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Viva Cuba: Pierre Trudeau goes abroad

The Story


Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau may be making friends in communist Cuba but he's certainly making his share of enemies in the United States. President Fidel Castro has received the touring Trudeau warmly, proudly showing him the developing country. "Viva Cuba!" Trudeau says to a crowd of 25,000 cheering Cubans in this CBC News report. But Americans, who have long ceased relations with Cuba, are irked and call his diplomatic trip ill-considered. Trudeau however is unrepentant, arguing that Canada must and will maintain its own independent foreign policy. 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News Special
Broadcast Date: Feb. 3, 1976
Guests: Fidel Castro, John Diefenbaker, Lewis Duiguid, W. Edward English, Ian Lumsden, Jack Ogelsby, Daniel Tretiak, Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Host: Don McNeill
Duration: 16:51

Did You know?


• Trudeau began his trip to Latin America on Jan. 24, 1976. He first travelled to Mexico before departing for Cuba and Venezuela. At the outset, he stated that he hoped to build bridges and diversify Canada's foreign policy.

• Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker first opened diplomatic relations with Cuba, defying the American trade embargo in 1959.

• But Diefenbaker was critical of Trudeau's trip to Cuba, given Cuba's involvement in the Angolan civil war. In 1974, different warring factions struggled for power following the end of Portuguese colonial rule. He said that Trudeau's remarks of "Viva Cuba! Viva Fidel Castro!" would be interpreted as the support of "the invasion of Cuban troops in Angola." Conservative MP Tom Cossitt further said that Trudeau's comments would be "construed by the world as Canadian approval for dictatorial socialism." (Toronto Star, Jan. 30, 1976).

• Trudeau recalled in his memoirs that when he questioned the Cuban leader about meddling in the internal affairs of Angola, Castro downplayed Cuba's role. Once he returned to Ottawa and learned of Cuba's considerable involvement, Trudeau cut off foreign aid.

• During this trip, Margaret Trudeau famously serenaded Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez and his wife with a flattering poem and a song. She later recalled that Canadian external affairs protocol officers attempted to prevent her from singing. "They even tried to steal my little purse because they thought the song was in it," she said. "Fortunately, I had the song in my shawl and there was no problem there." (Toronto Star, Feb. 3, 1976.)

• Pierre Trudeau had long held the opinion that Canada needed to branch out and establish its own foreign policy, independent of American influence. In 1969, he told the National Press Club in Ottawa that being situated next to the United States, "is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

• Trudeau's affable charm allowed him to easily make friends of foreign leaders. During a 1971 tour through Asia, Trudeau stopped over in India and met with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. When he disembarked from the plane, he was expected to shake hands and exchange friendly greetings with Indian premier. Gandhi would then, as is tradition in India, place a large garland of flowers around his neck. "Instead, Trudeau produced from behind his back two flower garlands... and placed them about her shoulders," recalled special adviser Ivan Head in Pierre (2005). Gandhi was "delighted" and "roars of approval went up from the crowd of onlookers."

• In October 1973, Trudeau toured China after the Canadian government officially recognized the Communist country, opening diplomatic relations between the two nations.

• Ten years later, Trudeau would again visit China, this time as part of a larger peace mission.

• Trudeau was the only Western leader to make any peace initiatives between the Cold War superpowers during the 1980s. Some viewed his peace mission as a failure, having failed to spark any interest or commitment from any of the world leaders. Trudeau, on the other hand, felt that the effort alone was of importance.

• "Let it be said of Canada and of Canadians that we saw the crisis; that we did act; that we took risks; that we were loyal to our friends and open with our adversaries; that we have lived up to our ideals; and that we have done what we could to lift the shadow of war." - Pierre Trudeau, speech to the House of Commons, Feb. 9, 1984.


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