I don’t pretend to know all the details of Justin Trudeau’s relationship with Fidel Castro, but I know it was significantly more than political. Canada’s PM is under fire for his eulogy of Castro. Critics are suggesting Trudeau glossed over the fact that Cuba is a totalitarian state and that Fidel Castro was a brutal dictator. It’s true that he killed his opponents and suppressed basic human rights in Cuba. But he also became a father figure to the Cuban people, and probably for the Trudeau family too.
I come to that conclusion based on the behaviour I witnessed 16 years ago at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral in Montreal.
If you look at this picture from that day you’ll see Fidel Castro about to embrace Justin Trudeau. Look again and you’ll see a man in the top right of the picture. That’s me. Cameraman Kirk Duncan and I were covering the funeral for Vancouver Television, (Later to become CTV).
I remember that moment well. Castro was a prominent figure in the news during my childhood.
He was the rebel communist who caused a nuclear crisis between the US and the Soviet Union, as the world watched and trembled. More than 30 years later there he was, only a meter or so away. He interacted with Justin and his mother in ways suggesting a relationship far deeper than just a diplomatic friendship. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but Castro’s words appeared to have an impact on both Justin and Margaret Trudeau. His hugs were of the sort you’d see administered by a close family friend or an uncle. Former US President Jimmy Carter was there too, and I didn’t see the same sort of chemistry.
So, given Justin Trudeau’s relationship with the dictator, was it appropriate to gloss over Castro’s bloody past? Yes. In fact I’d say it would have been hypocritical for Trudeau to do anything else.
I have a cousin who was a tough guy, an enforcer if you like, who at times was hired to remind certain people that it is always a good idea to pay back what you owe. But when he died a few years ago I certainly didn’t get up and remind people that my gregarious cousin also had a knack for intimidation. That was only part of his persona, a part I didn’t approve of but I still loved him. That’s not to say the people who were hurt by my cousin were sad to see him go. The same can be said about Castro.
And now lets talk briefly about hypocrisy….a tweet from Mike Pence:
Mike Pence (@mike_pence)
2016-11-26, 8:59 AM
The tyrant #Castro is dead. New hope dawns. We will stand with the oppressed Cuban people for a free and democratic Cuba. Viva Cuba Libre!
This sort of tweet from the Vice President elect of the United States has been pretty common since Castro died. Would Pence be saying that if Xi Jingping died? Xi is the President of China, a country that has a human rights record at least as bad as Cuba’s. In recent months Xi has been consolidating power in China. Analysts suggest he now has more power than any Chinese leader since Mao. Yet Canada and countless other countries are eager to do business with China. Justin Trudeau just visited the country, because the market matters more than the politics. I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago as the government of Mainland China took steps to disqualify duly elected Hong Kong officials from taking their legislative seats. (Its a long story, you can read more here)
I could point to other examples.
These days, politics and business have embraced a philosophy of relativism. We descend into hypocrisy when there is tough talk on human rights and then a trade off using a “greater good” argument: “They don’t have free speech, can’t vote in open elections, and don’t have freedom of mobility but if we do business with them it will enrich their lives, and ours.” Its a specious argument but a common one.
I’m not sure that calculation played into what Justin Trudeau said about Fidel Castro. Probably not. Canada’s prosperity isn’t tied tied to Cuba, and that fact is unlikely to change. I believe Trudeau’s praise for the dictator emanated from knowing the man, a grizzled traveller who was there when he needed a hug.
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