Skip to main content

Justin Trudeau's man crush on Fidel Castro is making news around the world – and not in a good way. The headlines are painful. "Justin Trudeau ridiculed over praise of 'remarkable leader,' " said the Guardian. "Trudeau's Castro tribute raises eyebrows," said CNN. "Twitter imagined what he would say about Stalin," mocked The Washington Post.

Mr. Trudeau's affection for the old dictator puts him in the company of Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad. He described Fidel Castro as "a legendary revolutionary and orator" and fondly recalled their old family ties. "I know my father was very proud to call him a friend," he said.

The worst word he used in his statement on Saturday was "controversial." I guess that's one way to describe how he dealt with his political opponents. He lined them up against a wall and shot them.

Mr. Trudeau's comments were oddly timed. He was just winding up a far-flung trip whose theme was human rights, during which he lectured various African nations on the need to improve their treatment of women and sexual minorities. Unfortunately, Mr. Castro wasn't all that progressive either. He regarded homosexuals as counterrevolutionary. He called them "faggots" and "worms," and locked them up in prison camps. "Gays were not treated like human beings, they were treated like beasts," according to Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas's memoir.

Mr. Castro's people loved him so much that nearly 20 per cent of the population tried to escape, taking off across the ocean in leaky homemade boats. Tens of thousands of them never made it. (The most complete account of the regime's victims can be found at the Cuba Archive's Truth and Memory Project.)

It's hard to single out the worst atrocity committed by the Castro regime. One might surely be the execution of 166 Cubans back in 1966. Before they died, their bodies were drained of blood – an average of seven pints a person. The blood was sold for $50 a pint to Communist Vietnam, in order to support the Viet Cong aggression and gain hard currency for Cuba. After the victims were exsanguinated, their limp bodies were carried off to the firing squad.

Where did Justin Trudeau get his man crush on Fidel? Clearly he inherited it from his dad. Pierre Trudeau had a certain fondness for socialist dictators, of whom Fidel Castro was just one. He was an honorary pallbearer at Pierre's funeral, which also marked a turning point in Justin's life. His affecting tribute to his father was his first adult appearance on the public stage.

Like many other left-wing strongmen, Fidel was beloved of public intellectuals. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were among his early acolytes. They lionized him as a freedom fighter against American imperialism (but were eventually repelled by his human rights abuses.) This alone has been enough to turn Fidel into a folk hero – especially in Canada, where there's plenty of sympathy for a small nation struggling to survive in the shadow of a big, bad cultural and economic oppressor.

I would guess that quite a lot of Canadians heartily agree with Mr. Trudeau about Fidel. They have an extravagantly romantic idea of Cuba as an exotic land of equality and fabulous musicians and palm-fringed beaches, a picturesque time capsule of decaying architecture and ancient Studebakers kept on the road by native ingenuity. The people are so educated! Their health care is so good! They send doctors to Venezuela! Or at any rate they used to, until Venezuela ran out of currency, medicines, soap, and anesthetics.

It's easy to overlook the truth about the place. The Cuban people are equal in their wretchedness. (Meanwhile, the Castros have salted away a fortune.) Everyone is literate, but there's nothing to read apart from what the regime approves of. Aspirin and Band-Aids are available only by prescription, and treatment for complicated illnesses is almost non-existent. People can't vote. They can't speak freely. According to Human Rights Watch, "Many of the abusive tactics developed during [Castro's] time in power – including surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation – are still used by the Cuban government."

Fidel Castro was a failure in every way. He wouldn't give his people freedom and he couldn't even give them bread. We should be dancing on his grave. As for Justin – he's not sorry for what he said. He's proud of it.