Trudeau's Castro comments send mixed message on human rights

More than his brief remarks after Fidel Castro's death, it was a statement released by the Prime Minister's Office concerning the Cuban leader that undermined Justin Trudeau's promotion of expanded rights for women and gays in Africa.

A day after his controversial Castro statement, Trudeau expressed little regret for its tone

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference Sunday in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Trudeau admitted, without elaborating and after a pause, that the late Fidel Castro was a dictator. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

At the beginning of his first official trip to Africa, Justin Trudeau's message on human rights seemed to be taking hold.   

In Liberia, the Prime Minister was cheered by a panel on women's leadership as he proclaimed himself a feminist and called female genital mutilation an aberration. The former teacher looked at home in the classroom as he showed off Canadian-funded programs designed to keep kids, especially girls, in school. And if it was unpopular for him to say LGBT rights should be respected in Africa, well, all the more reason Trudeau wanted to raise it.   

Then news came Fidel Castro was dead.   

By then, Trudeau had arrived in Madagascar, ready to speak at the summit of La Francophonie. More than his brief remarks before that audience about Castro's death, it was a statement released by his office that stole the spotlight. Worse for Trudeau, it made him the subject of international criticism and, in some cases, ridicule on the same issue — human rights — that he was trying to champion.   

The statement described Castro as "larger than life" and a "remarkable" leader, "a legendary revolutionary and orator" who "made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation." It also noted that Trudeau's own father, Pierre Trudeau, was very proud to call Castro a friend.   

And what did Justin Trudeau, currently in the midst of a rights themed-trip, have to say about Castro's well-known human rights violations? The statement only mentioned Castro was a "controversial figure."   

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen greeting Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the airport outside Monrovia on Nov. 24, saw his government's development aid goals in Africa overshadowed by his own comments. (James Giahyue/Reuters)

Amnesty International uses different language. While also praising increased access to public services, it notes "Fidel Castro's 49-year reign was characterized by a ruthless suppression of freedom of expression." Hundreds of people have been detained just for expressing dissent or defending human rights, Amnesty said.   

The organization said that when Castro established his government in 1959, he organized trials of members of the previous government that resulted in hundreds of summary executions. Castro explained that they were executing murderers who deserved their executions.   

From 'friend' to acquaintance

Conservatives in Canada condemned Trudeau's remarks but the criticism went beyond the Official Opposition.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban-born immigrants to the U.S., called it shameful and embarrassing. Ian Bremmer, author and political scientist at New York University, tweeted that Cuban citizens and exiles deserve better.

Trudeau's former policy advisor Roland Paris was among those quick to criticize, saying it was not a statement he would have recommended. The Washington Post put together a collection of tweets with the hashtag #Trudeaueulogies, including how Trudeau would eulogize the likes of Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin.   

And so, as Trudeau stood before the cameras at his closing news conference in Madagascar, journalists had a host of questions about whether his remarks were appropriate and whether he regretted them. He was asked whether Castro was a dictator. He paused for a few seconds before saying only "yes." 

Trudeau expressed no regret for the tone of his statement. But his language had changed since the day before. After saying on stage at La Francophonie that Castro was a longtime friend of Canada, he was now saying that Canada and Cuba had a lengthy relationship.   

Yes there were "human rights questions," but he steered each question back to not Castro's record but his own. Certainly, he said, Canadians knew that he always talked about human rights abroad. He had raised them just the week before when, coincidentally, he took his first official trip to Cuba and met with President Raul Castro. He had been raising human rights this whole time in Africa.   

It's true that Trudeau doled out about $125 million in development aid on the trip. In African countries ill at ease with homosexuality, he said directly that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people should not have to suffer. He also called for more safe access to abortion and a stop to female genital mutilation.   

But by the end of the trip, Canadians are left reconciling Trudeau's efforts to be a human rights defender with his expressions of admiration for a dictator.


Catherine Cullen

Senior reporter

Catherine Cullen covers Parliament Hill for CBC News in Ottawa. She writes frequently about the Conservative Party. She has also worked in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.


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