Trudeau’s Castro problem


In this the era of populist demagogues like Donald Trump, with far right politicians crawling out from under their rocks in Europe and around the world with divisive messages of hate, Canadians can only hope Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision not to attend the funeral of Fidel Castro isn’t an omen of things to come for Canada’s foreign relations.

Trudeau’s bland praise of the Cuban dictator upon his death was met with a firestorm of criticism from the right. He called the iconic world figure a remarkable leader, which he was, and correctly said he made significant improvements to education and health care after ousting corrupt U.S.-backed strong man Fulgencio Battista. He also noted that Castro had garnered the deep and lasting affection of the Cuban people, which he most certainly has.

He was excoriated for this?

Republican Senator Marco Rubio questioned whether Trudeau’s comments were a parody, calling them shameful and embarrassing. Another failed Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, said Trudeau’s remarks were disgraceful.

Really guys?

This from a couple of spineless, self-serving, power-at-any-cost, double-speaking sleaze bags who supported Donald Trump after he said Russia’s murderous, thieving dictator was a better leader than their own president.

Shameful, embarrassing, disgraceful? Their pictures should be inserted into dictionaries beside these adjectives, which so perfectly describe their own boot-licking behaviour in the wake of Trump’s win.

The hypocrisy of these guys is stunning. Breathtaking. Nauseating.

The U.S. has a long and sordid history of supporting tyrants whose track records made Castro look like Mother Theresa, from the hated Shah of Iran, who received American sanctuary when the Iranian people finally kicked him out, to Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Manuel Noriega in Panama, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

When it comes to supporting tyrants, the U.S. government has been on the wrong side of history so often it’s too space consuming to provide a full list. If Castro had been open to corrupting American influence you can bet your last dollar U.S. politicians would have been singing his praises no matter how many people he killed.

The fact of the matter is that Castro and a small band of rebels overthrew the tyrant America backed, a man who ruthlessly exploited the Cuban people in partnership with the mafia. A lawyer who could have lived well outside of Cuba, Castro risked his life to take the country back, not for money but instead for love of the island nation.

Castro was no saint. He did whatever was necessary to wrest control away from the profiteers who privatized all the choice waterfront properties, keeping Cubans away from their own beaches. Battista’s supporters were not the sort to give up their privileged positions without a fight. People were killed and imprisoned during his 60-year reign, some of them no doubt unjustly. But the outpouring of affection from Cubans of all stripes upon his death is testimony that he was a respected and well-loved leader.

He brought in free medical care and access to education unheard of in third world countries, and he did so despite the punitive U.S. embargo meant to cripple the economy and cause unrest and regime change. He was left with no choice but to turn towards Russia for support in the early days of the revolution.

The irony is, the Cuban people are more suited, by inclination and temperament, to the American way of life than they ever were to the austere Soviet view of the world. They love rock and roll, baseball and blue jeans and could have been an ally instead of a hated enemy of the United States for all these years. It was U.S. paranoia and fear of communism that forced them into the other camp.

During a month-long visit to Cuba many years back I found it to be a safe country with no restrictions on travel, a nation that championed racial harmony among its mixed race population, a place where blacks, whites and all the colours in between got along despite the crushing poverty caused by the U.S. sanctions. In Castro’s Cuba black men weren’t afraid of being shot on sight by the police.

Unlike Donald Trump’s best bro Vladimir Putin, who lives like a king on his ill-gotten gains protected by his posse of thugs while Russian families of six huddle in one-room apartments sharing bathrooms down the hall, Castro was never accused of ruling for personal gain.

The disturbing thing about the Trudeau—Castro contretemps is not that he spoke well of the dictator but instead that he backed down from going to the funeral of the man who was an honorary pallbearer at his own father’s funeral because of criticism from the right. How will he stand up in negotiations with Trump’s ideological zealots?

One thing is sure, in this instance he did not demonstrate the fortitude his father showed when taking controversial positions. Under the elder Trudeau, Canada became a haven for American draft dodgers during the Vietnam war over the vehement protests of the American political establishment and he maintained normal relations with Cuba throughout the American embargo, even visiting the country and having pictures taken with the dictator cradling his children.

While Pierre Trudeau had his share of critics, Canadians liked the stands he took in opposition to our powerful and aggressive neighbour. He was nobody’s lap dog and by association neither were Canadians. If there is an afterlife, the elder Trudeau’s spirit is extending a famous middle finger to the right wing critics while his earthly remains pirouette rather than spin in his grave at the thought of his son caving on the funeral.


True North strong and free

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A glorious post-snow day in Alberta

We knew that Hell had surely frozen over when we awoke at a St. Albert campsite to six inches of snow after a May blizzard and news that the NDP had defeated the long-reigning provincial Conservatives, a historic first in the province of pickup trucks and baseball caps. A fitting beginning to our long strange trip across ‘the true north strong and free.’

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There’s a new sheriff in town

We watched the federal Liberal landslide online on old Cape Cod, an hour’s drive from Provincetown where the Mayflower deposited the Pilgrims on a crisp fall day in 1622. Contrary to the myth, North America’s first European settlers did not step from their boats onto Plymouth Rock but instead moved across the bay to that location after their first landfall at the tip of the Cape proved inhospitable.

One can’t help but wonder what they would make of the continent in the 21st Century. Driving across Canada leaves this traveller with one enduring question. What the hell happened? Or perhaps better stated: How the hell could it have happened?

To call the formation of this nation unlikely goes way beyond understatement. Canada’s existence is nothing short of miraculous, with a huge capital M and ten exclamation points.

The diversity and vastness of its geographical setting is jaw-dropping. No amount of map gazing can prepare one for the experience of driving from the deserts of southern B.C. through spectacular mountain passes and across plains that stretch to infinity on all sides, over the rocky Canadian Shield past lakes too numerous to count before arriving at lakes too huge to contemplate, then alongside a river stretching from the heart of the continent to a basin too wide to see land on the other side.
Considering oneself as a part owner of this huge swath of the globe, and therefore its caretaker, is humbling in the extreme and the responsibility would be overwhelming and frightening were it not for the presence throughout of those who share the burden.

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The two solitudes

While a country is defined geographically by its borders, a nation owes its identity to its people. And what a stalwart bunch we Canadians are. Canada is what happens when the world’s risk-takers are bound together under a government that not only allows but encourages their individuality and independence in pursuit of a better life.
And make no mistake, every person who left home and hearth behind for the uncertainty and inevitable hardship of settling in a new place with an uncertain future, and this includes First Nation peoples who came before the rest, is a risk taker of the highest order.

To see their accomplishments, and those of the ancestors who share their bloodline, to witness their cultures flourish and their religions on display in cathedrals, temples and domed churches, was to see the potential of the human race come to fruition in a setting befitting of our ancestors ingenuity, courage and optimism.

From the canals that harnessed the rivers providing water for the orchards and vineyards of the South Okanagan, to the roads through B.C.’s impossibly steep mountain passes, past Alberta’s derricks and gas wells that sustain our energy and the vast wheat farms of Saskatchewan and Manitoba that feed the world, to the transportation hub that became Winnipeg and the canal systems and locks of Ontario and Quebec that linked rivers and lakes to provide the country’s first highway from the Maritime provinces that built the ships and fishing boats, it’s one hell of a sightseeing trip.

What a great country.

The Dude and the Dame