Bernie Sanders Is Wrong to Praise Castro's 'Literacy Program.' Two Cuban Americans Explain Why | Opinion

How can it be? How can it be that one of the remaining candidates running for the top political job in the Democratic primary said the following words and is still taken seriously by any American voter? "When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing?" Senator Bernie Sanders told 60 Minutes last month.

In a word, yes—if the reason for that literacy program was to indoctrinate his people and seize the narrative of his own country by force. But don't trust me. Two Cuban Americans who lived through the Castro regime—one a student and another a poet—know the reality of the communist leader's intentions.

Yuri Perez was born and raised in Cuba and understood early what Cuba's so-called literacy program was all about. "The 'education' under a socialist regime is probably the most malicious of their programs," Perez wrote for NBC News. "I was forced to learn how to read and write by teachers who brainwashed me while teaching me how to write the 'F' for 'Fidel,' the 'C' for 'Castro' and so on."

Perez explained the real purpose of the program Sanders praised. "The Cuban educational system is not a 'literacy program' but a tool of indoctrination, designed for the creation of the 'New Man'—one who is removed from what we would recognize as Western civilization's values, who is intolerant and ready to kill in order to impose the revolutionary ideology," he wrote. "And it starts with those ABCs."

In short, the program was designed to separate the compliant Cubans from the disobedient ones. The good Cubans from the bad ones.

"The construction of the so-called socialist or communist society is a process of anthropological destruction," Perez wrote. "Those governments put into place a process intended to destroy previous societal values and replace them with a new revolutionary code based on absolute loyalty to the revolution."

As is the custom in such regimes, Perez added, the media and press are hijacked by a massive government apparatus designed to promote—and protect—the dictatorship. Critics are repressed, imprisoned and murdered.

Many political dissidents remain imprisoned in Cuba today, and even though Castro died in 2016, his regime continues to cause harm. "The truth is that Cubans still live in a state of fear—even terror—and consequently are poorly organized in a weak civil society," Perez wrote.

Dissident and poet Armando Valladares has a story to tell, too. He was born in the city of Pinar del Rio in 1937, 22 years before Castro, a young revolutionary, overthrew the government of Cuba.

Valladares was an early supporter of Castro's revolution and worked in the Office of the Ministry of Communications for the Revolutionary Government as a clerk. But when he was asked to put on his desk a communist slogan, "I'm with Fidel," Valladares did something that would radically alter the course of his life: He refused. The young artist and Christian understood the real nature of the demand: submission to a false God.

For his transgression, political police arrested Valladares at his parents' home, and he was charged with terrorism and given a sentence of 30 years.

Valladares spent the next 22 years in prison camps, where the communists fixated on enrolling prisoners in re-education programs. Valladares was offered the chance at "political rehabilitation" but refused. In response, the government ramped up its efforts to break his spirit.

"I spent eight years locked in a blackout cell, without sunlight or even artificial light. I never left. I was stuck in a cell, 10 feet long, 4 feet wide, with a hole in the corner to take care of my bodily needs. No running water. Naked. Eight years," Valladares told the Becket Fund, when it honored him in 2015 with its annual Canterbury medal.

The Castro regime wanted to strip Valladares of his belief in God. But it failed. "My faith was what kept me alive all of those 22 years in Castro's prisons," Valladares told the National Catholic Register. "My faith was built up because of the religious training I had as a Catholic child in Cuba, but, of course, this was before Castro and the communists."

While in prison, Valladares began to write poetry. His wife, whom he met in prison, smuggled the poems to the outside world, and they became his first book, From My Wheelchair. "My poetry is a weapon," Valladares said during his acceptance speech for the Canterbury medal. "That is why dictators hate all artists but especially poets!"

Valladares, who now prefers to paint, also warned of the need for vigilance in defense of freedom. "Just as there is a very short distance between the U.S. and Cuba, there is a very short distance between a democracy and a dictatorship where the government gets to decide what to do, how to think and how to live," he said. "And sometimes your freedom is not taken away at gunpoint, but instead it is done one piece of paper at a time, one seemingly meaningless rule at a time, one small silencing at a time."

Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on March 8. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty

Perez, who was granted political asylum in 2009 and now lives in Washington, D.C., expressed similar concerns about communism and socialism, both of which are gaining popularity among young people in this country.

"Americans should not only reject these ideologies," Perez wrote, "but also come together to educate younger generations about the evils of socialism and communism if we want to preserve the freedom I came here to finally be able to experience."

Both men now call America their home. And one thing we know for sure is this: The stories of Perez the Cuban student and Valladares the Cuban poet will not be a part of any Cuban literacy classes. We know why.

Will their stories be required reading in every U.S. high school and college? If they aren't, we'll know why, too.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.