A former political prisoner held by Cuba says that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders defended the country's communist regime when he visited him in prison.
Sanders was part of a congressional delegation that traveled to Cuba in 2014 and visited American prisoner Alan Gross. Gross told NPR Wednesday that Sanders defended the totalitarian country holding him hostage and said to him, "I don't know what's so wrong with this country."
Gross, who was released later that year as part of a prisoner exchange, says that he had a pleasant conversation with the other members of the delegation, former senator Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) and Senator Jon Tester (D., Mont.). Sanders was mostly quiet during the visit, but toward the end of the one-hour meeting, he pitched in with his defense of Cuba.
"I just think, you know, it was a stupid thing for him to do," Gross says. "First, how could he not see the incredible deterioration of what was once the grandeur of the pre-Castro era. And two, how could he be so insensitive to make that remark to a political hostage—me!"
A source close to Heitkamp told NPR that the former senator remembered that Sanders "seemed to disregard the meeting with Gross" and that there was an uncomfortable exchange, but she doesn't remember the exact words. Tester told NPR he doesn't recall the conversation.
Gross, who was convicted on trumped-up espionage charges after he provided communications equipment to the local Jewish population, alluded to his experience in a 2016 Politico interview. "I had the impression that Bernie didn't see that there was so much wrong with the country that he was visiting," he said, before backtracking and adding, "He didn't say so much as that."
Gross now says that he backtracked his remarks to Politico because he didn't want to cause a stir—at the time Sanders was in a heated presidential primary with Hillary Clinton. "I wanted to soften the blow at the time because I didn't really think it was all that relevant to what we were talking about for the podcast," he told NPR.
The newly revealed Sanders comments come after the Vermont senator faced intense criticism for defending the Cuban regime in a 60 Minutes interview, saying it was "unfair to simply say that everything is bad" in Cuba and praising late dictator Fidel Castro's "literacy program."