WASHINGTON — Several members of Florida’s congressional delegation, including two House Democrats, have denounced comments by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the 2020 presidential Democratic front-runner, in which he praised a literacy program launched under Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
“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,” Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., whose district in Miami has a large population of Cuban-born residents who escaped the communist regime, wrote on Twitter Sunday.
Her tweet included a GIF showing a kitten with the words “C’MON, BRO.”
Shalala’s remark followed “60 Minutes” interview earlier that night with Sanders in which reporter Anderson Cooper grilled the presidential contender about comments he made in the 1980s that the reason why Cubans didn’t challenge Castro and help the U.S. overthrow him was because “he educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society.”
Sanders defended his earlier remarks in the CBS interview. “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” he responded. “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?”
Cooper followed up by saying that a lot of dissidents were imprisoned in Cuba to which Sanders said: “That’s right. And we condemn that.”
Another Florida Democrat, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, blasted Sanders in a tweet from her campaign account Monday morning.
“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,” she said.
“The Castro regime murdered and jailed dissidents, and caused unspeakable harm to too many South Florida families,” added the freshman Democrat, who represents parts of South Florida, including portions of Miami-Dade County. “To this day, it remains an authoritarian regime that oppresses its people, subverts the free press, and stifles a free society.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba before Castro took over, lashed out at Sanders on Twitter on Sunday night. “Likely Dem nominee praised the supposed ‘achievements’ Castro regime. And he’s wrong about why people didn’t overthrow Castro. It’s not because ‘he educated their kids, gave them health care.’ It‘s because his opponents were jailed, murdered or exiled.”
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., a former governor of Florida, said Sanders displayed “willful ignorance.”
“The Castro regime has killed & imprisoned dissidents, oppressed its people and propped up murderous dictators like Maduro and Ortega,” he tweeted, referring to Presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir dismissed the criticism on MSNBC on Monday morning, saying the senator has called Castro a human rights abuser and authoritarian for decades but that he can acknowledge “there may have been good things happening in Cuban society.”
Shakir said he doesn’t “see any problems or concerns” with the comments, and that people throw “political barbs” at Sanders because he comes off as honest, someone whose positions come from “a place of conviction.”
As NBC News reported Friday, Sanders has a long history of making laudatory statements about Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua under the Cuban-backed Sandinista government of the 1980’s. While mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, he visited Cuba, Nicaragua and the Soviet Union. Some moderate Democrats have expressed concern that this could pose a political liability if he were to secure the nomination, with some saying it raises questions about his judgment.