Magazine | April 11, 2016, Issue

The Buena Vista Socialism Club

Bernie Sanders will be a footnote in the long sweep of electoral history — a black-socked footnote in Birkenstock sandals, if you wish — but he did clarify the views of many progressives when it comes to the free market. You might recall this piercing revelation:

“You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.”

If we lived in a society where the Department of Armpits regularly wrested away government grants from the National Urchin Association, Sanders might have a point, but it’s not as if spray-deodorant money — R&D, marketing, production — could be diverted to hungry children unless the government nationalized the company that makes AXE body spray and handed it out to the bedraggled children at the factory gates. 

On the other hand, you know what he’s saying, and it’s this: “I have no idea how things work. Let me run everything.”

Here’s how things work in the Latin American paradises Mr. Sanders so admires.

1. Wasteful, duplicitous deodorant factories are nationalized by the state and converted into one brand, which is quickly known for shoddy nozzles and insufficient aerosol propulsion.

2. This brand becomes hard to find; other brands from neighboring states appear on the black market.

3. The Leader makes a speech on TV in which he praises “the earthy, honest aroma of our people striving for justice” and announces that police dogs are being trained to sniff out non-state brands.

4. Sean Penn denounces the body-spray–industrial complex.

Or something like that. Use any commodity you like. Venezuela, we’ve been told, regularly runs out of toilet paper. The whole country. People who traveled in the United States in the 1970s may recall the quality of bathroom tissue in gas-station lavs — it was a strange, lacquered, bi-folded sheet that had the same efficacy as Saran Wrap. It’s gone now, by popular demand, but if you showed up in Caracas with a container cart of that stuff you’d walk away a millionaire.

Why bring up old Bernie’s cranky mutterings? Because there’s another collectivist paradise in the news thanks to the president’s visit there: Cuba. Obama had his photograph taken in a plaza with a big picture of murdering psycho Che in the background, and that knocking you heard was Kennedy’s skull banging against the inside of his coffin.

The Left always gets misty over Cuber because they have free health care and 99.8 percent literacy. Surely even the dissidents are happy about that, no?

“Yes, the secret police burst into my hovel on a tip from the neighborhood block captain, who suspected me of anti-state activity because I had sighed loudly on National Glory Day three years ago. They tore apart my room and found the seditious novel I have been writing for 30 years, using ink made of old shoe polish. They beat me with stout truncheons, but my bones were set for free, and thanks to a program of universal literacy, the arresting officer could read my novel on the spot and offer a critique of some of my literary devices. Long live the revolution.”

We are told that closer ties will moderate the junta’s behavior, but unless they’re saving that for a big ten-year-anniversary surprise (“Ten percent of the political prisoners will now get ice cream once a week!”), there’s no sign they’re changing their behavior. Why should they? They will have defenders in the West forever. Just as their repression was once excused because of the embargo, it will now be excused because of the lingering effects of the embargo. In 20 years, the Cuban government might sue for reparations. First-world slum-tripping to Cuba will be a sport for a while — Oh, haven’t you gone? You simply must, the ruins are like something out of a fashion shoot — but as more people on the left see evidence that Cuba was a prosperous nation forcibly impoverished, perhaps they will realize they were defending a prison just because they found the warden so charming. 

Let’s review: The Worker’s Paradise, the USSR, went out of business, because it didn’t have any. Venezuela is no longer admired by the Left because the people, previously respected for voting in a confiscatory caudillo, had the gall to vote in people who promised to repair the disasters of socialism. Post-embargo, Cuba’s no longer a cause célèbre, and the repression of the state — heretofore justified because the United States declined to sell them things, like 23 varieties of deodorant — will be an embarrassment, which means it’ll be forgotten.

These people need a new ideal state to worship. Nordic countries might fill the bill, but they’re so . . . white, and lately they seem mulish about importing lots of people who have contempt for their culture. Which is so strange! Denmark is awesome! They pay for sex changes and everything.

Perhaps President Trump will make Cuba great again and reassure the Left that it still has potential. No doubt the Donald believes our Cuba deal was (all together now) a disastah, and he will renegotiate it so we win. The regime gets a new casino, we get a cut of their North Korea bribes. It would be worth it just to see the New York Times run a story about a Batista-era-themed casino opening in Havana, with the headline “Amid the Glitter, a Nation Finds a Way to Heal.”

But it’s more likely Trump would give it a Castro theme. Hey, Castro was a strong leader. Tremendous leader. Sure, he did things, but you know, sometimes you got to do things, okay? Say what you want about Che, but the man knew the power of a good brand.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

In This Issue



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