The mayor of tiny Burlington, Vermont, was back from Nicaragua and eager to share the good news.
The country's Soviet-backed government - forged via armed rebellion - was cutting infant mortality, reducing illiteracy and redistributing land to peasant farmers. Its Sandinista leaders, branded terrorists by the U.S. government, impressed him with "their intelligence and their sincerity."
Three years later, Bernie Sanders was fresh off the plane from Moscow, reveling in the beauty of the land and the contentedness of the people.
And a year after that, he returned from Cuba having tapped into a revolutionary spirit "far deeper and more profound than I understood it to be."
With Sanders now surging to the top of the Democratic presidential field, those three-decade-old impressions introduced a volatile new element in the race Monday as rivals reacted to Sanders' decision to defend his remarks, not disclaim them.
Asked about his favorable reviews of Fidel Castro's Cuba in a "60 Minutes" interview that aired on CBS on Sunday night, Sanders said the communist leader deserved criticism for "the authoritarian nature" of his government - as well as praise where it was due, including for "a massive literacy program."
"Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?" he asked.
The comments offered instant fodder for opponents who had already been sharing the old clips, and highlighted the risk to a candidate with a track record of sympathy for communist and socialist governments that is unlike any other recent Democratic nominee.
Rivals seized on the brand-new video to portray the senator from Vermont as naive - a possible preview of attack lines in Tuesday night's debate, and of the barrage Sanders is likely to endure in the general election if he makes it that far.
"Fidel Castro left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people," former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg tweeted. "But sure, Bernie, let's talk about his literacy program."
Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg compared Sanders to President Donald Trump, tweeting that after four years of giving dictators a pass, the United States needs "a president who will be extremely clear in standing against regimes that violate human rights abroad."
The fact that Sanders' long-ago travels in the communist world have become an issue in the 2020 campaign reflects how unorthodox a choice he would be to lead the Democratic Party.
Sanders has vowed to remake the party in his far-left image as a "democratic socialist," and he argues that his vision for a political revolution is best exemplified by thriving democratic, first-world societies such as Denmark.
Yet in the 1980s, during the dying days of the Cold War, Sanders indulged a fascination with far more disruptive and divisive strains of a socialist ideology he has embraced throughout his adult life.
Returning home from visits to some of the United States' most avowed enemies, Sanders offered some criticism but also praise in Vermont community television recordings. Many of the videos were kept in storage for decades - including during his 2016 campaign - and, even after being posted online, have remained relatively unknown.
Now, Sanders' comments are coming back to life as opponents say his warm feelings toward his hosts decades ago make him vulnerable to attack and reveal a soft spot for left-wing despots.
"If people are going to vote for socialist candidate Bernie Sanders, they need to understand what socialism means historically. And it's not Scandinavia," said Marion Smith, executive director of the congressionally authorized Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Smith recently tweeted a clip from a 1988 news conference in which Sanders lauds the Soviet Union for its chandelier-filled transit stations and its "palaces of culture." Smith demanded an apology for what went unmentioned.
"He turned a blind eye to what was known about the ongoing systematic human rights abuses, the suppression of religious and ethnic minorities, the jailing of dissidents," Smith said. "He was very clearly joining the ranks of the useful idiots who believed in the propaganda of the Soviet Union and carried it to the West."
Sanders has consistently pushed back against accusations that he was duped, insisting his travels were about building bridges and avoiding conflict. "He believed then and believes now that issues of war and peace are local issues because they direct government investment away from working people here at home," the Sanders campaign said in a statement to The Washington Post. "That's why as mayor of Burlington he focused on Reagan's dirty wars."
Sanders is not the first would-be president to confront scrutiny over long-ago travels. When he ran in 1992, Bill Clinton faced questions over a 1969 trip to the Soviet Union. John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 nominee, took heat from Republicans for a 1985 visit to Nicaragua - the same year that Sanders visited.
But Clinton was in Moscow as a student tourist, while Kerry went to Managua as a senator preparing to vote on whether to back President Ronald Reagan's plan to spend millions of dollars funding the ruling Sandinistas' rivals, the Contras. While there, Kerry challenged the government over its curbs on individual liberties, and he carried back to Washington a proposal for peace.
