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Justin Trudeau has caused a controversy in Canada and abroad with his statement on the death of Fidel Castro. The PM called the former Cuban dictator a "remarkable" and "larger than life" leader. Mr. Castro was a friend of the Trudeau family and an honourary pallbearer at Pierre Trudeau's funeral.  But the statement has caused some, including U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, to criticize Canada's PM.  Was Trudeau's statement appropriate? Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin debate.



Richard Mahoney:

What is interesting about this contretemps is the amount of commentary and controversy Prime Minister Trudeau's statement has generated. The criticism from Americans and many on the right is that the Prime Minister spent too much of the statement saying nice things about Fidel Castro's accomplishments and not enough time balancing those with comments on the frankly bloody-minded tactics he sometimes used to achieve them.

For the sake of discussion, let's say that is fair. But even if that is true, the reaction is way out of whack. It’s as if some grave mistake has been committed.

First of all,  the Prime Minister’s comments when he was asked about Castro’s death, put some of this in context. Yes, he was a dictator, like so many countries around the world face. But the one country in the world that is not logical on Cuba, and has not been logical on Cuba, is the United States. The presence of a strong Cuban expatriate community there, made up in large part by those that oppose Castro the most, perverts their politics and policies on this. 

Most world leaders, and many Americans, have for a long time shaken their heads at the misguided attempts to deal with Cuba - the embargo being the most recent manifestation. The USA lets people travel freely to Saudi Arabia, Iran and all sorts of places, but not Cuba. Let's not take our lead on what is an appropriate response for a Canadian Prime Minister from Marco Rubio, of all people.

As many have observed, the Prime Minister also comes at this with a personal approach - Castro and his father got along well (as the elder Trudeau did with many international leaders, including many in countries that were not democracies).  Justin Trudeau met Castro as a child and Castro came to his father's funeral. So his statement was also impacted by the personal relationship, and that is not unusual.

Lastly, you don't usually use someone's death as the appropriate time to detail all his or her failings. Unless you are at an Irish funeral, of course. That's different.


Tom Parkin:

Richard has very skilfully avoided discussing the actual statement. So I will.

Justin Trudeau’s comments on the death of Fidel Castro were not appropriate for a Prime Minister, but for almost none of the reasons identified by Republican Senator from Florida Marco Rubio.

Marco Rubio is wrong on almost everything. He is wrong about repealing Obamacare, increasing charter schools, cutting corporate taxes, denying climate change, invading Iraq and reducing grounds for appeal to capital punishment. The fervent 45 year old has been rewarded with a 98.67% score by the American Conservative Union – and no doubt plenty of big cash. Marco Rubio is a willingly captured politician who is leading the United States down the drain.

It’s pretty easy to sum up Rubio’s legacy. Castro’s legacy, however, is not so easily summarized because so much about him is self-contradictory. And that’s the problem.

For Mr. Trudeau, the error was made by addressing the situation personally, rather than as the head of government. He addressed the issue with personal opinion, not fact.

Rubio and the rest should be reminded that the day of someone’s death is not a day to cheer. I was no fan of Margaret Thatcher, Rob Ford or Saudi King Abdullah. But I have enough class to respect them in death. The time to critique their place in history will come. Show some decency for at least one day.

With this in mind, the PM’s statement should have looked for the good in Fidel Castro’s time as leader. It rightly mentioned the incredible progress of Cuba in literacy and health care. It could have gone further to mention the many times Cuban doctors have helped internationally. It could have added that in recent years, starting in Fidel’s time and continuing after, the Cuban economy has grown steadily and many people now enjoy a middle class standard of living.

It could have mentioned how Castro, at considerable cost to his own country, played a critical role in undermining the racist apartheid government in South Africa. It could have mentioned that he brought about the end of the corrupt, vile and venal government of Bastisa.

Those would have been the positive facts – all worth remembering, none contestable (except by those living in post-fact politics).

He could have mentioned that Canada always left a door open to Cuba – in business, in tourism, in diplomacy – and a belief that better days are ahead for Cuba.

Where Trudeau went wrong was in rejecting a statement of facts and making personal judgements about which he has no knowledge. Trudeau called Castro “legendary” – which I take to be a positive term. He said he “served his people” (though one day later he conceded Castro was a dictator). And arrogantly, he reported that Cubans have “a deep and lasting affection.”

Truly, Justin Trudeau has no way of knowing the heart-felt feelings of Cubans and is it simply a projection of his arrogance to think the “Cuban masses” were a throng enthralled with Fidel.

Mr. Trudeau erred when he decided his personal feelings reflected the feelings of the people of Canada. For any democrat, feelings about Castro and Cuba are very mixed and self-contradictory feelings. So it would have been best to stick to the facts.


John Capobianco:

To say I was surprised by the PM’s comments on the passing of former Cuban President Fidel Castro would be a significant understatement, and I can safely say that I would be joined by many in Canada and around the world. Reactions to the PM’s comments were swift and harsh, not surprisingly from American leaders and politicians.

Richard brings up Florida Senator and Cuban-heritage Marco Rubio as does Tom because Senator Rubio’s Twitter response to the PM’s statement was short and brutal. He tweeted right after the PM’s statement, “Is this a real statement or a parody? Because if this is a real statement from the PM of Canada it is shameful and embarrassing.” It was followed by an equally brutal tweet from Senator Ted Cruz. And so it went for the whole day on Sunday and still continues.

