After Sanders's praise for Castro, Cuban-Americans like him even less

MIAMI — A strong Latino outreach effort helped propel Bernie Sanders to victory in the Nevada caucuses, and the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is likely to help him with Puerto Ricans, but the self-described democratic socialist faces an uphill battle among another Hispanic demographic, the mostly conservative Cuban-American population in South Florida — especially after he committed the political heresy of praising Fidel Castro on “60 Minutes” Sunday.

 “Bernie Sanders here is dead in the water,” Emiliano Antunez, a Cuban-American political strategist, told Yahoo News, speaking outside the Versailles Cuban restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana, a famous local spot for talking politics. “And he’d be literally dead if he showed up — they’d probably run him over.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

Cuban-Americans register Republican over Democratic by a substantial margin, although the figures are heavily skewed by age: 76 percent to 7 percent among those older than 75, 35 percent to 23 percent in the under-40 cohort. Antunez, who was born in the U.S. to parents who fled Cuba, said he believes most would support President Trump in the general election, and among Democrats probably favor Michael Bloomberg over Sanders. Antunez himself would never vote for the Vermont senator, the most liberal candidate in the race.

Emiliano Antunez, local political strategist with Dark Horse Strategies, in Miami on Monday. (Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

It may not matter much to Sanders’s chances in Florida’s March 17 primary, which is “closed,” meaning only registered Democrats can vote to choose their party’s nominee. But Cuban-Americans are an important constituency in the general election, which will decide who gets Florida’s 29 electoral votes. About 700,000 residents of Miami-Dade County, roughly a quarter of the total population, were born in Cuba.

The outrage over Sanders’s remarks obscured what he actually said, which coupled praise for Castro’s social programs with condemnation of the Communist regime’s oppressive police-state policies.

“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 said. “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?”

When interviewer Anderson Cooper noted the number of political dissidents imprisoned by the Castro regime, Sanders responded, “That’s right. And we condemn that.”

“Unlike Donald Trump, let’s be clear, you want to — I do not think that Kim Jong Un is a good friend,” the senator added, referencing the president’s affinity for foreign strongman leaders. “I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator. Vladimir Putin, not a great friend of mine.”

Sanders’s comments echo those President Barack Obama made to Castro, which he recounted in a 2016 town hall in Argentina.

“And I said this to President Castro in Cuba. I said, ‘Look, you’ve made great progress in educating young people,’” said Obama. “Every child in Cuba gets a basic education — that’s a huge improvement from where it was. Medical care — the life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to the United States, despite it being a very poor country, because they have access to health care. That’s a huge achievement. They should be congratulated.”

Ricardo Pedreguera, who told Yahoo News he immigrated to the United States in 1966 after Castro took over his family’s shoe factory, said he believed Sanders would make Americans poor. 

“Who the hell is going to pay for the things he’s promising?” said Pedreguera at Domino Park in Little Havana. “Do you know what the American dream is now? Disability. Everybody wants everything for free.” 

Domino Park in the Little Havana section of Miami. (Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Pedreguera said he was a Republican who supported Trump and believed he would win in November. His views were shared by Jorge Luis Iparraguirre, a Cuban-American who spoke to Yahoo News in Spanish outside the Café Versailles. Iparraguirre, a lifelong Republican, calls Trump the best president in U.S. history. Of Democrats, he said, “They’re all Communists, but Bernie Sanders is the worst.” 

Democratic officeholders with large Cuban-American constituencies took pains to distance themselves from Sanders. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a freshman Democrat who flipped a GOP district in South Florida in 2018, said Sanders’s comments were “unacceptable.”

“As the first South American immigrant member of Congress who proudly represents thousands of Cuban-Americans, I find Senator Bernie Sanders’s comments on Castro’s Cuba absolutely unacceptable,” said Mucarsel-Powell via Twitter. “The Castro regime murdered and jailed dissidents and caused unspeakable harm to too many South Florida families. To this day, it remains an authoritarian regime that oppresses its people, subverts the free press and stifles a free society.”

“I’m hoping that in the future, Sen. Sanders will take time to speak to some of my constituents before he decides to sing the praises of a murderous tyrant like Fidel Castro,” said Rep. Donna Shalala, another freshman Democrat who flipped a Miami-area seat.

Café Versailles in the Little Havana section of Miami. (Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Bloomberg, who’s made a strong push in the Sunshine State, also hit Sanders on his comments via his campaign’s Twitter account, saying, “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. But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program.”

The Sanders campaign is aware that its chances of making inroads with older Cubans are slim. Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser who has spearheaded its Latino outreach, said it would focus on younger Cubans in Florida, as well as other Spanish-speaking constituencies.

“We’re going to go talk to Cubans,” said Rocha in an interview with Yahoo News last week. “We may not talk to old-school, older Cubans … but there’s their kids and really their grandkids, they get Bernie Sanders. They like Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Sanders is popular. We don’t need all the Cubans. I just want part of the Cubans. And all of the Puerto Ricans, all the Mexicans in Tampa Bay, I know where they are. Like I’ve done this work, but other presidential campaigns’ woke white consultants won’t know how to do that piece, and they’ll go down and put Mexican Spanish on TV in Miami and check the box and say they’ve done Latino outreach.”

Hunter Walker contributed reporting to this story

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