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A dictator, yes, but Castro was no Hitler

0 Comments 03 January 2017

Castro was admired by many leaders, mostly because of his record in education and equality.

By SHEILA COPPS

First published in The Hill Times on Monday, December 5, 2016.

OTTAWA—Pierre Elliott Trudeau was accused of canoodling with Fidel Castro as the two struck up a friendship so deep that Castro served as a pallbearer at the former prime minister’s state funeral.

It should come as no surprise that Canada’s current prime minister would express affection and respect in the wake of the death of the Cuban nonagenarian.

Trudeau’s statement that Castro was a remarkable leader was met with virulent opposition in the Twittersphere and muted criticism from interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose.

Ambrose was smart enough not to belabour her point in a House of Commons exchange about the post-mortem comments. She knows that more than a million Canadians visit Cuba annually and witness Cuban reality firsthand. Those Canadians understand that the outpouring of cyberspace vitriol comparing Castro to Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler is absolute absurdity.

Castro was a dictator but there is zero evidence he participated in mass disappearances or exterminations. On the contrary, there is a fair bit of proof that Castro focussed primarily on the purist of socialist objectives, including mass literacy and racial and gender harmony. He also negatively promoted his own cult of hero worship, with a heavy dose of police presence.

I first visited Cuba in 1974. The place was just opening up and I travelled there with a group of journalists who were working for the Ottawa Citizen. It wasn’t a work assignment, but a vacation.

I was never much of a beach goer, so while there I made it my business to try and meet directly with Cuban citizens. I filled one suitcase with dozens of dated Time magazines, which I passed along to friends I met on the beach in Varadero.

I visited a school and even ended up touring a radio station in Havana during our week-long vacation. I was trying to understand what made this little communist island tick and went out of my way to speak to as many people as I could.

When I spotted the radio station, I entered, identified myself as a reporter on vacation, and started chatting with who turned out to be the manager.

I asked him why he was so devoted to communism, and he described to me what he considered to be the purist of motives.

In his words, if his wife and a stranger were hit by a car, he would help the stranger as quickly as he would assist a member of his family.

I couldn’t understand this and started to challenge his claim. In the middle of our debate, someone emerged from the studio to politely inform me that no foreigners were allowed in the station, and would I kindly leave?

While on my way out of the country, I was accompanied to the airport by my new Cuban friends. After I stuck a conversation with them on the beach, they had proudly toured me around their favourite haunts, as any local would. They took me to the dilapidated ruins of the Dupont estate, and the home of Ernest Hemingway. We also visited his favourite bar.

Unbeknownst to me, my new friends had been under police surveillance the whole time. When they accompanied me to the airport, they were arrested and detained.

I objected, but authorities informed me that my friends were being questioned because they had received goods from a foreigner, in violation of Cuban law. (I had passed along my jeans, T-shirts, and a few other clothing items along with the magazines.)

I later learned that they were all released after questioning, returning to their lives as students. I communicated by mail with my newfound amigos for a while and then lost touch, but I certainly cherished that brief glimpse into another world, hardly that of a Hitler.

I also had a chance to witness firsthand the obvious Castro charisma on a number of occasions.

First, was the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994 and later that year at the Mexican last supper for outgoing Mexican President Carlos Salinas.

Castro was mobbed at both events, holding court to the delight of assembled world leaders. The only one who pointedly refused to speak to him on either occasion was American vice-president Al Gore.

Castro was admired by many leaders, mostly because of his record in education and equality.

On the issue of race, Cuba could probably teach Donald Trump a thing or two.

But there’s none so deaf as those who will not hear.

 

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.

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