Did Bernie Sanders' Critique of U.S. Policy in Venezuela Go Far Enough?
What follows is a conversation between among journalists Jacqueline Luqman, Eugene Puryear, Truthdig contributor Norman Solomon and The Real News Network’s Paul Jay. Read a transcript of their conversation below, or watch the video at the bottom of the post.
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
We’re continuing our discussion from Bernie Sanders’ CNN town hall. Now joining me again to break down some of the issues raised during that town hall, first of all, Jacqueline Luqman. She’s the editor-in-chief of Luqman Nation. Norman Solomon is the co-founder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org, and national coordinator of the Bernie Delegates Network. And Eugene Puryear is a journalist and author. He’s the co-founder of Stop Police Terror Project in D.C. Thank you for joining us.
So before we get get started, I’m going to play–it’s a little lengthy clip, about three minutes. But I think it’s worth it. We’re going to talk about Bernie Sanders’ attitude towards Venezuelan policy. And so here’s the clip.
SPEAKER: Good evening. In light of the recent events in Venezuela, you came out against U.S. intervention–a contentious stance, as many in Venezuela are currently suffering at the hands of Maduro through starvation and violence, and it is clear that he will not let humanitarian aid in. Under these circumstances and moving forward, do you have a clear position on U.S. intervention overseas, both economically and militarily, for nations that are under the regimes of these oppressive dictators?
BERNIE SANDERS: Thank you. Good question. There are a lot of awful things happening in the world. And what’s going on in Venezuela is terrible. Their economy is a disaster. People are living in hunger and in fear. I strongly believe there has to be an international humanitarian effort to improve lives for the people. I think the evidence is pretty clear that the last election in Venezuela was not a free and fair election, and under international supervision I want to see a free and fair election.
But to answer your question, let me say this. I am old enough to remember the war in Vietnam. And I was as active as I could trying to keep the United States from going to war in Iraq. I was in the Congress at that point. And I am very fearful of the United States continuing to do what it has done in the past. As you know, or may know, the United States overthrew a democratically-elected government in Chile, and in Brazil, and in Guatemala, and in other countries around the world. So as someone who fervently believes in human rights and democracy, we have got to do everything that we can. But I think sometimes you have unintended consequences when a powerful nation goes in and tells people who their government will be.
So my view is that whether it is Saudi Arabia, which is a despotic regime, or whether it is Venezuela, I think we have got to do everything that we can to create a democratic climate. But I do not believe in U.S. military intervention in those countries.
WOLF BLITZER: Why have you–Senator, why have you stopped short of calling Maduro of Venezuela a dictator?
BERNIE SANDERS: I think it’s it’s fair to say that the last election was undemocratic. But there are still Democratic operations taking place in their country. The point is what I am calling for right now is internationally supervised free elections. And I do find it interesting that Trump is very concerned about what goes on in Venezuela. But what about the last election that took place in Saudi Arabia? Oh, there wasn’t any election in Saudi Arabia. Oh, women are treated as third-class citizens. So I find it interesting that Trump is kind of selective as to where he is concerned about democracy. My record is to be concerned about democracy all over the world. So we’ve got to do everything we can. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be the people of Venezuela who determine the future of their country, not the United States of America.
PAUL JAY: Hi. OK. So, Jacqueline, what’s your response to Bernie Sanders?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, Sanders ended on the right note. He said it’s going to be up to the responsibility of the people of Venezuela to determine the course of their country. Well, that’s what they did when they voted–overwhelmingly, 6 million people voted for the current administration under Maduro; 6 million Venezuelans voted to continue the Bolivarian revolution. And no one, not one Venezuelan, voted for the self-appointed opposition president Juan Guaido.
So I’m troubled by Sanders continuing to repeat the American imperialist narrative that Maduro is not democratically elected, that there were not democratic elections, free and fair elections, in Venezuela. Where is the proof of that? That Maduro needs to allow in humanitarian aid–he has. China, Cuba, other countries, Russia, have actually provided more humanitarian aid–actual aid, and not aid that is used as cover, as a political prop, provided more aid to Venezuela than the United States. So it’s like he ended on the right note, but he still felt like he needed to start with that, with the American imperialist talking points. And that’s really troubling.
PAUL JAY: OK. Norman?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, If you look at what he said about the economy of Venezuela, I think the omission that would have been much better for him to provide would be the effect of U.S. sanctions, which have been damaging and crippling, antihumanitarian, for many years. I think it’s notable as a backdrop that almost two years ago, Bernie Sanders voted against sanctions on North Korea, Iran, and Russia, you know, a package. And it was a courageous vote, because he pointed out that these sanctions in those cases reduced the chance of bringing about peaceful relations, and increased the chance of military conflict.
