As Cuba erupts, Cuban-Canadians accuse the Trudeau government of turning its back

The gap between the Biden administration and the Trudeau government this week on Cuba was wider than the straits that separate Havana from Key West.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States “stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights. And we call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba.”

The protests — which saw thousands of Cubans march through cities across the island — are a “clarion call for freedom,” said Biden.

When CBC News asked for one, Global Affairs Canada issued an unsigned statement on the protests in Cuba. The department has not posted it with other statements on its website.

The statement declares support for “the right to freedom of expression and assembly” but doesn’t point fingers at the regime in Havana. Instead, it calls on “all parties to uphold this fundamental right.”

“Global Affairs Canada urges all sides to exercise restraint and encourages all parties involved in the crisis to engage in peaceful and inclusive dialogue,” says the statement.

Protesters gather at the Maximo Gomez monument in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, July 11, 2021. (Eliana Aponte/Associated Press)

The “all sides” language was jarring to Cuban exile Michael Lima Cuadra, who came to Canada as a political refugee in the 1990s and is a member of the newly-formed Council for a Democratic Transition in Cuba.

“The language is very neutral,” he said. “And there is a saying by Desmond Tutu that if, in times of oppression, you choose to be neutral, you are taking the side of the oppressor.”

Government statement echoes regime’s spin, says critic

Global Affairs’ statement went on to discuss shortages of food and medicine in Cuba — strongly implying that hungry bellies and a lack of vaccines drove the protests, rather than any desire for political change.

In that sense, it aligns closely with the spin the Cuban Communist Party has put on events, said Cuban-Canadian Fannia Brito of Gatineau, Quebec.

“The Cuban people are not asking for medicine, or for COVID treatments,” she said. “The Cuban people have taken to the streets, with tremendous valour, to demand the end of the dictatorship, the end of the oppression. That is what the Cuban people are demanding.”

Police scuffle and detain an anti-government demonstrator during a protest in Havana, Cuba, Sunday July 11, 2021. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Video of the protests clearly shows the crowds shouting slogans such as “Freedom!” and “Down with Communism!”.

The GAC statement departs from the language Canada typically uses when talking about other authoritarian regimes in the region in that it contains no call for a return to democracy — no suggestion that it’s time to end Cuba’s 62-year-old one-party state.

When asked about Cuba this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “we have always called for greater freedoms and more defence of human rights in Cuba, and we’ll continue to be there to support Cubans in their desire for greater peace, greater stability and greater voice in how things are going.”

That’s not nearly good enough, said Lima Cuadra.

‘They need Canada’

“We urge the government of Canada to listen to the demands of people, to support them in their peaceful struggle for democracy, and to condemn — openly condemn — the repression, the wave of arbitrary arrests, the intimidation, in the same manner they have done with the regimes in Venezuela and Belarus,” he said.

“It’s very important that when people are struggling for democracy, democratic governments take a public stand. That’s what gives those movements support and legitimacy. Without the voices of democratic governments, those movements cannot subsist. They need Canada.”

The Trudeau government consistently has treated Cuba in a markedly different fashion than it has other authoritarian regimes, such as those of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Belarus. It was at the forefront of calls for the removal of the Nicolas Maduro government in Venezuela and was the second government in the world to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s president.

The Trudeau government has sanctioned Venezuela repeatedly, as it did the Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua and the Lukashenko regime in Belarus. It has cited flawed elections, the repression of protests and the suppression of political opposition to justify those sanctions.

Canada’s position is that the Maduro regime lost democratic legitimacy on January 10, 2019, after he and his mentor Hugo Chavez had held power consecutively for 20 years. Long before Canada declared Maduro’s legal mandate over, it routinely condemned his government’s democratic transgressions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Cuban President Raul Castro embrace as they say goodbye after an event with students at the University of Havana in Havana, Cuba Nov. 16, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Such language is absent from current Canadian government statements on Cuba, where there are no real elections, no vestiges of independent courts, no opposition legislators, mayors or governors — all of which are still hanging on in Venezuela.

For Cuba, there are no Canadian sanctions, but rather professions of loyalty, friendship — and commercial interest.

“Canada and Cuba have a well-established, significant and growing commercial and investment relationship,” says the Global Affairs website. “Cuba is Canada’s top market in the Caribbean/Central American sub-region.”

