On November 25th 2016, Fidel Castro passed away in Havana, Cuba. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement expressing his “deep sorrow” with the death of this “legendary revolutionary” and “remarkable leader” who “made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.”
This statement produced an outcry from Conservative politicians, leading Trudeau to cancel his attendance at Castro’s funeral in favour of Canada’s Governor General. However, looking historically, such statements by a Canadian prime minister are not unusual. The relatively cozy relationship between Canada and Cuba has led people to believe that the Canadian government is a friend of the Cuban people and, in opposition to the actions of the Americans, has not been trying to undermine the Cuban revolution. But is this really the case?
In 1959, Fidel and his guerrillas took power after the US backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar collapsed. By 1961, Castro had expropriated all American businesses in Cuba (the majority of the economy), de facto eliminating capitalism on the island. This led to some major advancements for the Cuban people. For example, the Cuban revolution succeeded in abolishing illiteracy and child malnutrition. On top of this, according to the World Health Organization, life expectancy in Cuba stands at over 79 years, one of the highest in all of the Americas, virtually equal to the United States and most advanced capitalist countries. When compared with most other Latin American countries, Cuba is far in advance.
This situation enraged the American imperialists as they were not prepared to sacrifice their profits for the well being of the Cuban poor. For over 50 years they have tried everything in their power to strangle the revolution and re-establish capitalism in Cuba. From the economic embargo, to hundreds of assassination attempts on Fidel’s life, to outright invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, the US imperialists have stopped at nothing to try to suffocate the Cuban revolution. But how have Canadian governments dealt with the Cuban government since the revolution of 1959?
The approach the Canadian government took towards Cuba after the revolution was always markedly different than that of our American neighbours. While Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker at the time joined with the American government in denouncing Castro as well as in supporting the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the Canadian government never broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba and did not support the US trade embargo of the island. In the 1976, relations got cozier with Pierre Elliott Trudeau being the first western leader since the 1950s to visit Cuba. This controversial visit saw Fidel Castro discussing and laughing with Pierre and Margaret Trudeau and holding their youngest son Michel in his arms. It was during this visit where Pierre Elliott Trudeau spoke to a crowd of 25,000 Cubans and proclaimed, “Viva Cuba and the Cuban people. Viva President Fidel Castro! Viva the Cuban-Canadian friendship!” The two leaders developed such a close relationship over the years that Fidel Castro was an honorary pallbearer at Trudeau’s funeral in 2000.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Canadian governments, both Conservative and Liberal, maintained relatively good relations with the Cuban government. Even the right-wing Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney maintained cordial relations with the Castro government during the 1980s. In the 1990s, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien was the first western leader to visit Cuba in 10 years and was very friendly with Fidel Castro. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Canadian businesses led the way in establishing operations on the island and the Canadian government expanded economic relations with Cuba. Currently, Canada exports over $500 million worth of goods to Cuba. For some, this may seem proof that Canada is helping Cuba, in opposition to the US’s attempts to strangle the revolution. But is this all being done in the interests of the Cuban people? Have there been no nefarious aims behind the economic relations, friendly visits, and diplomatic niceties?
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