“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” Sanders said in a “60 Minutes” interview with Anderson Cooper. “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?”
When pressed on Castro’s unsavory tendency to imprison political dissidents, Sanders backed off a bit, saying that he “condemns” that behavior, and juxtaposed himself to President Donald Trump’s embrace of authoritarians like Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Florida, the perennial swing state and general election bugaboo, has a large and influential Cuban-American population that Sanders wants to avoid alienating. Accordingly, Sunshine State lawmakers lashed out at the comments.
“Sen. Sanders has clearly and consistently criticized Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism and condemned his human rights abuses, and he’s simply echoing President Obama’s acknowledgment that Cuba made progress, especially in education,” spokesperson Kolby Lee told TPM in an email.
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL):
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. https://t.co/Iwvmay9LOH pic.twitter.com/KT9sQ0pfkh
— Donna E. Shalala (@DonnaShalala) February 24, 2020
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL):
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.
— Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (@DebbieforFL) February 24, 2020
Former mayor of Tallahassee:
No one should have sympathies for Fidel Castro’s brutal and repressive regime.
Let’s stay focused, Democrats.
— Andrew Gillum (@AndrewGillum) February 24, 2020
Sanders’ fellow presidential hopefuls also got in on the action.
“After four years of looking on in horror as Trump cozied up to dictators, we need a president who will be extremely clear in standing against regimes that violate human rights abroad,” Buttigieg wrote on Twitter. “We can’t risk nominating someone who doesn’t recognize this.” He then translated the tweet into Spanish.
Cristóbal Alex, senior adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, went so far as to imply that Sanders lacks patriotism.
“Make no mistake: Bernie Sanders’ comments on Fidel Castro are a part of a larger pattern throughout his life to embrace autocratic leaders and governments across the globe,” he said in a statement. “He seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas and Castro than in America.