The reasons the mayor of Burlington, Vermont - population 38,000 - would repeatedly cross the world's great geopolitical chasm are less straightforward.
Sanders' infatuation with revolutionary left-wing movements, particularly those in Latin America, was long-standing, and it became a key feature of his first stint in elected office.
Sanders has recalled feeling "very excited" by Castro's 1959 revolution, which played out during his teens. "It just seemed right and appropriate that poor people were rising up against rather ugly rich people," he said in 1986.
As a college student at the University of Chicago, he was a member of the Young People's Socialist League. He spent his 20s and 30s as a radical activist, failed third-party candidate and sometime carpenter.
But it wasn't until Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington in 1980, at age 39, that he began putting his ideas into practice.
And while many of his local policies hewed to the conventional - redeveloping the city's waterfront or attracting a minor league baseball team - his forays into foreign policy stood out.
At the time, the Reagan administration was zealously fighting the Cold War. Democrats on Capitol Hill were following along in principle, if not always in the particulars. Sanders saw an opportunity to transform Burlington into a de facto capital for an alternative foreign policy, one that viewed the left-wing revolutions of Latin America less as threat than as opportunity.
In the early years of his mayoralty, that meant organizing a referendum disavowing U.S. support for the military regime in El Salvador and condemning the U.S. invasion of Grenada, which toppled a communist government.
Later - once he had proved himself an adept administrator of the city and was comfortably reelected - it meant travel to countries regarded as adversaries in Washington.
"He was trying to show that we weren't all Ronald Reagan," said Lauren-Glenn Davitian, a founder of CCTV, Burlington's public access television. "He was curious. And he was mad about how these stories were being told. He wanted to see for himself what was really happening."
When Sanders returned, he also wanted to share what he found with Burlington residents through interviews, news conferences and his own program on CCTV, "Bernie Speaks with the Community."
In July 1985, Sanders was back from Nicaragua having been, as he put it, "the highest-ranking American to visit them during the celebration of their revolution."
It had been six years since the Sandinistas stormed to power, overthrowing the hated Somoza dynasty, and the government had welcomed Sanders, as he described it, "in a special way." That meant access to the top leadership - right up to President Daniel Ortega.
As Sanders sat in a bare Burlington office recounting the trip - the sound of what appears to be a power drill blaring nearby - he acknowledged to his young CCTV interviewer that Sandinista-led Nicaragua was no panacea.
"You walk into houses and they're not houses like we know in Burlington, Vermont," Sanders said. "They are shacks."
Health care, he reported, was free. But it was "terrible. . . . It's not the Medical Center of Vermont there, believe me."
On the whole, however, he found plenty of reason for optimism. "Nobody denies that they are making significant progress," he asserted.
He was particularly impressed, he said, by the country's leaders, including Ortega, who is back in power in Nicaragua, having ruled for most of the past 40 years. Ortega now stands accused by human rights groups of violent oppression; in 1985, his grip on power was less absolute.
Watching the video decades later, Latin America scholar Richard Feinberg said Sanders appeared to have had "a rather simplistic" view of the developing world, as well as an overly rosy assessment of Nicaragua's leaders. But the reason for Sanders' attraction, he said, was clear.
"In Nicaragua he found his equivalents to his view of the United States . . . allegedly a small group of wealthy people at the top versus the struggling, noble poor," said Feinberg, who teaches at the University of California at San Diego and was a national security official during the Clinton administration.
Sanders' visit to the Soviet Union in the late spring of 1988 offered a more complex picture. The CCTV video marking the trip - which was posted online just last year - begins in an unlikely place: Sanders' sun-splashed wedding on the shores of Lake Champlain. The next day, the newlyweds were off on what Sanders has described as "a very strange honeymoon."
The trip was actually official city business, with Sanders and his delegation exploring the potential for a sister-city relationship with the Soviet city of Yaroslavl.
The Soviet Union was in the midst of a momentous transition - one that would end with its collapse a little over three years later.
