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Trudeau chose family first, but Ottawa’s Castro policy has always been ambivalent

By Paul Wells      

A prime minister who claims to prize evidence-based policy was caught putting family connections ahead of the exhaustively documented abuses of a man whose death marks a crucial step in his own people's long-delayed march toward freedom.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Cuba in November 2016 and meets with Fidel Castro's brother, and now president, Raúl Castro. Photograph courtesy of Adam Scotti

I want to talk about the rest of Canada’s weird, hesitant relationship with Cuba. But first, since I’m just getting to it now, a few words about Justin Trudeau and Fidel Castro.

We haven’t seen Justin Trudeau mourn like this since his dad died. In expressing his “deep sorrow” at the death of Castro, a “larger than life” figure whom Trudeau lauded as “a legendary orator”—sorry, let’s just pause right there. Legendary orator? On Sept. 26, 1960, Castro addressed the United Nations General Assembly for 4.5 hours, a record unchallenged to this day in the most boring room on earth. In Havana, he spoke for 7.5 hours. Calling Castro a great orator is like calling porn legend Ron Jeremy a romantic: it confuses volume with quality.

Onward. Trudeau lauded Castro’s “tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people,” whose speech and dietary protein Castro rationed, by law, for decades. I guess it was tough love.

To be sure, Trudeau balanced his praise with criticism. “During Castro’s rule, thousands of Cubans were incarcerated in abysmal prisons, thousands more were harassed and intimidated, and entire generations were denied basic political freedoms,” the prime minister wrote. Just kidding! No, that last quote isn’t from Justin Trudeau at all. It’s from Human Rights Watch. As for the PM, in a communiqué overflowing with praise for Castro, he could find room for only one word about the Cuban dictator’s human rights record: “controversial.”

Nor can the PM’s defenders long sustain the notion that his statement must have been penned by some careless lackey in the Prime Minister’s Office.

No, the communiqué is too solidly in line with the entire Trudeau family’s record on the man to be anything but an honest reflection of Justin Trudeau’s thought.

Castro was a pallbearer at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral. The PM’s brother Alexandre Trudeau wrote in this newspaper a decade ago that Castro was “something of a superman,” whose “intellect is one of the most broad and complete that can be found.” Alexandre Trudeau wrote that he “grew up knowing that Fidel Castro had a special place among my family’s friends,” even if ordinary Cubans “do occasionally complain, often as an adolescent might complain about a too strict and demanding father.”

One notes family similarities in prose style.

So a prime minister who claims to prize evidence-based policy was caught putting family connections ahead of the exhaustively documented abuses of a man whose death marks a crucial step in his own people’s long-delayed march toward freedom.

But the rest of us—we cold and bashful Canadians—will probably continue to watch Cuba as we have for decades, unsure or divided in our response to events in the land Fidel Castro leaves behind.

Exhibit A in the theatre of ambivalence is Justin Trudeau’s predecessor. Stephen Harper met Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and still the president of Cuba, only 19 months ago, attending what would be Harper’s last Summit of the Americas in Panama City. The two men sat smiling awkwardly at each other in hard-backed chairs next to a little round table.

But reporters covering the summit had to find the photo on the website of Granma, the official Cuban Communist newspaper. Canadian reporters weren’t told of the meeting by Harper’s staff until they found proof of it on the Castro family’s propaganda website.

At his summit-closing news conference, Harper said that for Canada and Cuba, “we’re at a point where engagement is more likely to lead us to where we want to go than continued isolation.” He said he and Raúl Castro had discussed the two nations’ “important and long-standing relationship. It’s a political relationship, a tourist relationship and commercial relationship to some degree—one that we want to expand.”

True, Harper managed to resist marvelling at Fidel Castro’s charm, oratorical skill, grasp of physics or deep-diving skills, further evidence, if any were needed, that he’s no Trudeau.

But Harper’s meeting with Cuba’s president—only three years after he had blocked Cuban participation at the previous Summit of the Americas—was of a piece with his decision to let Canada be the venue for crucial secret meetings between the Castro regime and the administration of U.S. president Barack Obama.

In both cases, Harper was more eager to get along with the Cubans than to be seen getting along with them.

Why advertise the thaw? A million Canadians a year visit Cuba to enjoy gorgeous beaches and groaning buffets at all-inclusive resorts from which most Cubans remain banned. One winter more than a decade ago, I was one of them. But millions more refuse, even today, to make the trip, believing each dollar they spend will help prop up a corrupt regime.

Probably, most Canadians not named Trudeau have long known that Cubans did not have the government Canadians would want for them—and, indeed, not the government Cubans would choose, were they granted the freedom to change their minds about the revolution. But that knowledge doesn’t tell us which mix of engagement and isolation is wisest.

Most Canadian leaders have fallen back on a policy of doing a little less than the Americans. It’s a deeply unsatisfying policy. John Diefenbaker resisted putting Canadian forces on a war footing during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Harper let Obama decide on a change in stance, providing only conference facilities and plausible deniability.

Having blown some political capital by saying what he thinks, Trudeau is now going to skip Fidel Castro’s funeral. It’s a retreat to ambivalence dictated by a public outcry that must have astonished the prime minister, who grew up with a photo of Fidel Castro in his family’s home and thought, perhaps, that everybody does.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column usually appears WednesdayFriday and Saturday.

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