Fidel’s death a reminder of the special Canada-Cuba bond

Trudeau’s unabashed praise of the late Cuban leader reflects a special relationship between the two countries — one that needs reinforcing as Cuba faces a period of great change.

By: /
November 29, 2016
castro death
People stand in line to pay tribute to Cuba's late President Fidel Castro in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Several years ago, I spent time in Havana preparing a report on Cuba for the international democracy project I then headed, and wrote this piece for The New York Times to try to capture the ambivalence of Cubans about their Comandante Fidel.

 My mother, an American, grew up in Havana, leaving at 21. She knew first-hand the history of U.S. abuse of Cuban sovereignty over time. Later, U.S. Cold War priorities drove Americans to favour the anti-communist, mafia-friendly dictator Fulgencio Batista over human rights. But when Castro visited the U.S. in 1959 not long after ousting the venal and dictatorial Batista regime, he was given rock-star treatment by applauding American crowds. Their imagination and adulation had been captured by his brand of revolution — not yet tainted with anti-U.S. sentiments and overt communism. 

However, Castro's harsh steps to "drain the swamp" (now ironically the refrain of the anti-Washington Tea Party) by several hundred executions of Batista's thugs at La Cabana fortress signalled a vengeful kind of militancy that would drive away many middle-class Cubans and also drain American goodwill, especially after Castro championed violent revolution throughout the hemisphere.

Castro’s commitment to violent revolution pretty much died in Bolivia with Che Guevara in 1967. His devotion to lifting education and health standards of all Cubans, while defying U.S. attempts to oust and even kill him, incited their collective pride. They nonetheless struggled against a grim economic and political system.

In the end, younger Cubans chafed in their isolation from opportunity. Dissent was harshly punished. Real change would need to await Castro’s final exit from their lives.

Now it has happened, and how Cuba will change will be up to Cubans. It would have been easier, probably, if the U.S.-Cuba thaw Barack Obama launched could have been completed, but Donald Trump can't turn it off now, despite the ideological throwbacks in South Florida and the likes of Ted Cruz.

That they and a few Canadian sound-alikes slammed Justin Trudeau's too-rosy eulogy of Fidel as "shameful" in its omission of regret for his constriction of human rights was inevitable. But Trudeau was closer to Canadian opinion than they are, though he could be better served by advisors more attuned to the need for textual nuance. 

Fidel Castro was an extraordinary Cuban patriot who took a hard and harsh line on civil liberties but whose sense of global economic injustice still resonates today around the world. He also went out of his way to support Canada's extraction from our existential crisis in 1970 over the FLQ, which helps explain the bond he had with Pierre Trudeau.

Canadians have always been welcome in Cuba. Now our friendship needs to support the success of their transition. The regime has cautiously softened and lightened its grip, releasing political prisoners of conscience, but is wary about the pace and extent of change. We need to hope that as Cubans choose to build their democratic potential, they will manage to retain their civility and communitarian engagement as their island opens up to influences from outside, both liberating and damaging.

As Cubans look toward el Norte they will find that Canadians have much to offer, including the example of a working and inclusive democracy whose image is less tarnished than others in the neighbourhood. In return, we can discover the merits of partnership with one of the world's most wonderful peoples.