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Margaret Trudeau smiles as Castro holds her youngest son Michel after the Trudeaus arrived in Havana, Cuba, Jan. 26, 1976.

Fred Chartrand/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose father was a great admirer of Fidel Castro, praised the Cuban dictator as a "larger than life leader" but made no mention of the horrendous human-rights abuses under the Communist regime.

Mr. Trudeau was widely panned on social media around the world and by opposition critics at home for a statement issued Saturday in which he lauded Mr. Castro as a "legendary revolutionary and orator" and asserted the Cuban people had a "deep and lasting affection" for the dictator who murdered and imprisoned thousands.

The Prime Minister joined a chorus of leaders from countries such as Russia, China, Syria, Vietnam, Bolivia and Venezuela in heaping praise on Mr. Castro. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Mr. Castro was a "beacon of liberation" for South America and the entire world. And Russian President Vladimir Putin said Mr. Castro had built a "free and independent Cuba" and he was a "tried and true friend of Russia."

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In his statement, Mr. Trudeau said it was a "real honour" to have met three of Mr. Castro's sons on his visit to the island country earlier this month as well as his brother, Raul, a long-time defence minister who took over as president when Mr. Castro stepped aside.

"Fidel Castro was a larger-than-life leader who served his people for almost half a century," Mr. Trudeau said. "Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and health care of his island nation."

"I know my father was proud to call him a friend and I had an opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away," Mr. Trudeau 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."

The Prime Minister responded on Sunday to the criticism. "He certainly was a polarizing figure and there certainly were significant concerns around human rights," Mr. Trudeau said in Antananarivo, Madagascar, where he was leading the Canadian delegation to the summit of la Francophonie.

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"That's something that I'm open about and highlighted, but on the passing of his death I expressed a statement that highlighted the deep connection between the people of Canada and the people of Cuba," Mr. Trudeau said at a news conference.

When asked directly whether he thought Mr. Castro was a dictator, Mr. Trudeau said: "Yes."

Outrage over Mr. Trudeau's original statement, however, was scathing. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, whose Cuban parents fled the Castro regime when he took power in 1959, lashed out at Mr. Trudeau on Twitter: "Is this a real statement or a parody? Because if this is a real statement from the PM of Canada it is shameful & embarrassing."

Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Peter Kent told The Globe and Mail he was appalled that the Prime Minister would ignore Mr. Castro's long record of human-rights abuses and to whitewash a dictator who was his father's friend.

"Because of his dad's friendship with Fidel, he wants to reminiscence and pay tribute to the educational and medicine standards," Mr. Kent said. "But he was also a mass murderer. He eliminated and executed all those who opposed him in the early years of his dictatorship. He ran the country with an iron hand."

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose issued a statement that contrasted sharply with Mr. Trudeau's.

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"With the passing of Fidel Castro, my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Cuba who continue to endure his long and oppressive regime, even after his death," Ms. Ambrose said. "Under his rule, thousands were impoverished, thousands were imprisoned and executed, free speech, thought and assembly were curtailed or banned, all to live up to his version of 'socialism.' "

On Twitter, Conservative leadership candidate Lisa Raitt said "Prime Minister Trudeau should apologize and retract his statement on the death of dictator Fidel Castro."

Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen tweeted that the statement from Mr. Trudeau was "just awful," while Wall Street Foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens said: "Disgraceful statement from Justin Trudeau re Castro. No, Justin, Fidel didn't "serve" Cuban people. He made them serve him. For 60 years."

Former U.S. national security analyst John Schindler added to the global condemnation, saying on Twitter that Mr. Trudeau had dishonored Canada: "What a colossal embarrassment for a country that has fought so hard for human rights and dignity around the world."

The Trudeau family has a long history of affection and admiration for Mr. Castro. When he was prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau visited Cuba along with his wife, Margaret. The two leaders became close friends and even went sailing.

Justin Trudeau's brother, Alexandre, did a documentary and penned an article in 2006, describing the Cuban strongman as "something of a superman" who "lives to learn and put his knowledge in the service of the revolution."

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He blamed U.S. imperialism for pushing Mr. Castro to take strong steps to curtail human rights and democracy for the greater good of socialism.

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump called Mr. Castro, who built a Communist state on the doorsteps of the United States, "a brutal dictator who opposed his own people for nearly six decades."

President Barack Obama was not as harsh and offered a "hand of friendship to the Cuban people."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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