Speaking to reporters at the airport upon his return, Sanders lauded "the openness of Soviet officials to acknowledge many of the problems that they have. I went there expecting them to say 'Everything is great, there's no problem.' That certainly wasn't the case."
As in Nicaragua, health care was lacking, even if it was free. "They acknowledge it's 10 years behind the U.S. in terms of medical technology," he said.
But Sanders also found much to admire, including investments in culture and "the most effective mass transit system that I've ever seen."
So did his new wife, Jane, who was then director of Burlington's youth services department and who marveled at the fact that resources weren't concentrated in private hands. "They put the money into public facilities," she told reporters at a news conference.
Bernie Sanders expressed hope that, after "a dismal history," the Soviet Union could be redeemed by moving "forward into some of the early visions of their revolution, what their revolution was about in 1917."
William Taubman, an Amherst College historian of the Soviet Union who was living there at the time, said Sanders' comments need to be understood in the context of the moment, which was dominated by then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of opening and liberalizing his nation.
"He was not doing what the real suckers might have done, which was to say, 'Gosh isn't it wonderful?' " Taubman said. "I don't think he was a dupe."
A year later, Sanders was seemingly more impressed by his experience in Cuba. By that time, he was on his way out as mayor and was no longer producing new episodes of his community television program.
But he shared his thoughts with the Burlington Free Press, telling the paper that while the country had "deficiencies," it appeared to have solved the sort of problems that still plagued the far wealthier United States.
"I did not see a hungry child. I did not see any homeless people," he said. "Cuba today not only has free health care but very high quality health care."
He had wanted to meet Castro. He had to settle for the mayor of Havana. But the people's enthusiasm for their leader told him what he needed to know.
"The people we met," he reported "had an almost religious affection."
DALLAS - When Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez meets with young voters, she often asks them to name a Texas Latina who "speaks for us, for the state." They nearly always respond with the late singer Selena.
"She is amazing, she had a brilliant voice, but she's been dead for over two decades," the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate said at a recent Latina networking brunch. "That hurts that we can't see ourselves anywhere in power."
Tzintzún Ramirez, 38, is trying to change that, against what remain substantial odds. After a career of organizing construction workers and young voters of color in Texas, she was recruited to run for Senate last summer by fellow Democratic activists who worked on the 2018 Senate campaign of former state Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who lost but came close enough to show that the state's politics are quickly changing. At first she laughed off the idea - she had never run before and had no desire to do so - but they reminded her of the need for more Latina voices in politics.
Three years ago, Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., became the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate, and just over a year ago, Texas elected its first two Latinas to the U.S. House: Democrats Veronica Escobar of El Paso and Sylvia Garcia of Houston.
"There are many moments when I still doubt myself, that I think maybe I'm not smart enough, maybe I'm not the right person to be doing this," Tzintzún Ramirez said at the brunch.
"I am the right person to be doing this. If we don't step up, then maybe no one else will. We as Latinas are the right people at the right moment in the right state to actually step up."
This year's Senate race - which has attracted a dozen Democratic candidates looking to unseat Republican incumbent John Cornyn and who will face off in the state's March 3 primary - displays the tension playing out in the Democratic Party as its leaders and activists try to figure out what the party stands for, who leads it and, most importantly, which voters it prioritizes.
Calls for more candidates who look and think like the party's emerging base of young, nonwhite and more liberal voters are inevitably colliding with a desire to win seats and states that have long been held by Republicans but are seen as gettable if candidates appeal to more moderate - and often more white - voters.
Those collisions are particularly difficult in places such as Texas, where voters of color are crucial to any Democratic victory but diverse candidates have struggled to raise the money and attention needed to become the nominee.
The party's presidential race has also shown the limits of identity politics. The field was once the most diverse in history - yet all but one of the remaining candidates, and all of the top tier, are white, and many have had difficulty connecting with diverse Democratic constituencies. Adding more complication, many nonwhite voters have backed white candidates over candidates of color, either due to policy positions or perceptions of which candidate could compete more strongly with President Donald Trump.
