It's been a bad day on Twitter for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Democratic frontrunner in the upcoming presidential election caused waves in South Florida after an interview in which he defended decades-old comments about the Castro regime in Cuba.
Last night on CBS's 60 Minutes, Sanders made clear that he was opposed to the "authoritarian nature of Cuba" but that room should be left to appreciate the "massive literacy program" that Fidel Castro established. The interview, unsurprisingly, has not played well in and around Miami. Politicians from both parties took to Twitter to rebuke and disavow the candidate's comments. As of this afternoon, #BernieSandersIsACommunist is a trending hashtag.
"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," U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala posted on her Twitter feed last night.
Another South Florida Democrat — U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell — tweeted out a similar sentiment this 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 wrote.
And if two Democrats were willing to take Sanders to task about his comments, one might imagine what Republicans are saying. Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott both criticized Sanders; Florida's former governor called the comments "shameful ignorance," and Rubio denounced Marxism.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez also jumped into the fray to argue that in praising "socialism," Sanders was giving Castro a pass for his brutal record on human rights:
Collective social media freakouts aside, Sanders' real mistake here was one of political messaging. Cuban-Americans remain the dominant force in South Florida politics, so anti-Castro posturing is still a fundamental part of winning elections.
Sanders is right, technically speaking. The Castro regime had success with its literary and healthcare programs — in fact, President Barack Obama made virtually identical comments in 2016 during a visit to Argentina — but there's a time and a place to recognize those strides, and it's certainly not in the middle of a contested presidential primary. Moreover, if Sanders wants to assess the successes and failures of Castro's Cuba, perhaps he should have spent more time on the denouncements.
The symbolism of a politician praising any aspect of the Castro regime will always play negatively not only in Cuban-American communities but also in those of Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. And, as a byproduct, it will force dissent from local Democrats such as Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala, who have no choice but to come out against anything seemingly pro-Castro if they want to keep their seats. Put simply, it's a terrible soundbite for anyone, but it sounds even worse coming out of Sanders' mouth.
Sanders has had a complicated relationship with left-wing dictators. He has condemned human-rights violations by the governments of Fidel Castro and Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega while praising many of their social programs. In February 2019, Sanders slammed Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro but stopped short of calling him a dictator. (In a Democratic debate a few months later, he called Maduro a "vicious tyrant.") As WLRN reporter Danny Rivero pointed out, Sanders spoke at length regarding his comments about Castro and Ortega during a 2016 Democratic debate against Hillary Clinton, where he framed the remarks within the context of efforts by the U.S. government to topple regimes in Latin American countries:
In the recent 60 Minutes interview, Sanders followed up the defense of his comments by mentioning President Donald Trump's history of praising authoritarian leaders such as North Korea's Kim Jong-un and Russia's Vladimir Putin.
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"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 good friend of mine," Sanders said.
Yet there's no shortage of political opportunism coming from Republicans when it comes to Sanders, Castro, and human rights in Latin America. As U.K. journalist James Bloodworth spells out in a lengthy Twitter thread, the GOP Cold War warriors had no issues supporting and defending violent right-wing leaders such as Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Trump's buddy-buddy relations with the likes of Putin and Kim are just the most recent examples of this sort of hypocrisy. But still, you'd think that someone on Team Sanders would know better in the runup to a presidential election that could be decided by a swing state such as Florida.
As longtime Florida-based Democratic strategist Steve Schale put it: "Whether you think FL is in play or not [in the presidential election], the Sanders comments really do create unnecessary issues for the Democrats serving in and/or running for Congress and the Florida Legislature in Southeast Florida."