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Castro and Trudeau: a famous, but also fraught friendship

Robert Wright teaches history at Trent University Durham in Oshawa, Ontario. He is the author of Three Nights in Havana: Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro and the Cold War World and Trudeaumania: The Rise to Power of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Just days ago, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his first official visit to Havana, the rumour mill was abuzz with the aspersion that Fidel Castro had somehow snubbed him by refusing a private meeting. Now with Fidel Castro's death, we may surmise that the official Cuban line was true, that his health was so precarious as to preclude even a short tête-à-tête.

Certainly Mr. Trudeau himself gave no indication that he had been affronted. He spoke publicly throughout his visit of Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and the current president of Cuba, with a warmth that surprised even many seasoned Cuba-watchers. Several times during his speech at the University of Havana, which I attended, Mr. Trudeau spoke of "my friend" Raul Castro, invoking his father's famous friendship with Fidel and Canada's long-standing "special" relationship with Cuba. The PM's speeches to ordinary Cubans were even more effusive.

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In reminiscing so sentimentally about Canada's special relationship with Cuba, Justin Trudeau spoke very much as his father's son.

Read more: Trudeau criticized for laudatory statement on Fidel Castro's death

Obituary: Fidel Castro, 1926-2016: The 20th century bears his indelible stamp

Doug Saunders: Fidel Castro's revolution succeeded, but his promises evaporated

Pierre Trudeau's and Fidel Castro's paths crossed for the first time in 1970, when the Canadian government sought to negotiate the exile of members of the FLQ, who had kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross. Fidel Castro obliged the Canadian PM by providing a refuge, and in a private letter Mr. Trudeau later extended his heartfelt gratitude.

In January, 1976, when it looked as though the United States was about to lift its trade embargo and normalize relations between Washington and Havana, Pierre Trudeau embarked on a state visit to Cuba. Practically from the moment he stepped off his Armed Forces Boeing 707, Mr. Trudeau, his wife Margaret and his newborn son Michel endeared themselves to Fidel Castro and vice-versa. Three days later, it became obvious that the two leaders had become fast friends.

In the wake of the state visit, Pierre Trudeau was often credited - even by some Cubans - for courageously maintaining the Canadian-Cuban relationship on a "proper" diplomatic footing when the path of least resistance would have been to fall in behind the Americans' hard line.

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But he was always at pains to correct the record, rightly crediting prime minister John Diefenbaker with refusing to break ties with Havana during the dark days of the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). As unlikely as it may seem in retrospect, it was Dief's tough stand against American pressure that laid the groundwork for Canada's "special" relationship with Cuba and thus for the three official visits by Liberal prime ministers that followed.

I am often asked what lay behind the enduring friendship between the arch-liberal Pierre Trudeau and the Marxist-revolutionary Fidel Castro.

Without question, the two men were attracted to each other by virtue of their high-flying pedigrees, their courage and intellect, their fierce internationalism, and their reformist convictions. Whenever they met, each man listened intently to the arguments of the other, even if their lengthy conversations ended only in an agreement to disagree.

But it was the Cold War context more than anything else that drew Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Castro to each other. As Pierre Trudeau put it himself, in a world dominated by nuclear-armed superpowers, it would be folly to talk only to people who agree with you. When he went to Havana in 1976, he sought the humanity of his nominal Cold War enemy, much as U.S. President Ronald Reagan would later seek out the humanity of the Soviets in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev. He found it, and he never looked back.

In 1991 the Cold War ended. The massive Soviet subsidization of the Cuban economy ended as well, with devastating results for the Cuban people whose lives were impoverished almost overnight. Emergency economic reforms during this "special period" allowed Canadian businesses and tourists into Cuba in unprecedented numbers, putting the Canadian-Cuban relationship back in the limelight and prompting an official visit by prime minister Jean Chrétien in 1998.

Most observers recall the Chrétien-Castro meeting as a failure. By 1998, Americans' standing grievances against Fidel Castro – his nationalization of U.S. assets and the appearance of Soviet-styled communism in the western hemisphere – had been broadened to include a powerful human-rights-based critique. Many Canadians sympathized. When Mr. Chrétien asked Mr. Castro point-blank to release four imprisoned Cuban dissidents, Fidel Castro treated it as an affront, stating that Pierre Trudeau would never have presumed to tell Cubans how to manage their own affairs. (This episode did not prevent Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Castro from reminiscing warmly about Pierre Trudeau during his state funeral of October, 2000, which Mr. Castro attended as an official pallbearer.)

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I have also been asked about where ordinary Canadians stand on Fidel Castro. My sense is that most Canadians with a serious investment in the Cuba debate are poles apart. To the left, one finds highly sympathetic campus radicals and solidarity activists who revere Fidel Castro's revolution as one of the 20th century's most noble experiments in socialism and anti-imperialism. To the right, one finds an equally impassioned chorus of criticism of the Cuban "gulag." If I had to guess, I would imagine that most Canadians, including many of the 1.3 million who vacation on Cuban beaches every winter, find themselves somewhere in between.

What is certain is that Canadians of all ideological stripes know that they cannot force change in Cuba any more than the Americans can. This does not prevent them from valuing the countless "people-to-people" relationships they have forged with ordinary Cubans over many decades.

Ironically, with the death of Fidel Castro, the current Prime Minister Trudeau now finds himself on precisely the same knife-edge as both his father and Jean Chrétien once did.

He must balance his personal and family history with the Castros with the myriad prerogatives of the Canadians for whom he speaks. This includes the unenviable task of quietly pressing for precisely the sorts of political reforms in Cuba on which Raul Castro has said that he will not be rushed.

When Pierre Trudeau returned from Havana in 1976, Canadians let him know in no uncertain terms that they did not appreciate him -- in the words of John Diefenbaker -- "canoodling with Castro." It is a lesson Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is learning today.

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