Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fla., introduced a resolution on Wednesday to condemn Democratic presidential primary front-runner Bernie Sanders for his recent comments praising Cuba’s advances in health care and education under late strongman Fidel Castro.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont, has taken heat from both sides of the political divide for remarks he made during an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” saying while he's "very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba...it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad.”
“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?" Sanders said.
Díaz-Balart, a Cuban-American whose aunt is Castro’s first wife, was highly critical of Sanders during a press conference on Wednesday.
“I remind the senator and the progressive movement that the Castro regime is a threat, not only by the way to the national security of the United States, but also to all of the democracies in this hemisphere,” he said. “This regime has been on the list of state sponsors of terrorism for many years for its support of other terrorist states and organized terrorist groups.”
Díaz-Balart added: “That is, by the way, why I'm filing, filed a resolution that condemns the blatantly false, irresponsible, ignorant, highly ignorant and hurtful comments of the democratic socialist candidate for president.”
House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., echoed Díaz-Balart’s comments during a press briefing.
"To have the lead for the Democrats Bernie Sanders credit Fidel Castro is appalling,” McCarthy said.
Sanders has refused to back down from his comments even after being attacked by his Democratic rivals during Tuesday night’s debate in South Carolina.
Sanders argued that former President Barack Obama had once praised the Castro regime’s progress on education and health care. The Vermont lawmaker said there is a reticence among Americans to look back at Washington’s own history of overthrowing foreign governments and supporting dictators.
“It might be a good idea to be honest of American foreign policy and that is the American government helped overthrow governments in Chile, Nicaragua and Iran,” Sanders said in reference to U.S. support in overthrowing leaders in those countries in the 1970s and 80s.
Sanders’ reference to Obama did not sit well with former Vice President Joe Biden, who claimed that his boss “never embraced an authoritarian regime,” while former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg lamented that the candidates were debating about Cold War-era policies.
“This is not about what coups happened in the 1970s and 80s, this is about the future,” Buttigieg said.
Sanders’ comments about the Castro regime could play a large role in how he fares in Florida’s March 17 primary.
Sanders' socialist identification and his willingness to praise leftist regimes have given his Democratic opponents ammunition to question his electability in a state with a large Cuban-American population that remains fiercely skeptical of leftist governments.
In Florida, where Hispanics account for nearly one in every five voters, that skepticism could present a major hurdle for Sanders in the state's primary, and for Democrats hoping to win Florida's 29 electoral votes in November.
According to an Associated Press survey, about a third of Cuban American midterm voters identified as Democrats.
However, Democrats hardly have a lock on that vote in battleground Florida, particularly among the nearly 2 million Floridians of Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan origin.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.