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Trudeau on Castro: Get us rewrite, pronto

On Saturday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement to mark the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Human Rights Watch, the international human rights organization, also put out a statement. Only one of them accurately describes the man and his legacy.

Here is Mr. Trudeau's statement:

"It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba's longest serving President.

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"Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and health care of his island nation.

"While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro's supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for 'el Comandante.'"

"I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.

"On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader."

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Here's Human Rights Watch describing the same man:

"During his nearly five decades of rule in Cuba, Fidel Castro built a repressive system that punished virtually all forms of dissent, a dark legacy that lives on even after his death.

"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. Cuba made improvements in health and education, though many of these gains were undermined by extended periods of economic hardship and by repressive policies.

"'As other countries in the region turned away from authoritarian rule, only Fidel Castro's Cuba continued to repress virtually all civil and political rights,' said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. 'Castro's draconian rule and the harsh punishments he meted out to dissidents kept his repressive system rooted firmly in place for decades.'"

When Fidel seized power in 1959, much of the planet was governed by unrepresentative colonial regimes or, in Latin America, right-wing dictatorships. For a brief moment, some imagined that Mr. Castro and his gang might be an improvement on this state of affairs. But that was a long time ago.

The communist dictatorships behind the Berlin Wall, which Mr. Castro photocopied and dressed up in jungle fatigues, collapsed two and a half decades ago, mourned by no one. Since Fidel Castro came to power, the world has changed and – yes – improved. Cuba remained shackled in a time warp.

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According to Freedom House's Freedom in the World index, Cuba is the only country in the Americas that merits its lowest possible rating: "Not Free." The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index similarly ranks Cuba as the least democratic country in the Americas.

Communist Cuba did make progress on literacy and health, though it's worth remembering that, when Mr. Castro seized power, Cuba was one of Latin America's richest and most developed countries. Today, it's a basket case. Canada has universal health care and literacy – and to get them, we didn't have to ban elections, political parties or a free press.

The PM's words were false on several counts. Did the Cuban people have a deep love for "el Comandante"? In Cuba, answering anything other than in the affirmative was illegal. Mr. Castro did not hold elections, nor did he tolerate free speech, opposition parties, or human rights groups.

His oratory was "legendary" because, in a country where other voices were silenced, he was free to enjoy the pleasure of delivering speeches that went on for hours. Did he show a "tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people"? He certainly demonstrated a consistent dedication to maintaining power.

Had Mr. Trudeau issued such a praise-filled statement on the death of, say, a Chinese leader, it would at least have been understandable. China is the world's second superpower, and Ottawa must walk a fine line in dealing with Beijing. A certain amount of diplomatic hypocrisy is sometimes required.

But Cuba? In dealing with broke and broken Havana, Canada's diplomats and leaders have the freedom to speak the truth. On Cuba and Castro, Canada can say what it really believes.

Which leaves the disturbing impression that Mr. Trudeau said what he said because it's what he really believes.

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