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Bernie's Castro Comments Could Hurt Him In Florida. Pols Decry Remarks On 'Murderous Dictator'

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Eric Gay
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AP Photo

Sen. Bernie Sanders has apparently dropped a monkey wrench on his potential success in winning over Florida’s Cuban voter bloc. In an interview with Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes,” Sanders said he saw some redeeming qualities in dictator Fidel Castro’s leadership in Cuba. Some Florida politicos, thought leaders and voters are sounding off.

“When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program,” Sanders said in answering Cooper’s question about the Democratic presidential hopeful’s past comments about Castro. “Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?”

The Vermont senator then went on to condemn Castro’s imprisonment of political opponents. Yet, his comments still struck a raw cord with many in the Sunshine State, just over 100 miles from Cuba’s coast.

Democratic Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo represents District 40 in Miami, which has the largest Cuban-American population of any city in the U.S.

“Any kind of thing you say that is in any way positive about Fidel Castro is not well received, not just by me but by my constituents,” Taddeo told WFSU Monday.

She hasn’t endorsed any Democratic candidate vying for the presidency, but she says she won’t shy away from condemning comments like Sanders’ when they come from anyone in her party.

“Frankly, as someone who is going to be clearly attacked for being, as he calls himself, a Democratic Socialist, it’s really tough to not take his words seriously about Fidel Castro into anything positive,” Taddeo said. “This is a murderous dictator, period. And just like I criticize Trump when he speaks so positively about Kim Jong Un, or any of the other murderous dictators, I will do so with any Democrat.”

Taddeo says she fought off many of the same attacks Sanders frequently gets – being called a communist and terrorist sympathizer – when she beat a Republican to win her seat, flipping it from red to blue. She doesn’t think Sanders’ comments help him in that regard.

“I know what it’s like to fight those attacks and what it takes to fight those attacks, and the kind of language, the kind of talk I heard on 60 minutes of Bernie Sanders, is not the way we’re going to win – certainly Florida, and a national election where we have to bring in the middle,” Taddeo added.

In the other chamber of Florida's statehouse, Democratic House Leader Kionne McGhee put out a statement condemning Sanders’ comments saying: “We have no room for Fidel Castro apologists here.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has also weighed in.

“Any attempts to whitewash the brutality of the Castro dictatorship is totally unacceptable,” DeSantis told reporters Monday morning following an unrelated event.

DeSantis says it’s not just the people of Miami that don’t approve of Sanders’ sentiments.

“It flies directly in the face of the values of the people throughout this State. This is a Senator who has spoken positively throughout his whole life about the dictatorship there,” DeSantis said.

Whether Bernie’s comments spell defeat in Florida remains to be seen. But one GOP strategist who is a heavyweight in Never-Trump circles thinks a Bernie nomination is a danger to the Democratic Party. Rick Wilson made these comments at a political forum before Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview was released:

“A couple days ago, we had the Democratic party debate, and the sound of like a gazillion fingernails scraping down a blackboard for Democratic Party officials who are now in a state of pure panic that Bernie Sanders will be the nominee,” Wilson told a crowd at the Capital Tiger Bay political forum.

The panic Wilson perceives, he said, is well-warranted.

“I mentioned in my book that Bernie Sanders is one thing, and that’s re-election insurance for Donald Trump. And they’re headlong racing right now into a Sanders nomination for this party,” Wilson said.

Wilson, known for his humorous and at times irreverent slant on political commentary, made headlines statewide for this characterization of a Sanders nomination:

“It’s kinda like that big coke party – Friday night it sounds great and you’re having a ball, and Saturday there’s a dead hooker in the trunk of the car,” Wilson said, eliciting hearty laughter from the crowd.

Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview aired Sunday night, and by Monday, the hashtag #BernieIsACommunist was trending on Twitter. That’s because Florida is a battleground state and home to many Cuban-Americans, who make up a large and powerful voting bloc.

In February, Senator Manny Diaz (R-36) filed a bill called “Renouncing Democratic Socialism.” He contends the ideology, shared by Sanders and members of the Democratic Party’s leftward wing, needs to be condemned.

“I come from a district that is predominantly Cuban-American. Many families in my district have dealt with socialism, communism. We see that it’s a slippery slope,” Diaz said. “There are people who have taken on the mantle of socialism. When you have the government become a nanny state, you start to curtail opportunity, and you start to have the have- and have- nots.”

Christopher Canard is an organizer at a Sanders campaign office in Ocala, FL, and a longtime supporter of the Vermont senator. He says that while Florida will be a tougher win than the past three states, they’re still feeling optimistic.

“Wouldn’t wanna get overconfident, but we do feel good. It’s a significant difference from 2016, when we were explaining who Bernie Sanders was to a lot of people,” Canard said. “Now, all we have to do is explain what democratic socialism means to people.”

The next Democratic debate is scheduled for tomorrow night at 9 p.m., and Florida’s primary election will be on March 17.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.
Victoria is from Orlando, but spent her childhood in San Antonio, Texas and outside the D.C. area. She is currently a junior at Florid State University studying Communications and minoring in Political Science. Before coming to WFSU, Victoria was a staff writer at the FSView and a volunteer at the campus radio station WVFS. When she’s not at school or writing, Victoria enjoys baking, watching documentaries and playing video games to de-stress.