I think it’s notable in the clip that we just heard that Bernie condemned not only military intervention, but he cited three examples of non-military, subversive, CIA-type undermining of democratically-elected governments. He cited Brazil. He cited Guatemala and Chile. And this is the kind of historical context and understanding that conveyed a very clear point. And we’re not going to get that, we haven’t gotten that, from other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
I don’t think what we need most of all from government leaders in the United States, particularly in the Congress at this point, I don’t think what we need is to say that Maduro is flawless. And frankly, I don’t think he is. I think what we need from those leaders is to say we must not have the United States intervene militarily, or any other way. If you look at the actual phrasing of what Bernie has been saying, he says that he supports humanitarian aid going into Venezuela. He doesn’t say U.S. humanitarian aid. And as Jacqueline pointed out, there has been humanitarian aid flowing in from various other countries.
So you know, frankly, I think that when you take as a whole what Bernie is saying, it is conveying to the mass media against ferocious propaganda that we need nonintervention in Venezuela. And one more point. Bernie has been savagely trashed by many corporate Democrats in the last week for refusing to call Maduro a dictator, for refusing to go along with what I think really are the main mass media-type talking points in this country.
PAUL JAY: Eugene?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, I think that certainly I agree that it is good that Senator Sanders ultimately is against military intervention. I also would have liked to see him speak more about the issue of sanctions. And also, quite frankly, the role the Federal Reserve in backing up these speculative dollar websites, like Dollar Today and AirTM that are having a devastating role on the exchange rate and people’s purchasing power.
But be that as it may, I think the other factor that is important to me, though, is it’s it’s crucial, I think, for someone in the position of Senator Sanders, and also vis a vis educating the populace in I think what is a ferocious media war, to also tell the facts, and start from the point of view of the facts. And sometimes it feels like to me, and really all the time when Bernie’s speaking about Venezuela, he’s really trying to get votes in Florida. I mean, it is true that he said ‘humanitarian aid,’ but didn’t specify a country. But he didn’t also debunk fact that there is humanitarian aid coming in. And then let’s just get the facts correct, here. Since 2016, Venezuela has been working with United Nations and then subsequently the Pan American Health Organization to bring in humanitarian aid, along with other countries that are bringing it. So it’s not as if this is even a new thing. In fact, it’s an older thing. You look at the Global Hunger Index, Venezuela’s 49. They’re actually above Malaysia. You look at the Human Development Index, they’re above Colombia.
So I think it’s incumbent also to debunk a lot of this propaganda, because I think it really goes to the point not just of being opposed to intervention, being opposed to sanctions, but also recognizing that influences on foreign policy in the United States from these malign factors that want to overthrow the government of Venezuela and loot the country. And I’ll also just add, this issue of the elections–I mean, the only real credible claim, or semi-credible claim–I don’t really consider it credible–about the elections at the time of the elections is from the company that made voting machines, who claimed they had evidence, which they never showed. The day after they announced that they closed down their office and they completely disappeared. All the information that is up for that election in 2018, it’s online, I’ve never seen a statistical analysis presented by any force to say that this is somehow fraudulent. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we had that. So somehow in the DRC we have a Catholic Church-funded effort that can say exactly how it was. In Venezuela we just have claims.
And that’s my issue with the Bernie Sanders approach here. It’s not necessarily sort of the core basis of opposition to intervention. But the way he phrases it, I think, doesn’t do a good service to those who do look to someone like Bernie Sanders to tell them what’s really going on. But in general, yes, I think it is better than any of the other candidates by obviously being against intervention and against regime change.
PAUL JAY: Norman?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, it’s a responsibility of progressive groups, and many of them have stepped up, to fill those gaps. And I think what Bernie has done is to lay out a framework that’s politically powerful in terms of opposing what needs to be most of all opposed. And we can argue about exactly how democratic or undemocratic the last election was in Venezuela. I think there were undemocratic elements. I think there were undemocratic elements in the United States in the election in 2016. These are critiques that need to be made that in no way justify any intervention by the U.S. in any manner, shape, or form.
PAUL JAY: I mean, I’ve got to say, from what I know of the 2018 elections, they were not free and fair as previous elections during the governments of Hugo Chavez. And I was actually on an observer mission during one of the votes under Chavez. But when one says they weren’t free and fair in 2018, I think as much or even more responsibility has to be put at the feet of the opposition. Because free and fair is not just about what the government did. And even if there were, I think, maybe some irregularities, or things in terms of parties not being recognized, using certain technicalities to keep some of the opposition parties from running, I think there are some legitimate issues there, but I also think the underlying strategy of the opposition was not to participate to discredit the elections, in order to create the situation for what’s going on now.
