MIAMI, Fla. – Like many young voters in Florida, Jared Machado is concerned about rising sea levels, college tuition and landing a job when he graduates from the University of Florida in a few months. But the political science and history major can't ignore how his father and grandparents came to the United States: as refugees fleeing communist Cuba.
As he considers his options for president in Florida's March 17 primary, Machado was disappointed and disturbed when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, seemed to praise former Cuba dictator Fidel Castro in a recent interview.
“He doesn't understand the traumatizing experience endured by the Cuban people," said Machado, 22, whose grandparents left the island more than a half century ago, carrying his father, then just a few months old.
Making inroads into Latino communities has been a priority among Democrats and Republicans alike — and Sanders' big win in the Nevada caucuses Saturday demonstrated his progress toward that goal. But the 78-year-old senator's remarks, aired Sunday as the candidate was still celebrating, may also show where Sanders' outreach hits a speed bump.
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.
“Candidates need to understand our immigrant communities’ shared stories, as well as provide solutions to issues that matter to all Floridians," Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said Monday.
During an interview aired Sunday on the CBS news program “60 Minutes," Sanders said he opposes Cuba's authoritarian regime but “it's unfair to simply say everything is bad.”
He went on to say: “You know, when Castro came in office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing, even if Fidel Castro did it?
A Sanders spokesman on Monday downplayed the controversy.
“Senator Sanders has clearly and consistently criticized Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism and condemned his human rights abuses, and he's simply echoing President Obama’s acknowledgment that Cuba made progress, especially in education,” said the spokesman, Mike Casca.
During a CNN town hall on Monday night, Sanders forcefully stood by his comments, saying he'd criticized “authoritarian regimes all over the world," including Cuba, Nicaragua and Saudi Arabia, But he added that, after Castro took power in 1959, “the first thing he did” was initiate a literacy program.
“I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing,” Sanders said on CNN, adding: “That is a fact. End of discussion.”
Pressed about congressional Democrats from Florida who have criticized him as too sympathetic to Castro, Sanders shot back, “All of those congresspeople just so happen to be supporting other candidates — accidentally, no doubt.”
His rivals seized on the unforced error to deepen questions about his ability win support in November among independents and Hispanic voters in Florida, particularly those whose families escaped repressive regimes.
“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,” former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg tweeted Monday afternoon. “But sure, Bernie, let's talk about his literacy program.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, arguably the most prominent Cuban American in the country, also railed against his Senate colleague from Vermont.
While democratic socialism might sound benign, Rubio said in a video that he tweeted, at the core it's Marxism and “this fake offer” of security, free healthcare and education.
The state Democratic party has hired scores of Spanish-speaking staffers to fan out into Hispanic communities in preparation for November. Republicans widely view Florida as a must-win state for President Donald Trump and Democrats are determined to force him into an expensive fight to defend it.
Nationally, two-thirds of Hispanic voters casting ballots in 2018 supported Democratic candidates for the U.S. House, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters. In Florida, only 53% favored Democratic House candidates.
And Cuban Americans in Florida were more likely to support Republicans than other Hispanic voters, 56% to 42%.
According to the AP 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.
In 2018, Republican Ron DeSantis narrowly won Florida's governor's mansion. While more than two-fifths of Florida Latinos voters favored DeSantis overall, a clear majority of Cuban American voters — 57% — cast their support for the Republican.
Critics say Sanders needs to more strongly disavow Cuba and other authoritarian regimes.
“It’s not just about Cuban American voters, it’s Hispanic voters as well, many of whom would never consider voting for an avowed socialist ...," said Fernand Amandi, a Cuban American pollster based in Miami.
Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history and Latino studies at Northwestern University, says Sanders must address his stance on left-wing governments, such as when he traveled to Nicaragua to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution with Daniel Ortega.
“He is in a bit of a difficult spot trying to figure out how to answer these questions,” said Cadava, who wrote a book about how the Republican party has rallied Hispanics.
For the past decade, Cadava says, Democrats have courted the younger generation of Cuban-Americans, seeing that more new voters in the Miami area register as independent.
Machado, the University of Florida student, is among them.
Until the Florida primaries arrive, he said, he remains undecided — even if he's currently leaning toward supporting former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Machado comes from a politically split household, the product of a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father.
“My parents definitely vote, but they split between Democrat and Republican,'” he said. “That's how you get a centrist child like me."
Calvan reported from Tallahassee, Florida. Associated Press reporters Hannah Fingerhut in Washington and Will Weissert in Houston contributed to this report.