Democrats criticized the party’s presidential frontrunner Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday for being overly complimentary of the communist government of Cuba when he praised the anti-illiteracy programs of the Caribbean country, which has long been criticized by the U.S. for human rights violations.
The issue emerged during an interview broadcast Sunday night on “60 Minutes,” when host Anderson Cooper asked the Vermont senator about his 1980s-era praise of Cuban welfare programs implemented after the country’s communist revolution in 1959, which lifted life expectancies and yielded some of the highest literacy rates in the world. Sanders defended his remarks.
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but, you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad, you know?” Sanders told Cooper. “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 pointed out that Castro’s government also imprisoned political dissidents in the country.
“That’s right, and we condemn that, unlike Donald Trump,” Sanders said, turning his criticism to the president’s relationships with world leaders in North Korea and Russia accused of human rights abuses. “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.”
Sanders’ remarks about Castro were criticized harshly both by congressional Democrats in South Florida, where many Cuban Americans stridently oppose the Cuban government, as well as by Sanders’ fellow Democratic presidential candidates.
“Fidel Castro left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people,” fellow candidate and former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg tweeted. “But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program.”
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., tweeted:"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. We can’t risk nominating someone who doesn’t recognize this.”
Sanders is a self-described “democratic socialist,” a left-wing ideology generally known for its advocacy of greater economic interventions by governments through democratic means while maintaining individual rights. The movement has grown more popular in the U.S. since Sanders’ first presidential run in 2016, especially with younger Americans, though the term “socialism” is still unpopular with most adults.