To win in Texas, Tzintzún Ramirez says Democrats need to focus on issues that matter to working-class families and register hundreds of thousands of new voters, especially young people of color. She has staked out the most liberal positions in the race, including supporting Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, decriminalization of illegal border crossings and a mandatory buyback of assault weapons. Last week she cast an early ballot for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the presidential primary and earned the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., whose blunt and passionate politics she would like to emulate.
"Let's go make history for Latinas," Tzintzún Ramirez said in an Instragram video on the first day of early voting.
The front-runner in the race is MJ Hegar, a tattooed 43-year-old combat veteran who lost a congressional race in 2018 in the heavily Republican Austin suburbs but garnered national attention for a campaign ad about her boundary-breaking military career. Hegar, a former Republican who is white, has been more cautious in her positions and supports a public health-insurance option, banning assault weapons and not allowing "aggressive action on climate change to get overly politicized." She has focused on winning over independent voters and former Republicans - and late last year received the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is led by Masto.
That endorsement angered Tzintzún Ramirez and other candidates of color. Royce West, a longtime state senator from Dallas, called it "slap in the face" to black Texans, and his spokesman accused the national Democratic leaders of "trying to lock African Americans out of the process." Amanda Edwards, a former Houston City Council member, accused the committee of attempting to "put a thumb on the scale."
"Democrats talk about diversity in their party, yet this latest move proves they are all talk and no action," Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said in a statement, seizing on the division. "Last we checked, there was an African American State Senator, African American City Councilwoman, and a Latina liberal activist running."
Soon after Tzintzún Ramirez entered the race last summer, she traveled to Washington to meet with the committee's executive director and Texas organizer and urged them not to endorse before the primary.
"I let them know that in Texas, we are hungry and desperate for representation," Tzintzún Ramirez said. "I let them know that if they did endorse [Hager], I would hate for it to backfire on her in the general election to voters of color who had already felt underrepresented and ignored and were actually the majority of the Democratic Party in Texas."
DSCC officials said that the decision was based on which candidate had the best shot at beating Cornyn, who has held the seat since 2002 yet is not well-known in the state, especially compared with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Hager got into the race months before the other major candidates and has raised $3.8 million - more than all of the other candidates combined. Tzintzún Ramirez has raised more than $988,000, while West has raised $1.1 million and Edwards more than $935,000.
Tzintzún Ramirez has been tapping donors who gave to O'Rourke and those who helped support her organizing work over the years. She has been aided by actor Alec Baldwin, an enthusiastic supporter whom she first met in 2013 when she was the executive director of the Workers Defense Project in Austin. She has been surprised that some donors who long supported her organizing work were hesitant to support her running for office.
"So many donors ask: 'How do we get out more Latino voters?' Then some of those same donors say: 'Oh, I don't think a Latina can win [in Texas],' " she said. "You can't want our votes and not our voices."
Tzintzún Ramirez's identity is at the center of her campaign. She opens her stump speech with her story: Her mother, Ana Tzintzún, is the oldest of nine children from a poor farm-working family in southern Mexico. Her father, Tom Costello, is "a white American hippie" who met her mother while traveling through Mexico in the 1970s.
She grew up in Ohio, where she says she usually didn't know any Latinos who weren't her relatives and saw how her brown mother was treated with far less respect than her white father. Her parents ran a fair-trade Mexican jewelry business, and the family frequently traveled to Mexico. Tzintzún Ramirez said she often felt pulled between two vastly different worlds and wasn't sure where she fit.
She moved to Texas after high school and suddenly "felt at home" amid its wide diversity of Latinos. After her parents divorced, she legally took her mother's last name, Tzintzún. "Ramirez" comes from her former husband, Manuel, whom she divorced in December.
Her name prompted a dust-up in January that proved the fraught nature of identity politics. The name Tzintzún is not well-known outside of her mother's home state, so she explained to voters that "Tzintzún is more Mexican than any Garcia or Lopez" and that "we are the only indigenous group not defeated by the Aztecs in Mexico." She was joking but was accused of ranking cultural identities.
"I have always said that there's no wrong way to be Latina/Latino/Latinx," she wrote in a tweeted apology, "and I truly believe that."
