Justin Trudeau's visit to Cuba decidedly different than father's
Tonda MacCharles - Ottawa Bureau reporter
HAVANA—The journey of two prime ministers named Trudeau to the windswept
shores of Cuba could not have been more different.
From start to finish, in substance and in tone, Justin Trudeau's trip
here as prime minister had only faint echoes of Pierre Elliott's
exuberant welcome 40 years ago.
The biggest contrast: the aging commandant Fidel Castro declined a
meeting with the 44-year-old son of his old friend, Pierre, even though
he had met the Vietnamese leader just the day before.
Was it a snub? It was certainly a surprise to Cuban and other foreign
correspondents in Havana, who have seen Castro, 90, meet a string of
foreign leaders in recent months. There was as always no explanation,
only hints that Fidel's health may not have been up to it.
The prime minister did meet three of Fidel Castro's sons for the first
time in what Canadian officials said was a "very warm meeting." The sons
gave him a photo album of his father's historic 1976 trip when he came
with young wife Margaret and infant son Michel in tow—delighting an
enraptured Fidel and charming this island nation.
And Fidel's brother, Raul, his successor as Cuban president, went out of
his way to demonstrate the bonds of friendship still run deep.
Raul Castro staged an intimate official dinner for Trudeau and his wife,
Sophie, at the Restaurante Café del Oriente in a plaza in the colonial
heart of old Havana — a gesture the Cubans say is a rare departure from
the dry formal state dinners at the government palace.
They dined on soup and chicken, and the Cuban president brought a
special gift, a copy of Pierre Trudeau's 1976 speech that ended with a
controversial flourish hailing the Communist leader: "Viva Cuba and the
Cuban people. Viva President Fidel Castro! Viva the Cuban-Canadian
Castro signed it, gave it to Justin Trudeau, and hugged him.
Trudeau insisted his return here — his fourth trip after three past
personal visits including once with his younger brother, Michel, now
deceased — was partly a "sentimental" journey hitched to government
business, and a "true pleasure."
Invited to reflect on what it was like to follow in his parents'
footsteps, Trudeau said he was "touched and overwhelmed" but said only
it was unfortunate he couldn't have sat down "with Fidel." Earlier he
praised the chance to reconnect with "my friend, Raul."
Even the Cubans, however, had lost track of who the young Trudeau before
"A couple of times I have to admit I didn't correct people who they
showed me pictures of me when I was here as a baby because it was
actually my young brother," Trudeau said Wednesday.
For the most part, he cast it as primarily a nation-to-nation
relationship. "You can tell from everyone I've met that there is a
tremendous level of respect for Canada and Canadians."
Canada and Mexico were the only countries in the Western hemisphere to
not cut off diplomatic ties with Cuba after the revolution.
Still this was a decidedly different visit than that blockbuster 1976
trip by his father.
Pierre Trudeau was then the first leader of a NATO country to set foot
on Cuban soil after the Castros and Argentine guerrilla Che Guevera led
a revolution that overthrew an American-backed government in Havana.
This trip was shorter, just over a day, not spread over three. It began
in dusky rain, not brilliant sunshine. And there were no big crowds out
in public to greet Justin and Sophie, who arrived without their three
When Pierre Trudeau brought his wife, Margaret, and youngest son, they
had been met by a huge crowd of 250,000 lining the motorcade route.
Fidel Castro had given Cuba the day off to orchestrate an impressive
welcome, said historian Robert Wright.
As Justin Trudeau retraced his father's footsteps, laying a wreath at
the José Martí Monument to the 1959 revolution's war dead, the massive
Revolution Plaza was empty. No crowds, just a wet military band.
Where Pierre Trudeau's likeness was plastered all over Havana on big
posters, Justin Trudeau shared the front page of Granma, the official
newspaper of the Cuban Communist party, with Vietnamese President Tran
Castro whisked Pierre and Margaret Trudeau away to an island hideaway
off north of Havana for an overnight of private talks, and invited them
to stay in a beautiful guest house in Havana.
Today's Trudeau couple stayed in a modern waterfront hotel flush with
American tourists, where the tobacco industry commandeered the club.
Cigar smoke billowed out the door where tobacco executives had paid for
the private privilege of a show by the world-renowned Buena Vista Social
Margaret Trudeau charmed Cubans by bringing her youngest,
three-month-old Michel, and dressed in jeans and flowery skirts, while
Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, dressed in designer threads, charmed with
fluent Spanish, and delivered a message of support for gender equality.
Singer Rosa Mana Amencido, who leads a project working with men, to
fight violence against women here called Todas Contracorriente, welcomed
"Violence is still a problem because of patriarchal culture," she said
in halting English. "It's a cultural heritage in our country, and it
can't be changed by laws and government will. It's necessary to change
the mentality and family dynamics."
Others believe that the biggest problems facing Cuba are not problems of
"It is economic," said Sandra Aldama, 40, who runs a handmade
"I want change more quickly. We are very impatient . . . I also think
that it is a question of time."
Cuba itself has changed.
Foreigners — tourists, professionals, business people — are all over
Havana these days, as the tantalizing promise of Barack Obama to reset
relations draws Americans and many others here.
Yet in many ways, it is still a step back in time. The Havana skyline at
a distance is pastel-hued, but gorgeous colonial and Art Deco buildings
are sagging and peeling, many in ruin. Streets are rutted with 1950s-era
American cars chugging alongside '70s Russian Ladas, and newer Chinese
Geelys and European models.
The American embargo slapped on Cuba in 1960 after the Communist
revolutionary regime nationalized U.S.-owned oil refineries continues to
All Trudeau, the son, could offer was a promise to stand by the Cubans
and their government as they hope that, too, will soon change.
Former Canadian ambassador to Cuba Mark Entwhistle said in an interview
that the Trudeau family relationship with the Castros still generates
genuine affection for a certain generation, but it is unlikely that it
will have any real impact on whether Canadians will get a better deal on
trade, or a guarantee its investors will have greater access to projects.
In the end, he said, "Canada has to compete and be in the mix with
Wright, the Trent University historian and author of "Three Nights in
Havana," flew to Cuba to witness Trudeau's visit, and was struck by
Trudeau's warm words on the Canada-Cuban relationship at an address at
the University of Havana, broadcast live on Cuban national television.
"I had an impression that Justin was borrowing from his family's history
with Cuba to shore up the bilateral relationship," said Wright, calling
it a significant move to pay "homage" to his father's relationship with
Source: Justin Trudeau's visit to Cuba decidedly different than father's