Trudeau faces backlash after Castro tribute

The prime minister is facing criticism for his statement expressing “deep sorrow” about the death of the controversial former Cuban president Fidel Castro.

Justin Trudeau posted a written statement early Saturday after the late-night announcement that Castro had died at the age of 90.

Trudeau remembered the late president as a “legendary revolutionary and orator,” and said he was a good friend of his father’s.

But others in Canada were less generous in their description of the controversial leader.

Opposition leader Rona Ambrose said in a written statement that under Castro’s rule, thousands of people were impoverished, imprisoned and executed.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Cuba who continue to endure his long and oppressive regime, even after his death,” she wrote.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair shared a similar message on Twitter. “Upon the passing of Fidel Castro let us think of the lives impacted by his actions and be hopeful for the future of the Cuban people.”

Trudeau condemned on social media

And many people — particularly members of the Conservative Party — are condemning the prime minister’s statement, pointing out human rights violations during Castro’s half-century regime.

Conservative leadership hopeful Lisa Raitt wrote on Facebook that Trudeau should be ashamed of himself after his remarks.

“With those words, Justin Trudeau has placed himself on the wrong side of history — against the millions of Cubans yearning for freedom. The Prime Minister should be ashamed of himself. He must retract this statement and apologize,” she wrote.

Maxime Bernier, Quebec MP and a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, turned to social media to express his disbelief at Trudeau’s tribute, calling it repugnant.

“I can’t believe our PM is expressing ‘deep sorrow’ and calling [Castro a] ‘legendary revolutionary’ and ‘remarkable leader,'” Bernier said on Twitter.

Bernier also called Castro a “despicable dictator who killed and imprisoned thousands of innocents and drove away in exile more than a million.”

“He persecuted gay people, he was against freedom of speech and repressed free expression. He was not a president. He’s a dictator. So I’m not very comfortable with that press release,” he told The Canadian Press.

Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch wrote on Facebook that Trudeau should have called Castro’s administration “brutal, oppressive, and murderous,” rather than describing him “as if reading from a storybook.”

And while former prime minister Stephen Harper hasn’t weighed in, his son Ben Harper has.

The younger Harper tweeted, “Castro was a monstrous leader, and the world is better off now he’s dead.”

He also tweeted that Trudeau’s statement is “an embarrassment for Canada.”

International reaction

Others mocked the prime minister’s praise for Castro and tweeted fake eulogies for other polarizing figures using the hashtag #trudeaueulogies. Trudeau’s comments also garnered criticism in the United States, a long-time political adversary of Cuba.

U.S. Senator for Florida Marco Rubio, who also ran against Trump in the last presidential election, questioned if Trudeau’s statement was real or a parody and said it’s shameful and embarrassing if it’s real. 

Website Breitbart News, which was previously run by president-elect Donald Trump’s senior strategist, called the prime minister a “pretty little liar” in response to his comments.

And Ian Bremmer, an American political scientist who specializes in U.S. foreign policy, tweeted that “Cuban citizens and exiles deserve better” from Trudeau.

‘Larger than life leader’

In his statement, Trudeau remembered Castro as “a larger than life leader.”

Trudeau, who is attending the Francophonie Summit in Madagascar, expressed his deep sorrow at learning of Castro’s passing.

His statement offered condolences on behalf of all Canadians and at the same time acknowledged that Castro was “a controversial figure.”

Castro was divisive. To some, he was a revolutionary icon. To others, he was a totalitarian dictator. His system of one-man and one-party rule kept him in power for 49 years, the longest of any head of government in the world.

Trudeau also referred to the late president as a “legendary revolutionary and orator.”

The prime minister went on to say that “Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.”

“We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader,” the prime minister said.

From the archives: Fidel Castro speaks to CBC in 19591:06

Trudeau family ties

Trudeau recently travelled to Cuba but was unable to meet with Castro, who had been a friend of his father and served as an honorary pallbearer at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral in 2000.

​However, Castro’s brother, the current president, was in the front row as the prime minister spoke to students at the University of Havana.

Trudeau said it was a real honour to meet Castro’s three sons and his brother while he was in Cuba. 

The Trudeau family has a long history with the Castros.

In January 1976, then prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau rankled many when he became the first NATO leader — in fact, the first Western leader — to visit Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The two got on famously, developing a close bond that would last for decades after that encounter.

“I know my father was very proud to call him a friend,” Trudeau said.

Walking ‘a knife’s edge’

Robert Wright, who wrote the book Three Nights in Havana about the relationship between Castro and Pierre Trudeau, said it made sense Trudeau would express warm condolences for Castro.

“He has to walk a knife’s edge,” he said. “Canadians have a long, rather proper diplomatic relationship with revolutionary Cuba.”

“On the one hand Justin Trudeau has his family inheritance: his father’s very, very warm friendship with Fidel Castro, and Justin’s own warm rapport with the Cubans,” Write said. “And on the other hand, he has to face criticism when Raul Castro says Cuba will take its own time on democratic reforms and won’t be rushed by Obama or Justin Trudeau or anyone else.”

In his statement, Trudeau said, “on behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro.”

Wright said that would likely upset some Canadians who wouldn’t want to be included in such “warm remarks.”

Cubans react to death of Fidel Castro2:14

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