Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Martin Pengelly in Washington

Bernie Moreno says he fled socialism in Colombia for the US in 1971. What does history say?

A middle-aged Latino man with trim dark hair, wearing a dark suit and red tie, speaks into a microphone.
Bernie Moreno speaks to supporters in Westlake, Ohio, on 19 March 2024. Photograph: David Dermer/AP

Bernie Moreno, the Republican candidate for US Senate in Ohio who expected to mount a stern challenge to Sherrod Brown, the incumbent leftwing Democrat, says his family fled socialism when they came to the US from Colombia in 1971, when he was four years old.

Though such statements formed a central part of Moreno’s campaign message on his way to securing the Republican nomination with support from Donald Trump, they do not withstand historical scrutiny.

In an interview in 2020, about his success as a car dealer in Ohio, Moreno described himself as “somebody who moved to this country a long time ago to escape what happens in most South American countries, which is socialism and the absolute prison of those ideas”.

In 2021, as Moreno moved into national politics with a first run for a Senate nomination, the Cleveland Plain Dealer said he “says he came to the United States as a child with his mother and siblings to flee socialism in their native Colombia. He believes that same ideology is rising in the United States, and he wants to fight back.”

But when Moreno was born, on 14 February 1967, Colombia was nine years into the 16-year period of National Front government, in which conservative and liberal parties alternated being in power as a way to avoid violence between the two factions.

Furthermore, the first leftwing Colombian government in modern times is the current one, headed by Gustavo Petro and in power since 2022.

Colombia has long been home to leftwing guerrilla groups. As described by the US Congressional Research Service, when Moreno lived there, the country was home to “leftist, Marxist-inspired insurgencies … including the Farc, launched in 1964, and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), which formed the following year”.

Such groups, the CRS says, “conducted kidnappings, committed serious human rights violations, and carried out a campaign of terror that aimed to unseat the central government in Bogotá”.

Moreno, however, has described an early childhood far removed from such worries.

By his own description, his father was secretary of health under Misael Pastrana, a conservative and the last National Front president between 1970 and 1974.

“We had a very, very, very, very incredible lifestyle in Colombia,” Moreno said in 2019, at a business event in Cleveland, adding that his mother moved the family to the US – initially against his father’s wishes – because she “didn’t want us to be raised as pampered indoor cats”.

The move was “a jump”, Moreno said, “but it was this idea of no fear”.

Contacted for comment on Wednesday, Moreno’s communications director, Reagan McCarthy, said: “No where in the [first] quote cited does Bernie say his family came to America because Colombia was a socialist country or that his family was escaping a socialist country at the time.

“He very clearly was stating that many South American countries fell to socialism and his parents came to America to ensure their kids would grow up in a free society, out of fear that Colombia would eventually move towards socialism.”

As indicated by McCarthy’s reference to “many South American countries [falling] to socialism”, Moreno has also spoken of a fear of being “surrounded” by socialist governments.

In 2021, writing in the Toledo Blade, he said: “I was born in South America, surrounded by socialist ideology.”

The same year, Moreno told the Landscape, a Cleveland podcast: “I think the [US is] going off [in] a very dangerous direction. It’s a direction I recognise. I grew up surrounded by socialist ideology, whether it’s Venezuela or Cuba [or] now Peru, and I know where this movie ends.”

And in a campaign ad, also from 2021, Moreno said: “I came from a country surrounded by the ideology of radicals like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who promised to give everyone all they needed and solve all their problems, just like [Vermont senator] Bernie Sanders and AOC [New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] are doing today.”

Such claims also shake under scrutiny.

Cuba has indeed been governed from the left since 1959, when Castro and the Communist party took power after a long fight. Castro was assisted by Guevara, a revolutionary from Argentina – who was killed in October 1967, when Moreno was eight months old.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Moreno was a young child in Colombia, Venezuela was governed by Rafael Caldera, a Christian Democrat who moved to end conflict with leftwing guerrillas. Ecuador, which also borders Colombia, was also governed by a centrist at that time.

Between 1968 and 1975, Peru was led by Juan Velasco Alvarado, a general who seized power in a coup d’état but governed from the political centre. The current president of Peru, Dina Boluarte, is a former member of a Marxist party now governing with the support of rightwingers.

Between 1970 and 1973, Chile – more than a thousand miles south of Colombia – was governed by Salvador Allende, its first socialist president. He died on 11 September 1973 as the rightwing Chilean military led by Gen Augusto Pinochet attacked the presidential palace, in a coup backed by the CIA.

After coming to the US in 1971, Moreno became a US citizen at 18. In her statement on Wednesday, McCarthy, the Moreno aide, accused the Guardian of failing to celebrate “what could potentially be the first South American-born senator”.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Brown declined to comment.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.