John Ibbitson reports on Justin Trudeau’s “effusive” eulogy of Fidel Castro, who passed away in late November, noting that in doing so Mr. Trudeau was continuing a friendly, decades-long relationship Canada has enjoyed with Mr. Castro and Cuba. He contrasts this with the jubilant response to Castro’s death in parts of the United States.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, current events, history

Key Questions to Explore:

  • Who was Fidel Castro? What caused the breach in relations between Cuba and the United States and how have Canada’s relations with Cuba contrasted with those of the U.S.?

New Terminology:

Dictator, conciliatory, cavalcade, El Commandante, coups d’etat, Bay of Pigs

Materials Needed:

Globe article, backgrounder, the Internet

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

When Fidel Castro died on November 25th of this year, the contrast between the United States’ and Canada’s overall reaction was strikingly apparent. President Obama, who recently re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, expressed sorrow and offered condolences to Cubans, but exiled Cubans living primarily in Florida celebrated the death of the man they described as a brutal dictator. Meanwhile, in what has been called an effusive eulogy of the man whom he considered a friend and who was a friend of his father, Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister expressed deep sorrow. Many Americans and some Canadian politicians were outraged that Mr. Trudeau refused to characterize Mr. Castro in more negative terms. The reasons behind these countries’ disparate feelings about Mr. Castro are explained by their different histories with the Castro regime since 1959. (Note: Mr. Trudeau did not go to the funeral).

The Canada/Cuba relationship and its contrast with that of the United States is of significant historical importance, hence the longer and more detailed lesson plan that follows. Students will work in groups to gain a basic knowledge of Cuba, its revolution, the rise and rule of Castro, and the Canadian response to the Cuban regime over time. To assist you in delivering this lesson, the following backgrounder can be distributed to the students, along with the article by John Ibbitson, and the group worksheet, below. You can also provide them with your preferred website as a source for information on the history of Cuba that is not covered by the backgrounder.

Backgrounder (print out for students)

Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands and its history up to 1959 is the story of slavery, colonization, war, revolutions, coups d’etat and more revolutions. A Spanish colony for centuries, Cuba gained its independence following the United States’ war with Spain at the turn of the 20th century. Cubans flirted with communism in the 1930s and ‘40s, but under General Fulgencia Batista in the 1950s the country turned more to the United States for investment and support. Batista took power in a 1952 coup but failed to redeem it with promised fair and democratic elections. There were repeated attempts to oust Batista in the 1950s, including one failed attempt by Fidel Castro, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Mexico for his part. While in Mexico, Castro met Che Guevara, who would become his fellow revolutionary in the years to come.

During the 1950s, Batista opened the doors to development that included American investment, but also America’s mobsters and mafia, such as Mayer Lansky, who quickly established themselves in the growing casino and gambling businesses in Havana. Opposition to Batista grew among the middle classes and the Catholic Church from 1956 onward. Fidel Castro was pardoned by Batista after serving two years of his sentence and he returned to Cuba with Che Guevara to lead the rebels in the hills of Sierra Maestra. In 1959 they seized Havana, Batista escaped to exile, and Castro established a revolutionary government that remains in power to this day. Among his first acts, he nationalized billions of dollars’ worth of foreign assets, including about $1B in properties belonging to American companies. The United States responded by isolating Cuba with a trade embargo. Castro was also accused of imprisoning and often executing thousands of his political opponents, and although he promised open elections after four years, Cuba remains a one-party dictatorship to this day.

Until recently, the United States had taken a very hard line with Cuba and only as of October, 2016, have some of the barriers to trade been removed. Over the intervening decades, the U.S. has made numerous failed attempts to assassinate and to oust Castro, including the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. With the U.S. as his enemy, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. A Soviet presence within 160 kilometres of Florida represented a serious threat to Washington. President Kennedy narrowly escaped a nuclear war in 1962 when Nikita Khruschev backed down after Kennedy insisted that the Soviets remove their newly-installed medium-range, anti-ballistic missiles from Cuban soil. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba fell on particularly hard times, but it found a new ally in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, among other Latin American leaders. Many countries worked to normalize relations with Cuba over the past 30 years, including Canada. Today, tourism in Cuba—including, as of last year, tourists from the United States—flourishes in a country that boasts a well-regarded health care system, a literate population (free education for all, including university), and a relatively secure life for its 11,250,000 citizens.

The United States has been particularly steadfast in its opposition to Cuba because of its nationalization of American assets, but also because of reports of continuing human rights abuses, especially to opponents of Castro and his regime. Even today, Cuban citizens do not enjoy freedom of the press or unrestricted access to the Internet, although in recent months more WIFI has become available in designated locations. As evidenced by the current days of mourning, Cubans remained, on the whole, loyal to Fidel Castro and to his revolutionary regime that has outlasted nine United State Presidents. After his health began to fade, Castro slowly removed himself from public office, finally turning the presidency over to his brother and fellow 1959 revolutionary, Raul Castro, in 2008.

Under the Obama Administration, ties with Cuba have warmed considerably, but President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to undo any progress that has already been made. Mr. Trudeau’s eulogy points to a continuing divergence of policies between Canada and the United States, should Mr. Trump make good on those promises.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Start a brief discussion with students about Cuba, asking them if they are aware of Mr. Castro’s death. Find out what they already know about Cuba. These prompts will help:

  • Where is Cuba? (In the Caribbean sea, about 160 kilometres off the tip of Florida)
  • Have any of you ever visited Cuba on a vacation? (Some may have, in which case you might ask them to describe their experiences)
  • Why haven’t Americans visited Cuba until recently? (Because they were not allowed to by U.S. law)

Organize students into groups and provide them with the following works sheet:

Using the information sheet, the article and the Internet, complete the following tasks:

  • Find a map of Cuba. How would this map help to explain the number of Cubans now living in Florida?
  • Describe Cuba before 1959 under Mr. Batista and list some reasons why Cubans might want a change of government.
  • After Mr. Castro’s successful revolution and overthrow of Mr. Batista, what happened to American-owned businesses in Cuba?
  • Why did Mr. Castro decide to form an alliance with the Soviet Union, when the United States was so much closer?
  • Describe the relationship existed between the United States and the Soviet Union in those days (1959-1989), using the term “cold war.”
  • Describe, in simple terms, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis—what caused it and how it ended.
  • Contrast Cuba’s system of government under Mr. Castro with a democratic system, such as we have in Canada.
  • What is the meaning of boycott when applied to the movement of goods and services between countries?
  • Did Canada join the United States’ boycott of Cuban goods as well as its barring citizens from travelling to Cuba? If not, how would you describe the relationship between Canada and Cuba in recent decades?

Next, read the article by Mr. Ibbitson to inform your responses to the following:

  • Mr. Trump has said that relations with Cuba could only be improved and the boycotts lifted if Cuba met certain conditions. Name these conditions.
  • Why is Canada well-regarded by Cubans while the United States is not?
  • If Mr. Castro was a force for both good and ill, list a few ways he was a force for good and some that show he was a force for ill.
  • Finally, how do you think Canada should relate to Cuba from now on? Should we treat it as a friend and trading partner? Should we demand that Cubans be allowed free elections? Why or why not?

Be prepared to provide an oral report to the class.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Students share and discuss their group’s work with the class.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students can explain, in general terms, who Fidel Castro was, what caused the breach in relations between Cuba and the United States and, how Canada’s relations with Cuba have contrasted with those of the US.

Confirming Activity:

  • Students report on the incoming Trump administration’s approach to Cuba, following Mr. Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017.