For Richard to dismiss the reaction is an admirable attempt to avoid the seriousness of what took place.

Look, everyone knows the relationship Pierre Trudeau had with Castro and the fact that Castro's passing came less than a week from the PM's visit to Cuba also made it awkward for the PM, but it was the wording in the statement or the lack of certain wording that has made many around the world angry - especially coming from the Leader of a G7 nation.

Tom hit it right when he said above that the PM made his personal feelings about Castro's passing without reflecting the feelings of Canadians who have either directly or have had family exposed to the brutal nature of Castro's more than 60 year rule of Cuba.


Richard Mahoney:

John’s comments have generally served to underline my point - the reaction to this from Conservatives is more about something else, rather than a thoughtful criticism of whether the PM got the balance perfect in his initial statement or not.

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. If he didn’t, it is not the end of the world or even a serious incident. These things happen. No, the reaction from Conservatives is more of a pent-up frustration at Trudeau’s so-called honeymoon and his ongoing popularity, rather than a serious criticism of policy or conduct. No serious person in Canada or elsewhere should be looking to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio for guidance on how to craft a statement about Castro’s death or any matter of policy towards Cuba. Their distorted ideas, driven by craven pandering, have pushed Cubans further into poverty and restricted freedoms in America, all at a huge cost to citizens of both countries. Progress in Latin America generally has been constrained by these ideas. Those are the ideas that most Canadians have long rejected about Cuba.

President Obama finally took a recent first step towards normalization of relations, but only after he no longer had to run for office in Florida. And just a first step at that. Tom, like many New Democrats, seems to think Justin Trudeau did not go far enough in praising Caesar/Castro.  I do agree with Tom that the Castro legacy is a complex one. And I think it is fair to say the statement did not reflect that complexity perfectly or precisely. But that is what it is - nothing more.


Tom Parkin:

I love seeing other countries and cultures and I freely admit I am a Cuba-phile and have travelled there six or seven times. And not just to resorts (though I’ve done that) but also to the “real Cuba.” It is a beautiful country with a lovely culture – especially if you love music and dance (and the food’s coming along, slowly).

I haven’t found that people live in fear of their government. I haven’t found that people are reluctant to say critical things about their government or Fidel. I do hear them say they were victimized first by the Spanish, then the Americans, then the Soviets. And I have often heard Cubans say they would like to live in a normal country and once “the old man” dies, the pace of reform will pick up. But these are just my impressions, not real research.

I lack the arrogance required to proclaim I know whole country had “deep affection” for Fidel Castro. I don’t believe it and I wouldn’t put that in a press release.

Nor do I think it is right, as some others on the left say, that the reaction of the right shows massive hypocrisy. Indeed, the Canadian right – and the US bi-partite consensus – has been incredibly consistent. The position has always been that, in foreign relations, choosing between democracy and dictatorship is secondary. The primary criterion for favouring, or not, a regime, is whether that regime favours them. It is realpolitik. It is not pretty, I don’t agree, but it is consistent.

Social democrats, on the other hand, usually say that our foreign policy, our alignment and allies should reflect shared values – democracy being a cornerstone to that.

Yes, Batista deserved to be overthrown. Yes, the U.S. embargo is wrong. The assassination attempts were wrong. The Bay of Pigs attack was wrong. But it was also wrong for Castro to stay so long and not share power enough. I know some will say there are reasons, but the fact is, he didn’t “serve the people,” as Trudeau said. When you base your politics on social democracy, you can’t have blinders about that.

Further, I don't take the position that the right-wing's support for dictators and murderous regimes of the right justify anything - except the need for more democracy, more social inclusion, more development.

Yes, Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution are complex and self-contradictory. Given that, and given Trudeau's personalized views on the matter, the statement was destined to be a walk into controversy.

And now, because of his misstep, he is not even attending the funeral of the man who was an honourary pallbearer for his father. When other world leaders attend, our Prime Minister will not be there and they will judge. All in all, poorly played


John Capobianco:

Richard, there was no balance in the PM's statement - that is why many are going crazy about it. There was no mention of anything in his statement other than suggesting Castro’s human rights record was “controversial”.

Ok, I get that you would downplay comments from Rubio and Cruz and others as conservatives and therefore they have an agenda, but even Human Rights Watch wrote, “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.”

As leader of a G7 country, it would be expected to have a balanced statement, but one that realistically acknowledges the realities of what the man has done for the respect of those who suffered under his rule. I said out the outset that I get the position the PM was in with the family history and his recent visit there, during which he was affectionate with current President and Fidel’s brother, Raul.

I also get that there could be a strategic play here down the road wherein Canada will play a leading role with Cuba post-Fidel Castro and with Donald Trump as the U.S. President – but our credibility on the world stage has taken a hit.

I have never been to Cuba as Tom has and I know many who have and have had the same experience as Tom mentions in his submission above. I do believe we need to fix our relationship with Cuba and especially hope the work that President Obama started will be continued by President Trump. With Fidel gone, maybe there is hope.

Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 







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