Over the weekend, the New York Times had a pair of revealing pieces about US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
A lengthy article, and subsequent interview, explore Sanders’s foreign policy positions, highlighting especially his long-held opposition to war and imperialism. In particular, the pieces detail how Sanders established two sister-city programs with Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and Yaroslavl, Russia, while mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981-1989, and also describe visits he made to both places during those years.
At first glance, both the article and the interview are familiar, if tired, attempts to expose the seemingly-sordid past of a presidential candidate. But more importantly, they provide a useful illustration of how the mainstream media serves to further the project of US empire.
While both pieces aim to uncover and question Sanders’s ideological outlook on foreign affairs, they more clearly furnish a window into US imperial culture. The tone and focus of the article, along with the questions posed during the interview, serve as a helpful reminder that the mainstream view of US foreign policy, buttressed by the popular press, is one of unwavering support for militarism, foreign intervention, and capitalist exploitation.
Anything less is highly suspect, when not simply unthinkable.
The attempts by the article’s authors to wring controversy out of Sanders’s foreign activity as mayor are at times overwrought, at other times laughable.
To lend the article an air of dogged research, we’re told that the authors reviewed Sanders’s mayoral papers, “including hundreds of speeches, handwritten notes, letters, political pamphlets and domestic and foreign newspaper clippings from a period spanning nearly a decade.” If the exhaustive description didn’t make the point clear enough, the article is also lavishly illustrated with photographs of pages from yellow legal-pads and bulging file folders.
The reader, though, has to wonder what the authors found hiding in all those pages. For example, to demonstrate Sanders’s determined efforts to visit Nicaragua, the authors note that to reach the country, he had to change planes in both Miami and San Salvador. The frivolous nature of this detail will be readily apparent to anyone who has flown to Central or South America.
Another personal favorite is when the authors note that Jane Sanders, Bernie’s newly-wedded wife and someone who apparently “shared his ideological enthusiasms,” used the phrase “Fellow Traveler” on city letter-head. In case you’re unfamiliar, the authors make sure to note this is “an arcane euphemism used among socialists and communists.”
The last detail is telling as the article is shot through with anti-communist innuendo straight out of the Cold War era. After reporting that during his visit to Yaroslavl, Sanders praised the greater access to healthcare and housing in the Soviet Union, the authors warn that “Mr. Sanders … walked a line between fostering kinship with a foreign people and admiring aspects of a repressive system.” When the authors are not simply red-baiting Sanders, they tend to update the tar on their brush from communist sympathizer to anti-American.
Ultimately, the Times authors present a flimsy case against Sanders. In their estimation, his foreign policy positions do not result from a sober assessment of foreign affairs (ostensibly what a major newspaper would expect from a presidential candidate), but rather reflect his “combative” and “confrontational” ideology.
Yet the article provides no evidence to support this claim. The only real criticisms they can dig up come from Burlington residents irritated that Sanders spent more time on issues abroad than on fixing sidewalks at home. The authors even admit that the locals generally shared Sanders’s views on foreign affairs.
Instead of a rigid ideological worldview, the article paints a picture of a public official concerned with the destructive policies of the US government and committed to devoting his time and resources to support the people suffering under those policies. In the interview, Sanders states this plainly, saying: “I plead guilty to, throughout my adult life, doing everything that I can to prevent war and destruction.”
Could this be a deeply-felt belief based on an up-close view of the imperialist violence and exploitation the United States has spread throughout the world? Not according to the Times authors, who can only conceive of Sanders’s ideas as the work of a sinister ideology. Indeed, they appear suspicious of the very idea that a mayor would concern themselves with what the United States does abroad.
Especially disturbing in both the article and the interview is the author’s own unexamined ideology. The article especially suffers from a lack of context, at times even carefully eliding the evidence it does raise.
This is most evident in the discussion of Sanders’s opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies toward Nicaragua. The history of Reagan’s support for dictators, death squads, and other repressive forces in Latin America is well told. As is the story of the Iran-Contra Affair (Theodore Draper’s book is one of the most comprehensive, but this website hosted by Brown University is a useful substitute.)
