. “The democratically-elected government of Nicaragua has made the decision that, like many other countries engaged in war, they will not allow their enemy the total freedom to defeat them and destroy their government.”

Sanders did, however, use his connections to Nicaraguan officials to try to help someone detained by the government there on charges of working with U.S. intelligence. In August 1986, the Burlington Free Press reported that Sanders helped Ernesto Hernandez, a Nicaraguan student at a local college who said his wife, Evelia, had been detained by the Sandinistas on false charges she had CIA ties.

Sanders wrote a letter to his contacts at the Nicaraguan Embassy in D.C. asking them to look into the case. In the letter, Sanders once again suggested the crackdown on civil liberties was an inevitable consequence of American aggression.

“I recognize the tremendous amount of suffering which is going on in Nicaragua today as a result of Mr. Reagan’s desire to overthrow your democratically elected government,” wrote Sanders. “I also recognize that, as the Nicaraguan government gears up to defend itself against the most powerful military nation on earth, it will increase its internal security.”

Bernard Sanders, the mayor of Burlington, announces his candidacy for governor.   (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders announces his candidacy for governor. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Sanders’s entreaty didn’t appear to sway the Sandinistas. In December 1986, the Free Press reported Evelia Hernandez was sentenced to eight years in a Nicaraguan prison. Ernesto Hernandez told Yahoo News his wife spent several years in jail before escaping to Honduras. The pair are no longer married.

More typically, however, Sanders cast himself as someone whose overriding concern is U.S. interventionism rather than “whether people think the Nicaraguan government is a good or bad government.”

Sanders was more explicitly supportive of the Sandinista cause in an undated letter he wrote “to the people of Nicaragua” on Burlington City Hall stationery. In the letter, Sanders indicated past U.S. foreign policy in the region was a corrupt “moral and economic disaster.”

“The truth of the matter is that the United States’ foreign policy in Latin and Central America today is not being determined, or even understood by the majority of American citizens,” Sanders wrote. “This policy is being carried out by a small number of officials who make their decisions on behalf of large corporations who wish to continue the opportunity they have enjoyed for years to exploit the labor and political resources of your region.”

In his letter to the Nicaraguans, Sanders lauded the Sandinistas’ “heroic revolution.”

“In the long run,” he wrote, “I am certain that you will win.”

The Sandinistas were indeed ultimately victorious. Ortega was eventually voted out in 1990, but he returned to power in 2007 and is currently ruling over a totalitarian one-party government.


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