Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro and Donald Trump
I planned this morning to return to writing about the economy and Trump’s possible or likely contribution to a new economic financial collapse. However, one of the many responses to my blog on Justin Trudeau and Fidel Castro asked the following question:
“What would be the basis of the ‘love affair’ between the liberal PE Trudeau and the Marxist Castro? Their Jesuit upbringing? And that, literally in the shadow of the U.S. (for both) and during the cold war? This still sounds to me like defiance vis-à-vis the U.S. (but perhaps out of filial loyalty, rather than current calculations). Can you explain?”
I will add some partial notes to an attempted preliminary answer and explanation, in part because I want to draw out some comparisons between Pierre Trudeau and Donald Trump as a kind of introduction to the economic analysis I will undertake in my next blog. The comparison might seem very odd since Donald Trump, though he admires Putin, has only disdain for Fidel Castro and his brother, even though, when it was forbidden to do so, The Donald, in 1998 illegally under American law at the time, sent a team of his to investigate building a hotel and gambling casino in Havana, and this was well before this possibility of foreign investment in Cuba first opened up. His company spent $68,000 in Cuba illegally without the requisite U.S. treasury license.
Further, this offers me a chance to fill in some blanks. I had been intrigued about why Fidel Castro, a close personal friend of Pierre Trudeau and an honorary pallbearer at the latter’s funeral, had not granted Justin Trudeau an audience when Justin visited just a week or so earlier and when, just the day before, Castro had granted a visit to the leader of Vietnam. There had to be some serious explanation given Fidel Castro’s personal history with the Trudeau family. The explanation: Fidel was even sicker than anyone knew, for it is virtually impossible to imagine that he would not have wanted to see Justin given his personal connection to Justin’s father. After all, Fidel’s brother, Raúl, went out of the way to welcome Justin personally. Instead of a boring and very formal state dinner, Raúl took Justin and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau out to the Restaurante Café del Oriente in old Havana. It helped that Sophie was fluent in Spanish.
To demonstrate the close family connection, Justin Trudeau also met with three of Fidel’s sons where, as a present from the Cuban people and from the Castro family, Justin received a photo album of his father’s historic 1976 visit to Cuba and the adulation of the Cuban people for him. Remember, on that trip, Pierre had come with his wife, Margaret and his youngest son, Michel who was just under four months of age at the time. It was Michel who would years later die in an avalanche in British Columbia. The Justin Cuban visit had all kinds of nostalgia for Justin as it had in subsequent visits for his father. It just happened that many Cubans mistakenly thought that Justin was the grown-up Michel.
Professor Wright of Trent University (author of Three Nights in Havana) claimed that, “I had an impression that Justin was borrowing from his family’s history with Cuba to shore up the bilateral relationship.” I myself believe that the effort to pay “homage” to Pierre’s relationship with Cuba was not in service to advancing business interests, but was the real goal of the visit. Reinforcing family and the family connection came first. As Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to and an expert on Cuba, opined, the Trudeau family connection with the Castros is a matter of deep affection, but it will have no effect on advancing Canadian business interests which will have to succeed or fail on their own merits.
This strength in the family connection, within and between families, is the first comparison I want to make between Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Donald Trump. Despite all the business that each of Pierre’s and Donald’s business and public lives required, both were very devoted to their children. Donald Trump remains so. And their children adored their own fathers in return as Pierre had respected his own father and as Donald Trump had admired his own father. Parent to child links were and are very important in both families. Justin replied to Tom Mulcair’s criticisms of his father, “Let me say very clearly, I’m incredibly proud to be Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s son. “And I’m incredibly lucky to be raised with those Liberal values” According to Justin, Pierre taught his sons “to believe in ourselves, to stand up for ourselves, to know ourselves and to accept responsibility for ourselves.” Donald used very similar words in describing what his father, Fred, had taught him. All the children in the respective families were devastated at the death of their fathers. Pierre’s father died when he was only fifteen, and he was admittedly wracked by that death. In addition, both fathers bequeathed an inheritance on their sons, though Pierre’s was much less than Donald Trump’s and Justin’s was even smaller again (1.4 million). But the Trudeau boys were taught to be frugal while Donald Trump acquired a taste for ostentation.
