Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is standing by the praise he extended to the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in wake of mounting backlash from a contingent of Democratic lawmakers.
Sanders, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, came under heavy criticism on Monday from a swath of Democrats, particularly those representing districts in Florida, after saying in a "60 Minutes" interview that it's "unfair to simply say everything" about the Communist Cuban revolution was bad.
He reiterated those remarks during a CNN Town Hall in South Carolina on Monday night, saying that he's always been critical of authoritarian regimes, but that it doesn't deny the fact that Castro initiated a reading literacy program after coming into power.
“When Fidel Castro first came to power, he initiated a major literacy program. There were a lot of folks in Cuba at that point who were illiterate," Sanders said Monday. "He formed the literacy brigade. [Castro] went out and they 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 he's been "extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes all over the world – including Cuba, including Nicaragua, including Saudi Arabia, including China, including Russia."
Asked about the view that it's never appropriate to praise Castro, Sanders grew animated.
"Truth is truth," he said. He then suggested that the Democrats who were speaking out about his comments were publicly endorsing other presidential candidates.
Sanders' comments in the "60 Minutes" interview were met with resounding criticism in Florida, a swing state that is home to hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans. Several Florida representatives called the remarks "unacceptable" and the state's Democratic Party released a statement voicing "solidarity with the thousands of people who have fled violent dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua."
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) asked Sanders to "take time to speak to some of my constituents before he decides to sing the praises of a murderous tyrant like Fidel Castro."
Sanders has emerged as the clear frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary after wins in New Hampshire and Nevada and a virtual tie with former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa. In response to this, the self-identified democratic socialist has faced an onslaught of attacks from more moderate lawmakers as a candidate too radical for America's electorate.
Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg all panned Sanders' latest remarks. Biden adviser Cristóbal Alex suggested they indicated that Sanders' "ideology blinds him to the realities of life" in autocratic regimes.
In the "60 Minutes" interview, Sanders sought to contrast his views with Trump, saying that unlike the president, "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 added.