“It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President. Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century.
A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation. While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for ‘El Comandante’.
On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.”
Although the death of Fidel Castro last month has triggered vivid reactions worldwide, none of them have sparked quite so much controversy and criticism as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement praising the late Cuban leader. Journalists and political figures alike, both in Canada and abroad, have had a tremendous time slamming Justin Trudeau, pointing out his blatant disregard of the communist leader’s violation of human rights and disrespect of democracy. They found his speech to be an awkwardly heartfelt message to a man who monopolized the presidency for 47 years, ruthlessly restricted freedom of speech and executed many whose views did not fit his own.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants to the US and openly against the US rapprochement with Cuba, tweeted that the statement was “shameful and embarrassing”, while others, such as Jonathan Kay, Canadian journalist and editor-in-chief of The Walrus, accused Trudeau’s speech of showing “naïve campus leftism”.
Is this a real statement or a parody? Because if this is a real statement from the PM of Canada it is shameful & embarrassing. https://t.co/lFXeqU7Ws0
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) November 26, 2016
However, Justin Trudeau and his team mustn’t have been oblivious to the turmoil such a statement could cause. The statement might indeed stem from the more than cordial diplomatic relations between Canada and Cuba, and the friendship between the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, and his counterpart, Fidel Castro.
A diplomatic and personal history
Canada first established diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1945. It was the first country in the Caribbean selected by Canada to locate a diplomatic mission. Along with Mexico, Canada was the only country in the world to maintain uninterrupted relations with Cuba following the 1959 Revolution.
The diplomatic ties were strengthened in the 1970s after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, following the normalization of relations with China, paid a historic visit to the Cuban leader in 1976. This enthusiasm was however not shared with the Canadian public opinion at the time, and Pierre Trudeau was harshly criticized for his move.
“I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba,” the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in his speech after Fidel Castro’s death.
Justin Trudeau’s message is seen by many as warm farewell to a late family friend. After 1976, Pierre Trudeau and Fidel Castro developed a close personal relationship, and despite important ideological differences and disagreements, particularly regarding Cuba’s involvement in Angola, had great respect for one another. Fidel Castro became one of Pierre Trudeau’s closest friends, and was even a pallbearer at his funeral in 2000. Is it then sentimentalism from the Trudeau family’s past that slipped into last week’s press release?
A special diplomatic relationship
Cuba is today the third most popular destination for Canadians. Cuba and Canada share a relationship built on collaboration in a wide range of sectors including government, business, NGOs and the civil society as a whole. Areas of collaboration include climate change, gender equality, regional safety and security, and commercial and economic relations.
On the website of the Canadian embassy in Cuba, several such initiatives developed and/or supported by Canada are outlined. These range from a food security programme soon to be implemented by the UN Development Program, to the construction of an International Development Research Centre (IDRC) aiming to multiply research partnerships between the two countries in various areas such as climate change, agriculture and economic growth.
Canada, Cuba and the USA, an explosive cocktail?
When Russian nuclear missiles were discovered in Cuba in 1962, the then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker resisted John F. Kennedy’s urge to put the Canadian military on high alert, creating unease in Washington.
Relations between the US and Canada were already strained at the time. Diefenbaker lamented the growing influence of the US in Canada and the dissolving links with Britain following the plan for joint continental air defence (NORAD) signed in 1958 and the Canada-US Defence Production Sharing Program, agreed upon the year after. What is more, the two leaders were not extremely fond of each other, and when Canada refused nuclear arms for Canada, Diefenbaker was outright accused by of not carrying out commitments. By 1967, Canadians had become increasingly hostile to US foreign policy, especially in Southeast Asia. Nationalistic initiatives demanded that American cultural influence in Canada be significantly reduced.
Tensions went on under Ronald Reagan and Pierre Trudeau, whose views on international affairs diverged significantly. However, the election of Conservatives in 1984 marked a reconciliation with the US, and by 1995 trade had grown exponentially between the two countries. Although the disagreements on foreign policy during the Cold War did not eventually lead to a full blown confrontation, Canada’s stance showed the US that it would not blindly back up its Southern neighbour nor undergo political integration.
Will the recent US election have an effect on the Canada-Cuba relationship? On November 15, during his stay in La Havana, Justin Trudeau clearly stated, “election results in the United States won’t change the strong relationship that is a friendship and a partnership between Canada and Cuba.” This was probably an answer to Donald Trump’s statement that: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”. Cuba might yet again play a central role in the US-Canada relationship.
Is all this fuss really necessary?
Justin Trudeau did not express regret for the tone of his statement. But when publicly asked whether Fidel Castro had been a dictator a few days later, after a brief silence, he simply replied: “Yes”. Taking a more careful stance so as to avoid further criticism, he decided to skip Castro’s funeral. Did his statementdeserve so much attention? So much indeed, that a hashtag #TrudeauEulogies appeared on Twitter, with people making eulogies of criminals in Trudeau’s style.
« While a controversial figure, John WIlkes Boothe will be remembered as a lover of the theatre » #trudeaueulogies
— Mark Johnson (@MW_Johnson1) 26 novembre 2016
Such interest in what the Canadian Prime Minister has to say might mean Canada is now worthy of attention on the international stage. But it is also, in a way, a display of hypocrisy from other western nations. Last year, the passing of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, leader of another authoritarian regime, was not greeted with such relief as Castro’s death. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, after expressing his condolences to his family and the government of Saudi Arabia, said “King Abdullah made major contributions to the development of the Kingdom. Under his leadership over many decades in different high-level positions in Government, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia achieved remarkable progress and prosperity for its people.” Many others, including Obama and David Cameron, publicly paid tribute to the late Saudi King. Abdullah’s family, known as the House of Saud, has been on the throne since 1932, elections even at the municipal level being extremely rare, and corruption high. Of course, Cuba is nearly not as of strategic and economic value as Saudi Arabia, so why would anyone need to hold their tongues?
The Prime Minister of one of the most peaceful and tolerant countries in the world could indeed have chosen his words more carefully when mourning the loss of the Cuban leader. But the criticism, coming in large part from the Canadian Conservative party and the Republican party in the US, seems more targeted towards the liberal government than towards the lack of acknowledgement of the violation of human rights in Trudeau’s statement.