Fidel Castro has been haunting American politicians for decades. Now it’s Bernie Sanders’ turn.

During Tuesday night’s presidential primary debate in South Carolina, Sanders, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, was blasted by his rivals over comments he made in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday praising literacy rates on the Caribbean island following Castro’s 1959 Cuban revolution.

Pressed by CBS moderators on his past “sympathies” for socialist regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua, Sanders defended himself, saying he’s condemned authoritarian regimes across the world. He said he was repeating talking points used by former President Barack Obama during a 2016 appearance in Havana.

“Of course you have a dictatorship in Cuba. What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba, that Cuba made progress in terms of education,” Sanders said, drawing boos from the audience. “Really?”

Sanders’ controversial remarks about Cuba — which he reiterated Monday night during a CNN town hall and again Tuesday — have infuriated Florida Democrats, particularly those in Miami representing massive exile communities. And the remarks have given his opponents an opening to attack him as the self-described Democratic socialist threatens to pull away from the field.

“We are certainly not going to win by reliving the Cold War,” Pete Buttigieg said, warning that a Sanders nomination would doom down-ballot Democrats and hand unilateral control of the federal government to the Republican Party. “And we are not going to win these critical, critical House and Senate races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime.”

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Sanders pivoted back to his core policy ideas in response.

“Do we think healthcare for all, Pete, is some kind of radical, communist idea?” Sanders asked.

Despite the heavy criticism, Sanders has not shied away from his remarks on “60 Minutes,” where he said, “You know, 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?”

He remained defiant during Tuesday’s debate, noting that the United States government has supported coups in other countries.

“Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy. And that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world, in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran — and when dictatorships, whether it’s the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that.”

Sanders also seemed to refer to Cuba’s current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, as a dictator. And he ripped former New York Mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg for saying that Chinese leader Ji Xinping isn’t a dictator because he is accountable to the Politburo.

But the audience booed when Sanders likened his words about Cuba to Obama’s. And former Vice President Joe Biden said the two men’s words were incomparable.

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“He in fact does not, did not and has never embraced an authoritarian regime and does not now,” Biden said of Obama.

Biden then inaccurately said that Sanders “did not condemn” atrocities committed by authoritarian regimes.

“I have condemned authoritarianism, whether it is the people in Saudi Arabia that the United States government has loved for years, Cuba and Nicaragua,” Sanders said. “Authoritarianism of any stripe is bad but that is different than saying that governments occasionally do things that are good.”

That Fidel Castro would posthumously serve as a flash point in a presidential debate in 2020 underscores the crushing longevity of the Cuban despot’s regime. Castro, who died in 2016, was mentioned dozens of times during the 1960 presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon following the 1959 Cuban revolution, which brought fears of communism 90 miles off the U.S. coastline.

“What’s remarkable to me is Fidel Castro has been dead for nearly four years and yet he’s still a subject in U.S. presidential elections,” said Michael Hernández, a Miami-based Cuban-American analyst and Democratic political consultant who says he will not vote for Sanders if he is the nominee.

Kennedy used Castro’s revolution as a cudgel to bludgeon Nixon, but would irrevocably change Cuban-Americans’ feelings toward the Democratic Party when his administration carried out the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Today, a majority of Cuban-Americans vote Republican, and Kennedy remains a reviled figure among older generations.

Democrats, particularly in Florida, are worried that Sanders will tie them to those feelings, especially as Republicans continue to push a years-long campaign to cast all Democrats as socialists. Many have ripped Sanders’ remarks about Castro, including Democratic U.S. Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, who Sanders falsely suggested have endorsed “other candidates.”

Tuesday night’s debate in Charleston comes days before the South Carolina primary, where Democrats like Sanders and Biden will try to show that their campaigns have appeal with African-American voters, who make up the majority of the Democratic electorate in the state. It is also three weeks before the March 17 Florida primary, in which roughly a quarter-million Democrats have already voted by mail.

Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, an attorney who once represented the family of Elián González, the Cuban boy who was forcibly returned to Cuba from Miami by the federal government after his mother died while fleeing across the Florida straits in 1999, said in an interview that Sanders, an independent, is “terrible for the party.”

“The part that really gets me is the whole revolution thing. Most of us that have come from the Western Hemisphere, we know what that means. It’s not a positive outcome,” said Diaz, who is now the Bloomberg campaign’s national political co-chairman.

“Bernie can’t help himself,” he said, adding: “Go back to Vermont.”

©2020 Miami Herald