Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came under heavy criticism from Democrats on Monday after he suggested in a new interview that it was “unfair to simply say everything is bad” under the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s rule.
The uproar underscored Democrats’ fears of how Sanders would fare in the key swing state of Florida, where even remote praise of Castro is anathema to the hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who live there.
And it offered the latest example of why many Democratic lawmakers, particularly those in swing districts, worry that the self-described democratic socialist would alienate voters in some of the most competitive parts of the country.
House Democrats already fighting against GOP attempts to label them as socialists forcefully pushed back against Sanders, calling his remarks “absolutely unacceptable,” “ill-informed” and appearing to “sing the praises of a murderous tyrant.”
Sanders’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination also piled on and are sure to maintain the line of attack during Tuesday night’s debate ahead of the South Carolina primary.
Sanders, fresh off his victory in the Nevada caucuses over the weekend, defended his past comments in stating that Cubans didn’t help the U.S. overthrow Castro because he “educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society.”
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know, when Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?” Sanders said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
Sanders also sought to contrast his attitudes toward authoritarian regimes against President Trump’s efforts to cultivate relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“Unlike Donald Trump, let’s be clear. I do not think that Kim Jong Un is a good friend. I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator. Vladimir Putin, not a great friend of mine,” Sanders said.
Despite Sanders’s assertion that he opposes authoritarian governments, Florida Democrats made clear they don’t want to be associated with even a whiff of praise for the Castro regime.
Monday offered an early test of the challenges Democrats down the ballot would face if Sanders is the nominee and they have to respond to his past praise for aspects of socialism in other countries.
“As the first South American immigrant member of Congress who proudly represents thousands of Cuban Americans, I find Senator Bernie Sanders’ comments on Castro’s Cuba absolutely unacceptable,” tweeted Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), a freshman who narrowly flipped a South Florida district by just under 2 points in 2018.
“The Castro regime murdered and jailed dissidents, and caused unspeakable harm to too many South Florida families. To this day, it remains an authoritarian regime that oppresses its people, subverts the free press, and stifles a free society,” Mucarsel-Powell added.
Freshman Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), whose Miami-area district was carried by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 but had long been represented by the GOP, also slammed Sanders.
“I’m hoping that in the future, Senator Sanders will take time to speak to some of my constituents before he decides to sing the praises of a murderous tyrant like Fidel Castro,” Shalala tweeted.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a Blue Dog Coalition co-chair who has endorsed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the Democratic presidential primary, further called Sanders’s comments “ill-informed and insulting to thousands of Floridians.”
Like Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell, Murphy also represents a district that House Republicans are targeting this year. She went on to warn that Sanders’s foreign policy stances risked turning off Florida voters in November.
“Whether the subject is Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Israel or other foreign policy challenges, @SenSanders has consistently taken positions that are wrong on the merits and will alienate many Florida voters now and in the general election if he is nominated,” Murphy tweeted.
The Florida Democratic Party also issued a statement, without explicitly naming Sanders, that broadly condemned dictatorships and called for candidates to “understand our immigrant communities’ shared stories.”
Recent polling shows that Sanders is behind his presidential rivals in Florida, which will hold its primary on March 17, despite his strength in the first primary contests. Bloomberg leads in Florida with an average of 24.7 percent, ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden’s 21.7 and Sanders’s 16.9.
Sanders’s rivals quickly sought to differentiate themselves as the most opposed to authoritarian regimes like Cuba under Castro.
“His admiration for elements of Castro’s dictatorship or at least willingness to look past Cuba’s human rights violations is not just dangerous, it is deeply offensive to the many people in Florida, New Jersey, and across the country that have fled political persecution and sought refuge in the United States,” Biden adviser Cristóbal Alex said in a statement.
“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,” Bloomberg tweeted from his campaign account. “But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program.”
And it’s not just Cuba: Sanders has also raised eyebrows for his views toward Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Soviet Union.
In 1985, Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vt., called Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega “a very impressive guy” after meeting with him. According to The New York Times, Sanders acknowledged that the Sandinistas were wrong to force indigenous communities to leave their homes but still wrote a letter to Ortega inviting him to Burlington and complained that the U.S. media had not “reflected fairly the goals and accomplishments of your administration.”
And during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1988, Sanders criticized the cost of housing and health care in the U.S. while praising the lower prices in his host country and blasting American interventionism, according to The Washington Post.
Sanders in 1989 praised the Cuban revolution, writing that “more interesting than their providing their people with free health care, free education, free housing … is that they are in fact creating a very different value system than the one we are familiar with.” Sanders acknowledged that Cuba held political prisoners and wasn’t a “perfect society,” according to the Burlington Free Press.
Sanders has also declined to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, in contrast to the Trump administration, the other top-tier Democratic candidates and most U.S. allies.
Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based Democratic consultant, warned that Sanders threatened to tank Democrats’ chances of winning Florida altogether if he continues to alienate Cuban Americans and other Hispanics who fled authoritarian regimes.
“I think he takes Florida off the map,” Ulvert said. “What we’re seeing today is clear evidence that Democrats in South Florida, at least, are going to be very hesitant, if not outright not campaign with him.”
“You’ve got a South Florida Hispanic community that’s made up of Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, you name it, folks are tied to or are connected to a story of a family member or close friend that has fled tyranny and dictators in South America or Central America. And that’s the challenge,” Ulvert said.