“As a Democrat, I don’t want to be explaining why our nominee is encouraging people to look on the bright side of the Castro regime going into the election of our lives,” Buttigieg, 38, said at a CNN townhall in South Carolina.
Sanders, 78, said during a recent interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” that it was “unfair to simply say everything is bad” about Castro’s regime.
“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.
He also said he is “very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba” and, after being prompted, said that he condemns Cuba for imprisoning dissidents.
The back-and-forth stemmed from the self-described socialist’s praise of communist governments decades ago, including claims he made about why Cubans didn’t help the United States overthrow Castro. “He educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society, you know?” Sanders said in the 1980s. He was presented with his remarks on “60 Minutes.”
Buttigieg earlier hit Sanders for his qualified praise of Castro, writing on Twitter: “After four years of looking on in horror as Trump cozied up to dictators, we need a president who will be extremely clear in standing against regimes that violate human rights abroad. We can’t risk nominating someone who doesn’t recognize this.”
Other rivals also challenged Sanders on his remarks. “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,” former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote in a statement.
Sanders also had a town hall on Monday and stood by his comments about Castro.
“There were a lot of folks in Cuba at that point who were illiterate. He formed the literacy brigade,” Sanders said. “[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.”
Sanders also praised the Chinese Communist Party, which is responsible for tens of millions of deaths.
Sanders dismissed criticism from members of Congress, including multiple Democrats, claiming at least some of them “just so happen to be supporting other candidates.”
Reps. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) were among the lawmakers pushing back against Sanders’ praise of Castro.
Mucarsel-Powell called the comments “absolutely unacceptable,” adding in a statement that the Castro regime “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.”
Shalala said that she hoped Sanders would speak to some of her constituents “before he decides to sing the praises of a murderous tyrant like Fidel Castro.”
Some 1.7 million Cubans live in the United States as of the 2010 U.S. Census. According to Pew, that figure rose to 2.3 million as of 2017. Sixty-six percent of Cubans in the United States live in Florida.
Sanders has previously praised other regimes, including that of Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega and the former Soviet Union, where he traveled on his honeymoon.
Different groups try to tally the numbers of people who were killed by Castro’s regime but struggle to get accurate numbers because Cuba doesn’t make public much information that can be used.
“I can tell you that 2 million Cubans live outside Cuba, I can tell you that in the last 10 years, there have been nearly 18,000 political detainees,” Carlos Ponce, the director of the Latin American and Caribbean division of the human-rights group Freedom House, told the Miami Herald in 2016.
“How many in jail since 1959? How many executed? How many lost at sea? I can’t even guess.”