Justin’s father’s Jesuit upbringing partially explains his lifelong attraction to dogmatic and absolutist rulers. Among those, Castro was his most important friend. Pierre was the first NATO leader after the Cuban revolution to visit Cuba. Pierre’s huge portrait hung at Havana airport when he arrived and a quarter million Cubans, who had been given the day off, packed the streets of Havana waving Canadian flags as the entourage made its way through the city. Unlike virtually all Central and South American countries, Canada along with Mexico were the only countries in North and South America not to break off relations with Cuba.
The largest source of tourists to Cuba comes from Canada, and that has always been the case through thick and thin. Currently Canada sends 100,000 tourists per year to Cuba but American tourism will soon overwhelm the Canadian contingent. But the big difference came when Pierre Elliot Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada. He and Castro formed a lasting bond. Pierre often took his family for holidays in Cuba. Pierre used to travel privately to Cuba and see Castro when there was no government business to do there. At home, Justin was passed this adoration of the Cuban leader by his father. After Pierre retired from politics, he continued to visit Cuba as a private citizen. Castro was not the only dictator Pierre felt he could do business with. His last international initiative was a visit to Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, the same dictator who was executed by his own people upon the overthrow of communism. Pierre in one of his flakiest efforts wanted to try to persuade Nicolae to partner with him in a joint effort to eliminate nuclear armaments totally.
Pierre first was elected Prime Minister of Canada on a wave of Trudeaumania. Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States, almost fifty years later, on a wave of Trumpomania, this time coming from the right reinforced by the so-called Reagan democrats. In the Canadian case, personality and not just populism – Diefenbaker had also been a quasi-populist – dominated the political scene in Canada. This is what just took place in America. In the case of Trudeau, an intellectual who was deeply devoted to ideas and abstract theory, reason presumably trumped passion. But not in the public arena. There, like Trump today, Trudeau made an instinctual connection with Canadians. They either loved or hated him. And Trudeau thrived in that public applause while, always at the same time demonstrating he was his own man and could flout convention. Does that not seem similar to Donald Trump?
John English, Pierre Trudeau’s biographer, also his admirer, credited Trudeau with holding Canada together against the forces of provincialism, separatism and disintegration. He made bilingualism official and it is impossible today to imagine that we would ever again have a leader who was not fluent in both official languages. But Trudeau overreached as was his want. The vision of most Canadians being bilingual or even being able to receive goods and services in French in British Columbia was a pipedream foisted on Canadians. Trudeau did repatriate the constitution, but only by alienating Quebec and without Quebec’s formal assent. Further, Canada in transforming itself into a country with a written constitution as its base also lost the flexibility of its informal foundations though, admittedly at a gain in clarity. As we move into the future, we will have to see whether the British historical foundations or the American legal foundations are more adaptable to the changing demands on a polity.
Trudeau also introduced the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but was the Prime Minister who most abused those rights and freedoms by imposing the War Measures Act in the face of two kidnappings and one murder by extremist Quebec separatists in the 1970 October Crisis. When Tom Mulcair in Parliament reminded Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister what his father had done, Justin became defensive and effusive in praise of his father just as he had launched his political career in 2000 with his emotional and very effective eulogy to his father at his father’s funeral. But in 1970, over five hundred Canadians were rounded up and imprisoned without charge or even the protection of Habeus Corpus. I could imagine Donald Trump doing the same. It is ironic, but perhaps not so ironic, that the terrorist killers were released from jail earlier provided that they accepted exile in Cuba.
