Democratic lawmakers slam Sanders' comments on Fidel Castro policy
Posted February 24, 2020 12:10 p.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2020 8:48 p.m. EST
CNN — Democrats across Congress on Monday criticized Sen. Bernie Sanders' partial defense of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution.
"I think they're outrageous," Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said about Sanders' comments. "I'm sure all those who died at Castro's hands ... and all those who (were) tortured, those who live in my state and suffered enormously under the regime -- the more than million people who fled -- I'm sure they all think that the literacy program was worth all of that."
In a "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday, Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said "it's unfair to simply say everything is bad" about Castro's regime, noting that he's "very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba."
"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?" the Vermont independent asked.
Sanders' remarks came in response to a question by Anderson Cooper about comments Sanders had made in the 1980s assessing that the Cuban people didn't rise up against Castro because of education and health care.
Menendez, who is not yet backing a candidate still in the 2020 race, also said "there's no question" Sanders will "create a real challenge for down-ballot candidates" if he's the Democratic nominee.
"I'm thinking of my homestead in New Jersey, we got three new House members," said Menendez, who is the son of Cuban immigrants. "They run in districts that were held by Republicans. I don't know how do they triangulate? How do they if someone like Senator Sanders is at the top of the ticket."
Many of the outraged Democratic lawmakers represented districts in Florida, a state that is known for its sizable population of Americans of Cuban descent.
"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," Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell wrote in a pair of tweets.
"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," she added.
Mucarsel-Powell was not the only Florida Democrat to criticize Sanders' comments.
".@SenSanders comments on Fidel Castro are ill-informed & insulting to thousands of Floridians," tweeted Rep. Stephanie Murphy earlier Monday. "Castro was a murderous dictator who oppressed his own people. His 'literacy program' wasn't altruistic; it was a cynical effort to spread his dangerous philosophy & consolidate power."
Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, who represents parts of Miami and Miami Beach, wrote in a tweet that she hopes "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," while Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said Sanders is "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," Rubio said.
The comments from Sanders, which come as he continues to surge following wins in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday and the New Hampshire primary earlier this month, could prove to alienate some moderate Democrats as he chases the party's primary nomination.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.