Sanders praises some of Castro's policies, angering Republicans and Democrats in Florida

MIAMI – By singing the praises of aspects of Cuba's communist regime during a prime-time interview Sunday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders pulled off the unimaginable: uniting Republicans and Democrats in the notoriously divided swing state of Florida.

That unlikely union springs from long-standing fears of socialism in the Sunshine State, home to so many exiled Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans who fled socialist regimes in their home countries and make up an ever-growing size of the electorate in Florida.

Sanders has long voiced his support for the nationwide health care and educational achievements of Cuba under Fidel Castro. Polls have shown that he could beat President Donald Trump in Florida if he became the Democratic nominee. But by expressing support for Cuba's literacy programs during an interview on "60 Minutes," Sanders may have cost himself the chance to win Florida's primary March 17 in his quest to become the nominee.

"He stepped on a mine," said Ricardo Herrero, the Cuban American executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

During the interview, Sanders expressed his opposition to the authoritarian nature of the Castro regime, but he qualified that criticism by praising the literacy program implemented by Castro, asking, "Is that a bad thing?"

Republicans in Florida quickly pounced. Cuban American Sen. Marco Rubio and others shared clips of Sanders' interview through emails and tweets. Democrats attacked just as quickly.

Two of South Florida's Democratic members of Congress criticized Sanders' comments. Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala encouraged Sanders to speak to her constituents about the true nature of a "murderous tyrant like Fidel Castro."

He received criticism outside Florida as well. United States Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the remarks were "outrageous."

“I'm sure all of those who died at Castro's hands and were shot at firing squads, all those who were tortured, those who live in my state and suffered enormously under the regime, the more than a million people who fled, I'm sure they all think that the literacy program was worth all of that," he said.

"If that's going to be his foreign policy, then we're doomed," Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, said.

Herrero, whose group backed the Obama-era diplomatic opening with Cuba and opposed Trump's moves to scale back relations with the communist island, said his phone blew up Monday morning with calls from liberals enraged over Sanders' comments.

Glossing over the atrocities committed by the Castro regime by highlighting improvements in literacy rates shows that Sanders has not spent any time speaking with voters in Florida, Herrero said.

"To many people in Miami, that's like saying, 'Not everything Hitler did was bad, he also created the Autobahn,' " said Herrero. "It’s hard to see a scenario where he wins Florida if he keeps talking this way."

During interviews over the years, Sanders has said Castro, though not perfect, educated his people and implemented a health care system that benefited all Cubans.

In 1985, Sanders gave an interview after visiting Nicaragua, in which he praised Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega as an "impressive guy" and questioned why so many Americans bashed his socialist government.

"Just because Ronald Reagan dislikes these people does not mean to say that the people in their own nations feel the same way," said Sanders, who was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, at the time.

During each of his presidential campaigns, Sanders has tried to make clear that he embraces democratic socialism, a version that's more in line with the policies of Denmark than those of Cuba. Trying to draw that line is a tough task when talking to Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans in Florida, where it's difficult to overstate how powerful the word "socialism" can be.

Hispanics make up about 17% of the electorate in Florida, and the largest bloc of those voters are Cuban Americans who lean Republican overall even though younger Cubans trend more Democratic. In 2016, about 71% of non-Cuban Hispanics voted for Hillary Clinton, and Trump took 54% of the Cuban vote, according to the Pew Research Center. As more Venezuelans pour into the state fleeing their country's political and economic collapse, the "socialism" attack becomes even more powerful.

That helps explain why in 2018, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis bashed his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, by labeling him a far-left socialist who wanted to "turn Florida into Venezuela." DeSantis' socialism attacks became so frequent that PolitiFact published a story pointing out that no, Gillum was not a socialist. DeSantis won the governor's office in a razor-thin election.

Rick Scott, Florida's former Republican governor who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018, used similar attacks against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson. PolitiFact rated Scott's accusations as false – giving him its "Pants on Fire" designation – but Scott won the seat.

Those races were in no way unique in Florida. Socialist accusations are so commonplace, especially in South Florida, that they've become the norm every election season. From city council races to congressional campaigns, South Florida is flooded with TV ads and mailers featuring doctored pictures of political opponents side by side with Castro or, more recently, next to former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro.

That's what makes Sanders' support of some aspects of socialist systems all the more surprising to Florida voters. Usually, candidates spend their campaigns fighting accusations of being a socialist, yet Sanders points out the silver lining of Castro's work in Cuba.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., appreciates some of Fidel Castro's accomplishments in Cuba.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., appreciates some of Fidel Castro's accomplishments in Cuba.

Even before the "60 Minutes" interview Sunday, Susan MacManus, a political science professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, said Sanders' embrace of socialist ideals would make it difficult for him to win the state. She said Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans turn out to vote at higher rates than others, meaning they have a larger influence on Florida's elections.

"We've seen the power of socialism in that 2018 governor's race, and the Senate race as well," she said. "These voters heard 'socialism,' and they weren't buying it. That's a big problem here."

Making matters even more difficult for Sanders is the fact that the Trump administration tried to foster the Cuban and Venezuelan voting blocs throughout his first presidential campaign and the first three years of his administration.

When he was national security adviser, John Bolton dubbed the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua the "troika of tyranny" and implemented a series of sanctions against those governments. Trump launched his reelection campaign in Florida and has made frequent appearances there, focusing on the problems in Cuba and Venezuela. After proclaiming Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the rightful president of Venezuela, Trump invited him to the State of the Union address as his guest this month, drawing one of the few moments of bipartisan applause of that night.

President Donald Trump welcomes Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump welcomes Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Washington.

This all has some Democrats in Florida worried about their chances if Sanders continues racking up primary wins and becomes the Democratic nominee.

Liz Alarcón, a Venezuelan American political analyst in Florida who endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary, said Sanders should be far more forceful in condemning the atrocities of Castro and others like him in Latin America. She said it's hypocritical of Republicans to accuse their political opponents of acting like socialist dictators. She said Trump has more in common with the region's authoritarian leaders than Sanders does.

"When I hear Trump's constant messaging implying he plans to perpetuate himself in power, his antagonizing of the press, his incalculable corruption, how he's eroding our institutions and ignoring checks and balances, he reminds me a lot more of Chavez and the tactics that got Venezuela where it is today than Bernie's campaigning for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal does," Alarcón said.

CONTRIBUTING: Christal Hayes in USA TODAY's Washington bureau

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sanders praises Cuba, angers many Republicans, Democrats in Florida