The family photo

The public highlight of Justin Trudeau’s visit to Cuba in November 2016 was a Q&A session with a group of students at the elite University of Havana.

Trudeau sat flanked by the outgoing leader, Raul Castro, and his protege Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man who leads Cuba today. (Raul Castro, 90, is retired.)

Justin Trudeau speaks with Cuban President Fidel Castro outside Notre-Dame Basilica at the state funeral for Pierre Elliott Trudeau in Montreal, Oct. 3, 2000. Castro was an honorary pallbearer at the ceremony. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Canada would be “a steadfast and unflinching friend to Cuba,” Trudeau told the Communist Party leaders. “We disagree with the approach the United States has taken with Cuba. We think that our approach is much better — of partnership, of collaboration, of engagement,” he said, describing Cuba at one point as an “ally” of Canada.

Trudeau’s hopes of meeting the dying Fidel, stoked to the last minute by the Cuban Embassy in Ottawa, were foiled when he was told the maximum leader was too ill.

In lieu of an audience with Fidel himself, three of his sons delivered Trudeau a photo album showing the Castro and Trudeau families together.

Praise for the regime, no mention of elections

Then-U.S. president Barack Obama, who had visited earlier in the year, had set out conditions for his visit to Cuba. 

Two months before he travelled, Obama said that if he were to visit Cuba, “then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody” — including dissidents.

Trudeau laid out no public conditions for his visit and the civil society group he met with did not include the kind of dissidents Obama met — some of whom had spent decades in prison or had undergone hunger strikes opposing one-party rule.

Instead, the civil society representatives who met with Trudeau were selected for their opposition to sexism, homophobia and racism — ideologically comfortable terrain for the Cuban Communist Party.

That same day, across town, Trudeau’s wife Sophie was praising Cuban leaders’ “very open-minded and open-hearted” commitment to gender equality.

Absent from the Trudeaus’ comments on Cuban soil were such words as “democracy,” “rule of law” and “elections.”

‘Deep and lasting affection’

When Fidel Castro finally died ten days later, Trudeau paid tribute “on behalf of all Canadians” to the “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,” the prime minister said.

“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'”.

Those remarks kicked off a short-lived string of parodies.

Trudeau also praised Fidel Castro as “Cuba’s longest-serving president” — not a difficult achievement, since Cuba’s last free election was in 1948.

The statement was condemned in the Cuban diaspora and raised eyebrows around the world.

‘Complicity with dictatorship’

Canadian tourists are critical to Cuba’s economy. More than twice as many Canadians enter Cuba every year than the citizens of any other nation — including Cuba itself. Canadian tourist dollars and Canadian investments are important for the survival of Communist Party control.

Some Cuban-Canadians worry that, just as change appears possible, Prime Minister Trudeau’s personal and family history will influence the actions of a country that weighs heavily in Cuba’s future.

In 1960, during the earliest days of the Castro regime, Pierre Trudeau was rescued in the Straits of Florida while trying to paddle to Cuba. He was later derided by John Diefenbaker in the House of Commons for conducting his “love affair” with the Cuban Revolution “by canoe.”

In 1964, the elder Trudeau came back to tour the island. He returned with his family in 1976. That famous visit — which featured Trudeau shouting “Viva el primer ministro Fidel Castro!” on television — was a propaganda coup for the regime. Pierre Trudeau was the first leader of a NATO nation to visit the island since the communist takeover.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Cuban President Fidel Castro visit a Havana housing project in on Jan. 27, 1976. Trudeau was the first leader of a NATO country to visit the Communist-run island. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau, who has spoken of making private visits to the island during his younger years, was visibly moved by Castro’s presence at his father’s funeral in Montreal. Fidel was given the role of honorary pallbearer. 

Fannia Brito said Trudeau’s obvious emotional attachment to Castro’s legacy makes Cuban-Canadians suspect his motives. She said calls, emails and requests for meetings by her community are being ignored by Liberal Party politicians.

“It’s incredible that the government has not pronounced itself either for or against, but has almost complete silence,” she said. “It demonstrates the complicity of this government with the dictatorship.

“We want an answer, we want a public response. And we’re not going to stop until we get it.”

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