So you know, does one in the end wind up in a conclusion, well, now one way or the other there needs to be free and fair elections? And certainly I would think that’s the case, and I think much of the Venezuelan left that isn’t directly associated with the government thinks so. But that being said, that doesn’t happen because the Americans come in and recognize Guaido, and then they’re going to run the elections? I mean, this is going to–who knows? You know, there’s lots of talk about democracy in Iraq. Saddam falls, the Americans take over. And in fact, the Iraqis wanted to use that moment to have legitimate elections. They were starting to organize, elect democratic committees all over the country to have elections. And in fact, you know, not because of the plan of the Americans. The Iraqis really were going to create a democratic election. But of course, the Americans stopped it, because they couldn’t control the outcome of it. So–and this is one problem I have with Bernie’s–the way he positions this. And I guess it’s tactical. I don’t know. But I don’t like when he says ‘unintended consequences’ of these interventions. No, these were intended consequences. It was intended to create-
NORMAN SOLOMON: I totally agree with that point. I mean, these are not–what happened in Brazil, and that was under Lyndon Johnson, 1964, ushering in fascism, when Goulart was brought down by the CIA’s assistance. That was not intended, as you say. Neither was Chile. Neither was undermining–helping overthrow the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954. I think calling it unintended is just historically wrong. At the same time, that Bernie will cite those examples as malign and terrible instances of U.S. foreign policy is instructive. And it’s up to progressives both to push Bernie to do a better job, even, publicly, and also to educate the public and agitate for change.
PAUL JAY: Go ahead, Jacqueline.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah, I think I disagree with that a little bit. Because it’s as much as progressives have done a pretty good job, I think, of becoming more aware of certain issues that Sanders raised in 2016 that maybe other politicians wouldn’t have raised, and people have become more politically aware about those issues since then, I don’t think it’s our job as progressives, as leftists, to educate the general population, because we’re not going to be able to do that. We don’t have the bully pulpit. And even he has a bully pulpit right now–that’s Senator Sanders does–because he’s on a town hall on CNN, as much as a hostile environment as that is, as the corporate media. We might have social media and The Real News Network and YouTube and our own platforms, but that’s nothing compared to CNN.
So I think Sanders as a candidate, and a very, very popular progressive candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, has more of a responsibility to get that narrative–not the whole history, because he doesn’t have that much time–but at least to get the narrative right about connecting that history, and being very clear that, as you said, Paul, these are not unintended consequences. This was all a manufactured and intended outcome that the United States and other entities in the West were directly responsible for.
NORMAN SOLOMON: I’m going to say it’s not an either-or there. Of course, Bernie should do a better job, and he should be pushed and critiqued to do so. But progressives must never throw in the towel to reach as many people in this country as possible with public education and agitation and protest. Ten years ago, Medicare for All was not on the mainstream media map. It didn’t get there because people in elite positions or elected people decided to educate the public. It’s because of grassroots organizing, and people doing that job day in and day out for years at a time.
Let me give you a quick example, in terms of Bernie Sanders. Three and a half years ago, Bernie was in his first presidential campaign, saying that Saudi Arabia should “get its hands dirty” in fighting “terrorism in the Middle East.” And at RootsAction.org and some other groups as well, we publicly took Bernie to task. We pointed out that Saudi Arabia, with U.S. help, was already massacring people in Yemen. So what has happened in a process of people pushing and challenging and educating the public, as well as critiquing Bernie about Saudi Arabia and Yemen, it’s at a point where, with leadership from Ro Khanna and Bernie Sanders in Congress, the Congress has voted to cut off, to demand that the U.S. cut off its aid to the murderous Saudi war in Yemen. So this is a flux situation. It’s not static. And we all have our responsibilities as progressives.
PAUL JAY: Eugene?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, I think that’s true. I just think that maybe the Medicare for All example is instructive, because I think it was Bernie, among other people, that exactly what he was able to do is not just articulate what individuals wanted, but I think also articulate why the opposition to something like Medicare for All was, you know, essentially completely bogus. And I think this is a similar piece.
I completely agree with Norman that we have to do everything we can to reach everyone. But I think people have been pushing Bernie. And I think if you look, in fact, quite frankly, at some of those who are around him and their social media accounts, you can see that some of that critique in real time is, to some degree, being either engaged with, and also–you know, maybe maybe not directly acknowledged, but at least people try to have evolved positions or use social media to give caveats to things that they’d like.