In this regard, Pierre Trudeau is best known for his intellectual defence of federalism and the advantage of giving provinces semi-sovereign powers in areas that were closest to the desires and needs of the populace. But Pierre was a very strong defender of centralized power. Donald Trump is as well. He will not cede control of federal lands to states and believes that states cannot be trusted with administering federal lands. Their behaviour would be unpredictable. Pierre Trudeau alienated the West, and specifically Alberta by imposing federal control over the ownership and extraction of fossil fuels in his National Energy Policy (NEP). Donald Trump also sees energy policy as central to his administration and backs the continuation of drilling and fracking, including on federal lands, and rejects the efforts of some liberal states to promote renewable energy. Ironically, even in medical care, even with respect to Obamacare that he officially opposes, he would remove state barriers on insurance companies which, ironically, will allow a more centralized and unified medical care insurance system to emerge.
But isn’t Donald Trump an American firster – make America great again – and a hyper nationalist with isolationist propensities, while Pierre Trudeau was a cosmopolitan in support of free trade? I will go into that later when I deal with economic and foreign policy. But domestically, in terms of federalism, Donald Trump is a believer in a very strong central government. After security, the next two priorities for a Trump government will be education and health care, traditionally areas of state control. Even Pierre Trudeau never went that far in centralizing power in Ottawa. It will be ironic that the candidate most critical of the swamp in Washington will be the president that will most extend the reach of, and hence, bureaucracy in, the central government. On the issue of a federal state that shares sovereign powers with sub-states like provinces and American states, Trump will move even more power to Washington, perhaps more than any other president prior to his rule.
But Trudeau was a social democrat. Trump is a conservative Republican. But is he really? He is a populist primarily and will use the state to reinforce and strengthen his image in the eyes of the people. He may not pour his energies into a national energy policy – good for renewables – but he may very well throw money about on infrastructure, education and, ironically, even health. For though he denounced Obamacare as a bad system, he never denounced having a system that took care of the health of all Americans. A federal model of using money and spending to strengthen federal jurisdiction will make previous aims of former presidents seem totally modest in comparison.
Here again, Pierre was anti-nationalist and contended that nationalism evokes emotion and particularist obsessions, whereas cosmopolitanism builds its allegiances on a state serving and stressing the cohesion among all. For Trump, the all will be all Americans who follow and support him and thus a strong nationalism and a strong central government will be reinforcing. As with Pierre Trudeau, the rights of aboriginal nations will suffer under Donald Trump’s rule.
Pierre Trudeau undermined rather than advanced Canadian stability and its strength and presence in the world. While he ran as an intellectual federalist, he did more than any predecessor to undermine the federal nature of the Canadian polity. For Trudeau set a precedent for reducing the French role in the political life in Canada, not strengthening it. In terms of cultural presence, it was strengthened, but not in terms of political presence. Trump too will resist the tendency to advance multiculturalism through a political agenda and, especially resist the growth of the Hispanic community in the United States. After all, within two decades, America will have a larger percentage of Hispanics than Canada has of francophones. French may have been advanced under Trudeau but not the French political role. Culture is not politics. Trump too will more deliberately resist the growth of Hispanic culture as a political force. Of course, he will do the same for African Americans because he is a believer in the fact that an American is an American, full stop.
In foreign policy, Pierre Trudeau shuttled among many capitals to try to enhance Canada’s role and presence in the world continually shrank while he was Prime Minister even as he was cheered as a leader around the world in a way that Donald Trump will never be. I mentioned his flaky visit to Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania not long before his downfall to enlist his aid in dismantling the system of mutual deterrence using nuclear weapons. Pierre Trudeau was convinced that the Americans, and its president, were leading the world forward to nuclear destruction. But it was Ronald Reagan, openly despised by Trudeau, who made the treaty with the Soviets to get rid of 90% of the tools of massive nuclear destruction. Further, and more significantly in light of the current controversy over Justin’s eulogy to Fidel Castro. The latter was both the instigator for bringing nuclear arms into Cuba and believed that even if Cuba engaged in a nuclear war over Cuba, Cubans would gladly be incinerated to help destroy capitalism.
