Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stood by recent comments in which he praised parts of the Cuban communist revolution and its leader, Fidel Castro, during a town hall event Monday, a move that could complicate his efforts to appeal to some Latino voters as the Democratic race for the White House heats up.
Sanders was one of three presidential candidates who answered questions in South Carolina during the CNN town hall just a day before the next Democratic presidential debate. Moderator Chris Cuomo pressed the senator after he said during a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday that, although he opposed Castro’s “authoritarian nature,” it was “unfair to simply say everything is bad.”
“You know what he did? He initiated a major literacy program. Lot of folks in Cuba at that point were illiterate. He formed a literacy brigade,” Sanders said on Monday night of Castro. “He went out and he helped people learn to read and write. You know what? I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing.”
He went on to note that throughout his career in Congress he’d been “extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes around the world.”
“I happen to believe in democracy, not authoritarianism,” the senator added.
Sanders’ initial remarks on “60 Minutes” prompted an immediate backlash from Cuban Americans and Democrats in Florida, as well as others vying for the White House and looking to knock down the current Democratic front-runner.
“Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it,” Sanders asked host Anderson Cooper about Castro’s literacy efforts. “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.”
“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.) wrote on Twitter.
CNN later asked South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who appeared at a separate town hall, what he thought of Sanders’s refusal to disavow his comments.
“This is part of what I’m getting at when I say that in our one shot to defeat Donald Trump we should think carefully about the consequences about nominating Sen. Sanders,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t want to be explaining why our nominee is explaining the bright side of the Castro administration when we’re going into the election of our lives.”
A clip of Sanders’s response was already being shared by the research arm of the Republican National Committee shortly after the town hall aired.
Sanders isn’t the only Democrat to praise aspects of Cuba’s Communist Party and Castro’s efforts to educate his people. In 2016, then-President Barack Obama expressed similar support for the literacy efforts.