So I think the reality is the information is there. It’s there for Bernie Sanders, I think, to have. I think he’s actually aware that the way he’s framing it is the way he’s framing it, and I think it is in the context of the elections. I think it is practical, from that perspective. And I think that, quite frankly, what we need from our candidates is more mythbusting of the things that are out there, because of that bully pulpit element. But absolutely, I think it’s up to those of us who care about these issues to push every single candidate until we hear what we want to hear. And if not, I guess support other candidates who will say what we do want to hear.
PAUL JAY: Yeah I’d like to agree with this, too. Like, it’s three years ago Bernie Sanders called Hugo Chavez a dictator. Now, three years later, he won’t use that word with Maduro. And one assumes he wouldn’t anymore with Chavez. There’s been a progression in his foreign policy thinking, it seems, certainly the way he articulates it. Three, four years ago, he was very, what’s the word, uncommitted, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He would often vote for measures that one would say supported right-wing policies in Israel, and didn’t come out very strongly. He’s very changed on that. And certainly appointing Cornell West to the Democratic Party Platform Committee to fight for the language of Palestinian rights within the Democratic Party platform, I think that was quite a transformation of his–at least, the expression of his politics. I mean, I say it that way because I’m never sure what Bernie really believes, and where he’s tactically taking certain positions.
And I give him the benefit of the doubt, partly because I see this progression. Partly because I am not guarding the gates of heaven and don’t decide, have to decide, about his moral character, and whether he gets into heaven or not. What we–in terms of the practical politics of America, no one else has that kind of platform saying the kinds of things he’s saying. And so, yeah. Do we–and that’s why we’re doing this segment–do we need to critique where we think he’s still limited? Where, you know, to talk about hunger and fear in Venezuela. Well, there is hunger. But not at the scale that’s being portrayed; as far as we can tell, anyway. We just had–two of our journalists were down there, and just got back in the last couple of weeks. And no doubt there is some scarcity, especially in the poorer neighborhoods in Venezuela. But in Caracas, life is proceeding fairly normally. It’s not this crazy dystopian vision that’s being created in Western media. So he’s kind of feeding into that. On the other hand, he hasn’t been there. And a lot of what he knows, he’s relying on the same media filter that everyone else is. So anyway, what’s our job? At The Real News, our job is just to try to get at as much of the truth of this as we can. So a really quick final word on this, and we’re going to do another segment. Norman, a final word from you?
NORMAN SOLOMON: I would point to an article that the journalist Zaid Jilani did for Truthout a couple of weeks ago, where he really maps out a lot of the terrain that you just covered, Paul, in terms of the progression of Bernie’s foreign policy positions over the last four years. And there’s no doubt, whether it’s in terms of Palestine, whether it’s in terms of U.S. militarism overall and intervention, those positions have become better and better. We want them to become even better than they are now. But the role that he has taken in educating the public, much better than he did before. And to deepen his own positions so that he is moving the discourse in a much more progressive, antimilitarist direction, I think it’s very important. He’s now talking routinely against what he calls, refers to, as the military industrial complex. And we need that sort of discussion for the future.
PAUL JAY: Eugene?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Yeah, I think we need to continue to build the antiwar, antimilitarist, anti-imperialist movement in this country. I think, you know, as we’ve seen on a number of issues, that’s what’s going to pull Bernie, every politician, in the broader society, I think, more in that direction. So those of us who really care about it, I do think, obviously, you know, compared to many other people in Congress, certainly, Bernie Sanders is on the better end of things. But at the end of the day, Congress is sort of a no-go zone for a lot of these ideas. And I think the reality is that’s because we don’t have the type of manifestations on the streets, in the social networks, or whatever it may be, against these sort of policies. So I think if we continue to build that movement, we’re going to start to move the needle.
PAUL JAY: Jacqueline, last word.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah, I don’t want to suggest that those of us in the progressive movement or on the left should not be responsible for educating the people around us, and being involved in building an antiwar movement, being involved in learning everything we can about these issues so that we can continue to broaden our knowledge and broaden the knowledge of people around us. What I am saying is that we cannot, I don’t think, hedge our criticism of candidates–not just Sanders, but all of them–on issues that are critical to the survival of people on this planet because they’ve gotten better over time. We can acknowledge their progression in the right direction. But if we’re going to be honest and really get to the kind of policies that we need to sustain a quality of life that is decent for people around the world, especially in this country but also around the world, then we have to be honest where these politicians fall short, especially if they’re supposed to be the so-called favorites.
PAUL JAY: OK. Thank you all for joining us. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.