Was Castro Canada’s Favourite Dictator?

Juan Gavasa

It was the most oft-repeated comment in the hours after Fidel Castro’s death that he was probably Canada’s favourite dictator. Canadians certainly never approved of the methods used by Fidel Castro to govern Cuba; press censorship and political repression, his insistence that the unions be managed by the government, and the arbitrary practices of his revolutionary courts would never have been welcomed in a democratic and diverse country like Canada.

But he successfully stood up to the United States, and this vested him with a mythical aura that awoke the sympathy of many Canadians, the first among them being former prime minster Pierre Trudeau. Castro nationalized US companies and fought against a Washington-backed invasion that obviously constituted an intrusion upon Cuba’s national sovereignty. He introduced universal health care and facilitated access to university for Cubans. These achievements often overshadowed his darker, more sinister side, and Canadians forgave him with a certain indulgence.

It is true that many Canadians agree with the interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who issued a stern statement stressing that Castro’s was a “long and oppressive regime.” But it is equally true that millions of Canadians identified more with the statements of their prime minister (which caused such a stir outside the country), who asserted that the dictator was “a larger-than-life leader who served his people for nearly half a century.”

Trudeau, in response to the controversy sparked by his words, later had to acknowledge publicly that Castro, in effect, “was a dictator”, but this qualifier has not served to mask his evident sympathy for the late leader. In fact, the prime minister paid an official visit to the Caribbean island only two weeks earlier, the first time a Canadian prime minister has done so since his own father did in 1976. The Trudeaus never concealed their fraternal relationship with Castro.

For a whole generation, Castro’s revolution in 1959 was a legendary event that inspired other revolutionary movements. Nelson Mandela modelled his struggle against apartheid in South Africa on Castro’s guerrilla warfare strategy, and it is a historical fact that the victory of the revolution in Cuba gave hope to opponents of right-wing dictators all over South and Central America.

But Castro also inspired others who sought more peaceful means of counteracting the US hegemony. He showed that it was possible for a country in the Western hemisphere to exist outside Washington’s orbit. At the end of the 1960s, the so-called Venceremos Brigade recruited dozens of Canadian university students to travel to Cuba and help with the sugar cane harvest. For these young students, Che Guevara became an emblematic symbol of the struggle against class privilege.

The adoration that Castro and his bearded comrades inspired benefited greatly from strong doses of naivety. The revolution was successful not only because of Castro’s boldness, but because the Cuban economy was propped up by the former Soviet Union.

Che Guevara might have impressed Canadian youths as a symbol of the revolution. But he soon turned into an icon with more aesthetic than ideological value. Canada’s “potential rebels” in those days wore tight-fitting berets in the style of “El Che” and hung up posters of the Argentine revolutionary on the walls of their university residences.

But there was also something epic in Castro’s and Cuba’s refusal to give way to American pressure, a fact that he was able to transform into highly effective propaganda campaigns. Cuba survived the US trade embargo and successfully repelled the Washington-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Castro himself evaded numerous assassination attempts, some truly outlandish, and nearly all of which bore signs of CIA involvement. All of this was viewed in Canada, and in many other countries, as if it were a movie about sinister plots between good guys and bad guys.

In 1962, Castro’s decision to allow the Soviets to station missiles in Cuba pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. But it was also a big victory for the Cuban leader; in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing those missiles, the United States promised never to try invading Cuba again, a promise they kept, at least in the literal sense. Castro finally died in bed at the age of 90.

Over all this time, the attitude towards Castro of successive Conservative and Liberal governments in Canada has been extremely pragmatic. Canada never joined the US embargo. Nor did it follow its southern neighbour when the United States broke diplomatic relations with Havana. Ottawa maintained a profile of its own in spite of pressure from Washington. A product of this independence has been the close and fruitful trade relations between the two countries. Canadian companies have operated profitably in communist Cuba, and some years ago Canada became the first source of tourism for the Caribbean island.

Liberal prime ministers, especially Pierre Trudeau, were open friends with the Cuban revolutionary. Conservative prime ministers, although more cautious, basically followed the same example. It was the mediation of former prime minister Stephen Harper that led to the recent thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States, an initial rapprochement that continues to be beset by uncertainty. With Fidel Castro dead, can socialist Cuba survive? Does it want to? Or will it give into the bright lights of capitalism and consumerism? With Fidel Castro dead, will the United States under the unpredictable Donald Trump forget its old plans of invasion? Castro was a charismatic leader of the old school. While they remain alive, such leaders can hold fragile nations together (think of Tito and Yugoslavia, for example). But when they die, they leave a gaping hole.

Translated by Martin Boyd

Juan Gavasa is a Spanish writer and journalist, now based in Toronto.

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