Facts are under assault in 2020.

We can't fight back misinformation about the election and COVID-19 without you. Support trusted, factual information with a tax deductible contribution to PolitiFact

More Info

I would like to contribute

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during First in the South Dinner, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP0 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during First in the South Dinner, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP0

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during First in the South Dinner, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP0

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman March 2, 2020

Fact-checking Bernie Sanders’ comments about Florida Democrats who represent Cuban Americans

If Your Time is short

  • U.S. Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell have criticized U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders over his comments about Cuba.
  • Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell had not yet endorsed any presidential candidates.

  • Shalala donated to the campaigns of Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden​

Weeks before Florida’s March 17 primary, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders finds himself in hot water with some Democratic members of Congress over his comments about Cuba.

On "60 Minutes," Sanders said not everything Fidel Castro did was bad when he took power, singling out a literacy campaign. The criticism came fast, including from Florida’s Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and some prominent Democrats.

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo asked Sanders about the reaction in a town hall the next day: "Now Democratic members of Congress who represent Cuban Americans in Florida — obviously you've got to win there — they're attacking your comment as ‘absolutely unacceptable,’ singing the praises of a murderous tyrant. Response?" 

Sanders dismissed the criticism from fellow Democrats during their back and forth.

"By the way, all of those congresspeople that you mentioned just so happen to be supporting other candidates, just accidentally, no doubt, coincidentally," Sanders said.

Sanders claim suggests — but doesn’t specify names — that the members of Congress prefer other candidates. They do seem to prefer anyone but Sanders, but they haven’t made specific endorsements, and they’re officially neutral. 

It was easy to narrow down where the criticism was coming from. There are two Democratic congresswomen from South Florida who had tough words for Sanders, and both used just the words Cuomo described.

They are South Florida Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala.

Mucarsel-Powell called Sanders’ comments "absolutely unacceptable." 

Shalala tweeted, "I'm hoping that in the future, Senator 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."

div class='artembed'>

Featured Fact-check

In 2018, both women won Miami-Dade districts that were previously held by Republicans and face competitive contests this year. Both Shalala (District 27) and Mucarsel-Powell (District 26) represent districts that have a majority Hispanic population, and around 38% of the population is Cuban. 

RELATED: Fact-checking Bernie Sanders' claim on Cuba literacy under Castro

Shalala has donated to Sanders’ opponents

Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell have indicated that they are neutral in the primary. However, both have been skeptical about the possibility of Sanders becoming the party’s nominee. 

"He’s not going to be the nominee," Shalala told the Miami Herald in mid February when asked if she would campaign for Sanders should he win the nomination. "That’s a hypothetical question, and since I don’t think he’s going to be the nominee, I don’t have to answer the question."

Mucarsel-Powell was more forceful in her response to the Herald: "I’m seriously considering endorsing another candidate, that’s my answer to you."

A spokesman for Shalala said she will not endorse anyone until after the Florida primary. But she has not held back on donations.

FEC records show that Shalala gave $1,000 to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign in recent months, half in December and half in September. She also gave $500 to former Vice President Joe Biden in September.

In September 2019, both Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell appeared at a Biden campaign event for Latino voters in Little Havana, a Miami neighborhood. Shalala also attended events in Miami-Dade County for Klobuchar and Bloomberg. (Shalala has long-standing relationships with many Democrats. She was President Bill Clinton’s former Health and Human Services secretary.)

Mucarsel-Powell also has no plans to endorse and remains undecided, her spokesman told us. She has not made any donations to presidential candidates. 

Our ruling

Sanders said Democratic members of Congress who represent Cuban Americans in Florida "just so happen to be supporting other candidates."

Neither woman has endorsed a primary candidate. But they have not shown Sanders any primary love. On top of criticizing Sanders on Cuba, they have publicly cast doubt on whether they would support him as the Democratic nominee. And Shalala has donated $500 to Biden and $1,000 to Klobuchar. 

We rate Sanders claim is partially accurate but lacks important context. We rate it Half True.

Our Sources

CNN, Transcript, Feb. 24, 2020

U.S. Census, District 25, District 26, District 27, Accessed February 2020

Miami Herald, 'He's not going to be the nominee.' Miami's House Dems aren't considering Bernie, Feb. 14, 2020

Politico, Florida Democrats in uproar after Sanders’ Cuba comments, Feb. 24, 2020

WLRN, Biden Tries To Woo Latino Voters With Campaign Stop In Miami, Feb. 15, 2019

U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Tweet, Feb. 24, 2020

U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, Tweet, Feb. 23, 2020

Federal Election Commission, Donations by Donna Shalala, 2019-2020

PolitiFact, Fact-checking Bernie Sanders' claim on Cuba literacy under Castro, Feb. 24, 2020

Email interview, Raul Martinez, U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala campaign spokesman, Feb. 27, 2020

Email interview, Andrew Markoff, U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell campaign spokesman, Feb. 25, 2020

Telephone interview, Eduardo A. Gamarra, Florida International University political science professor, Feb. 25, 2020

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Amy Sherman

Fact-checking Bernie Sanders’ comments about Florida Democrats who represent Cuban Americans

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up