I don’t want to repeat those stories here. But as a thumbnail sketch, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or Sandinistas) came to power in 1979 after helping to overthrow the long-ruling Somoza dynasty. The party then lead Nicaragua until 1990, when it was voted out of power in national elections. Notably, the Sandinistas named themselves after Augusto Sandino, a revolutionary leader who helped organize opposition to the US military occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 1930s.1
Soon after coming to power in 1979, the Sandinistas faced violent opposition from the Contras (la contrarrevolución), a reactionary force of Nicaraguans that opposed the new government. Throughout the 1980s, the Contras waged a campaign of murder, torture, rape, and sabotage against the Sandinista government and the country’s civilian population. The Reagan administration not only provided significant funds to the Contras, but the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) worked with them directly, providing intelligence, training, and supplies (for example, supplying them with a manual on psychological warfare and helping them to mine Nicaraguan harbors).
This history is only barely mentioned in the article. Even more troubling are the careful elisions. For example, the article suggests that outrage over Contra atrocities was confined to the American left in the 1980s. Yet the US Congress itself cut off funding to the Contras given the latter’s human rights record. Moreover, the Reagan administration’s subsequent decision to use the profits from illegal arms sales to Iran to continue funding the Contras created a national scandal.
Strikingly, the article even quotes from Otto J. Reich, who remained on the periphery of the scandal but nevertheless faced significant sanctions. The Times authors describe Reich as “a former special envoy for Latin America who helped oversee Nicaragua policy for the Reagan administration.” They don’t mention, however, that what he oversaw was a “prohibited” propaganda campaign in support of the Contras, which the US Comptroller General described as “beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities.” Other exploits from the office Reich lead are detailed here.
In another bizarre move, the article tries to present Sanders’s activity as a solitary campaign to oppose US foreign policy from the shores of Lake Champlain. Yet the authors neglect to mention that Sanders’s actions were only a small part of a much larger Central American solidarity movement. Across the 1980s, tens of thousands of Americans joined or worked with groups like Witness for Peace (WFP) and Pledge of Resistance (POR) to form a transnational advocacy network. The members of this network pressured the US Congress to stop funding the Contras, raised awareness in the United States about the Reagan administration’s support for human rights abuses, and brought thousands of Americans to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and other countries to help local people suffering under US intervention in the region. The sister-city program that Sanders helped spearhead in Burlington was only one feature of this diverse and wide-ranging movement.
This context is nowhere to be found in the article. Instead, we get a thin attempt to present Sanders as a crusading communist sympathizer, pursuing a quixotic quest to support a Marxist government in Latin America.
The idea that people in another country would support a revolutionary movement to overthrow a decades-long ruling family, that the US government would covertly intervene to thwart that same movement, or that ordinary people in the United States would organize against their government, is shunted aside in favor of ominous anecdotes about Sanders attending a protest where anti-American chants may have been uttered.
The interview is much like the article: cynical, obtuse, and frankly embarrassing. Some commentators online have criticized Sanders for his tone, though it’s difficult to blame him. The interviewer seems strikingly blasé about the US government’s support for murderous paramilitaries, not to mention the national scandal that erupted as a result. Moreover, the questions are clearly intended to catch Sanders in some kind of “gotcha” moment.
The cumulative effect is to underscore a basic set of assumptions adopted by the mainstream media: The lives of people beyond our borders do not matter; the US government can intervene where it wants, when it wants, whether overtly or covertly and without consideration for the justification or consequences; and the actions of that same government abroad are ethical, necessary, and not to be questioned.
Empire, in other words, as a way of life.
- As an aside, I once took a class on Central American history from Daisy Zamora, a leading Nicaraguan poet and a member of the FSLN. She told our class a story about how during the struggle against Samoza, she lost a pregnancy while in the field because she was unable to get to a hospital fast enough. One example of the sacrifices some people made to create a better world.↩