Justin Trudeau and Fidel Castro
I just cannot leave this alone. Perhaps it is partly a relief valve for my depression at the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. I am reluctant to write this because I generally like and approve of Justin’s efforts to date. But Justin Trudeau’s statement on Fidel Castro’s death has so appalled me that it keeps going over and over in my head.
Here is what Justin said:
“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’.
“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.
“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.”
Why deep regret? Why did Justin say that Castro had served his people when he was such a disservice to them? He certainly gave extraordinarily long speeches, but his public effusions were manipulative and full of lies and deceit. To call Castro a controversial figure is a euphemism of the worst type. He was ruthless. Clearly all the people did not have a “deep and abiding affection” for “El Comandante”. His opponents did not recognize that Fidel Castro had a deep and abiding love for the Cuban people. Neither do I. So why did Justin subscribe to that propaganda? And why was Justin’s father proud to call Fidel a friend? Did he have such unworthy choices of friends? Pierre visited Cuba in the very same year that Fidel Castro went on a rampage of locking up civil rights leaders and instigating “disappearances”. In any case, if Justin wants not only to acknowledge but eulogize Fidel when he did, he has no right to do so on behalf of all Canadians. Justin did not speak for many and possibly most Canadians when he misspoke.
If Stalin was remarkable, if Hitler was remarkable, if Mussolini was remarkable, if Putin remains remarkable, so too is Castro. If remarkable means worthy of attention, astonishing and astounding, then certainly. But remarkable has the connotation of being worthy of notice, not only for the outlandish deeds done, but for very positive accomplishments on the scales of worthiness. Castro was conspicuous and larger than life and, thus, extraordinary in some sense. But not to spell out or qualify one’s praise about such a ruthless dictator after his death is to demonstrate great insensitivity to the people who have spent their lives critical of Castro’s oppression. While offering condolences to his supporters, what about his many victims?
When interviewed an hour ago to explain his tribute, Justin was asked whether he thought Castro was a dictator. Justin replied “Yes.” But he added, “Fidel Castro had a deep and lasting effect on the Cuban people but on the passing of his life I expressed my condolences…He was certainly a polarizing figure and I have always been concerned about his human rights abuses. However, a Prime Minster of Canada should show respect.” Respect, maybe. But a eulogy – certainly not. Justin had to know he was stepping on a landline and he certainly could have expressed respect for the Cuban nation without paying tribute and eulogizing a ruthless, manipulative and oppressive dictator.
Now some praise of Castro’s regime is in order, particularly his contribution to universal education and health care and his sending Cuban doctors all over Africa and South America. Canada, and Toronto in particular, has enormously benefited from the rich Cuban cultural tradition, particularly in music and jazz, that flourished under Fidel Castro. Finally, though he could be credited with bringing universal literacy and health care to all Cubans, that in itself has been at significant cost to quality. Further, I have always supported Canada retaining its diplomatic contacts and have applauded Barack Obama’s lifting of the sanctions regime which Fidel used as an excuse to be a brutal dictator; but look at the cost.
1) 1 in 5 Cubans forced into exile – massive class cleansing;
2) Though he opposed anti-Semitism and was protective of the rights of Jews within Cuba to remain Jews, he was homophobic and persecuted gays for many years;
3) As a dictator, he was a leading human rights abuser, not only incarcerating dissidents, but executing many under his draconian rule, not counting the harassment and intimidation that many Cubans experienced; for example, in 1976 Fidel cracked down on a flowering human rights movement and sent journalists, lawyers, trade unionists to jail and solitary confinement where they were beaten and tortured – I lost track of two friends who were arrested and never heard from them again – they were not among the destroyed souls who were released and went into exile in Spain ten years ago, thirty years after they were arrested.
4) The ICC, UN agencies and independent international human rights organizations were not permitted to monitor what happened;
5) Like Donald Trump, Fidel Castro was a populist, but of the left rather than the right. In his abuse of the rule of law and relegation of accountable institutions of governance to the sidelines, Castro left leftists and liberals with a bad brand by contagion; there was neither an independent judiciary nor an independent police force dedicated to serving and protecting civil society in Cuba.
6) The record of abuse, of surveillance, of citizen reporting on other citizens, of civilians organized on a block level to serve as the eyes of the state that would even surprise George Orwell, of arbitrary detentions, of suppression of individual initiative, of public shaming, though attenuated to a degree in recent years, still all remain an integral part of the Cuban polity.
7) Fidel ruled as a dictator, controlling the three most powerful positions of governance – president of the Council of State, president of the Council of Ministers, and first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party – and prevented any steps that might make political rulers accountable.
8) In his foreign policy, he helped export revolution and supported revolutionaries around the world in many countries where there may have been economic inequality, but there was no repression; look at what his support of revolutionaries in Colombia, and a populist repressive government in Venezuela has wrought, not to speak of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
9) The only time fear of a worldwide apocalypse came near, before the current climate change danger, was in 1962 when Cuba arranged secretly with the U.S.S.R to bring nuclear-armed missiles into Cuba that instigated the Cuban missile crisis.
10) But the greatest damage to Cubans came from Fidel’s insistence on monopolizing and controlling ALL economic power.
I want to elaborate on the latter to show that his opposition was not just restricted to capitalists. When most of my friends, when my own brother, were strong Castro supporters, before Fidel revealed himself to be a Marxist-Leninist, when he had not yet been branded as an enemy of the U.S. and was still being courted by the State Department, Fidel made a speech to the annual meeting of the co-operative farmers of Cuba. Since I was then very active in the co-operative movement, I received a copy of that speech in translation. What he had told the meeting in a typical three-and-a-half hour speech was that Cuba had a shortage of seeds for farmers, and that since co-operative farms only represented the needs and concerns of their members while state collective farms represented all of Cuban society, he regretted that the state would only be able to distribute seeds to collective state farms. The co-operatives voted overwhelmingly to become state farms. Suddenly there were enough seeds for all the farms. But it was clear that Fidel Castro was a bully and would use any means to get total control.
I was not able to convince my brother who headed for Cuba immediately on completing medical school in 1961 before he was to start his internship. He became trapped by the embargo that was soon imposed and was only able to leave Cuba when a Canadian military aircraft flew him back to Canada. In the interim, he had served as part of the Cuban propaganda machine, working as a volunteer in the Cuban broadcasting organization. Of course, a few years later, he turned against the Fidel Castor regime, but not vocally or publicly. For him, it had been the exuberance of youth and a naïve faith.
Luckily, the apocalypse of the Cuban missile crisis was averted. But I could never forgive Castro especially, though also Kennedy and Khrushchev, with playing chicken with the lives of my children. I have never visited Cuba. It has been on my boycott list. One of my sons has been there a number of times. He described both the vibrant life of Cubans and their warmth and hospitality while appalled at the decaying buildings. I flirted with going but always decided not to while the Castros were in power.
I think I will wait until Raȗl leaves power before contemplating a visit, but that may not take place in my lifetime in spite of Raȗl’s advanced age. In the meanwhile, I will gripe loudly at the effusive expression of condolences that Justin Trudeau conveyed to the Castro family.
With the help of Alex Zisman