“First of all, Cuba would have burned in the fires of war. Without a doubt the Cuban people would have fought courageously but, also without a doubt, the Cuban people would have perished heroically. We struggle against imperialism, not in order to die, but to draw on all of our potential, to lose as little as possible, and later to win more, so as to be a victor and make communism triumph.” As Che Guevara put it, we are “a people prepared to suffer nuclear immolation so that its ashes may serve as a foundation for new societies. When an agreement was reached by which the atomic missiles were removed, without asking our people, we were not relieved or thankful for the truce; instead we denounced the move with our own voice.”
One major difference between Trudeau and Trump is that while the Soviet leaders ignored or at best patronized Pierre Trudeau, Donald Trump will be feted by the Russians. In the history of Canadian foreign relations, Pierre Trudeau was exemplary in undermining our commitments to our allies and we have never recovered from the political and defense devastation that he bequeathed to Canadians. NATO was weakened under Trudeau. So was the international Organization for Tariffs and Trade. Donald Trump will follow in Pierre’s footsteps in this regard and pay little attention to the consequences of his policies on traditional alliances, though, unlike Pierre Trudeau, Donald Trump is likely to go on a spending spree on the military, an area on which Trudeau was a skinflint. But as Pierre Trudeau demonstrated in the past, Donald Trump in the future will demonstrate an extraordinary indifference, not only to authoritarianism, but to totalitarianism and its spread in the rest of the world.
Pierre Trudeau avoided military service in WWII. Donald Trump managed to evade the draft and military service in the United States. While Donald Trump will spend lavishly on defence, he will not use that strength to really challenge Russia and China in their areas of prime interest. The Ukraine recognizes it is being abandoned further to the maws of the Russian bear. The Baltic states fear it. Signals have already been sent to Japan and Korea that they will be more on their own and cannot rely on Pax America.
Perhaps the closest resemblance between Donald Trump and Pierre Trudeau is their disdain for journalists and the media. Donald’s is so fresh in our memory, we need hardly be reminded of it. But we should recall that when Pierre Trudeau left office and rode off into the sunset in his antique convertible Mercedes, he turned Richard Nixon’s words on their head. Nixon, when he lost his campaign for the presidency in 1960, told the press that he would no longer be around to be picked on. Pierre when he left office chuckled and said that the media would no longer have him around to beat up on them. Asked if he had any regrets, Pierre replied, “Yes. I regret that I won’t have you to kick around anymore.”
But it is on the economy that Pierre Trudeau and Donald Trump really resemble one another most. Pierre was and Donald Trump is an economic ignoramus. Donald Trump will inherit an economy that is well on the path to recovery from the 2007-08 financial collapse, even though the recovery remains halting and far from setting the U.S. on a solid financial foundation. That was the case in Canada in the early sixties. Canada was then an economic powerhouse. But in Canada in 1979, a year when both the Tory and the Liberal governments provided extraordinary initiative in bringing refugees to Canada, the foundations for the 1979 recession were set in motion as well as for the disaster of 1989-1994 that was the worst economic period in Canada since the Great Depression. Pierre Trudeau bore the major responsibility. He increased the Canadian debt from 1968 to 1984 to $157.2 billion, a 738.7% increase. He would not introduce the requisite taxes to pay for the government’s expenditures, which tripled. Canada went through the worst period of inflation in its history. Interest rates became sky high. In fact, by 1993, Canada was even flirting with defaulting on our debt. As in the United States, the middle class was left with greater burdens as their effective salaries stagnated. Brian Mulroney, with all his faults, but mainly the Chretien government with Paul Martin as finance minister, brought Canada back from the brink.
I suggest we can expect the same from Donald Trump and I will subsequently try to show why. But I want to add another note of comparison, this time applicable to both Pierre and Justin as well as Donald Trump. All gained power, in spite of being underrated as underdogs when they pursued the leadership of their own respective parties and then the leadership of the country. I end with one further remark. Pierre Elliot Trudeau at the rally in Cuba in 1976 that I referred to above, shouted out, “Viva Castro.” Justin in November 2016 was simply reiterating the sentiments of his father.
With the extraordinary help of Alex Zisman