At the Latina networking brunch, Tzintzún Ramirez said that for many years she thought her role was "creating space for other people to speak - that my story wasn't Latina enough."
"I slowly got over that and said, you know, I may be a Latina that prefers junk rock to bachata, but I love my people," she said. "That makes me Latina."
In trying to win over voters, Tzintzún Ramirez urges Texans to think ahead to the general election and the stark contrast that she could provide if put up against Cornyn. Tzintzún Ramirez often campaigns with her 3-year-old, Santiago, whom she calls "Santi" and talks openly about struggling to pay bills and piecing together child care when she became a single mother. She recently showed her staff members one of Cornyn's 2008 campaign videos, titled "Big John," that featured him in a cowboy hat and a leather coat with fringe.
"I do not think John Cornyn reflects the Texas of today. And I think that there is no better way to show that than me being the candidate," she said. "Trump is going to run his campaign villainizing, targeting people that look like and have last names just like me. This race is going to get heated real fast, and I think it's going to become the race that really is reflective of who we are becoming as a country and who we're making space for."
O'Rourke opted not to join the Senate race despite widespread calls for him to do so. His advisers believed that running against Cornyn in a presidential year would be more difficult than running against Cruz in 2018 - plus, O'Rourke had a strong working relationship with Cornyn and would struggle to cast him as a villain as he did with Cruz. O'Rourke has made clear that he will not endorse ahead of the primary, and he regularly talks with several of the candidates, including Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez.
Tzintzún Ramirez wrote O'Rourke's Latino outreach strategy in 2018 - and then watched in frustration as he waited for voters to come to him instead of sending paid canvassers into Latino neighborhoods, diversifying his staff and campaigning more heavily in urban areas. She credits him with listening to her and making last-minute changes. Many of those who worked on the campaign said that O'Rourke would have had a better shot at winning had he reached out to diverse communities sooner in his race.
In her own campaign, Tzintzún Ramirez's staff is nearly all female and people of color, and she has focused on campaigning in Texas' major cities, especially those with large Latino populations. If she were to become the Democratic nominee, Tzintzún Ramirez said, she would invest much more heavily in voter registration and mobilizing communities of color than O'Rourke did. Hager's campaign says it will leave voter registration efforts to nonprofit groups.
Tzintzún Ramirez said she has long been frustrated that the Democratic Party has not fully engaged Latino voters. After rump's election, she founded Jolt, a nonprofit focused on helping young Latinos and other voters of color become activists on issues that matter to them. Jolt couples politics with culture, setting up photo booths at quinceañera celebrations and pushing young women to see voting as another way to honor their commitments to their family and their communities. Jolt became a gathering place for young Latinas, especially those who are mixed race like Tzintzún Ramirez.
It does not base its decisions solely on race, however. During the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, Jolt endorsed Andrew White, who owned a company that developed border security technology, over Lupe Valdez, a former sheriff of Dallas County who had cooperated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and allowed undocumented immigrants to be detained in her jail.
"Representation matters, and lived experience will often lead you to a different result . . . but above all, it matters where you stand on the issues that matter to people's everyday life," Tzintzún Ramirez said.
For months, Tzintzún Ramirez has bounced around the state with a small group of young female staffers. A recent weekend took her from a county party meeting in the Fort Worth area where she waited more than an hour to speak to the group for a few minutes, to the Latina networking brunch where all of the women wore nametags labeled with their superpower (Tzintzún Ramirez's superpower was helping others to see their power) to a meet-and-greet in a Fort Worth bar that attracted dozens of former O'Rourke volunteers, and eventually to an intimate gathering with black and Afro-Latino voters at a coffee shop in Houston, where tears flowed amid a discussion of systemic racism and poverty.
"For so long we have had politicians that don't represent us at all, especially in Texas. I know people like to say that Latinos are a minority but in Texas they're not, they're the majority," said Krissia Palomo, 19, a college student who brought two friends to the Fort Worth meet-and-greet. "This might be a little bit of identity politics, but I do like seeing myself in somebody that's running for such an important office."