Was Justin Trudeau’s effusive eulogy of Fidel Castro a message to Donald Trump?

For decades, Canadian governments have used Cuba to stick a thumb in America’s eye – a small gesture of defiance to remind our giant ally that when we disagree with them, we don’t hesitate to say so, and to act so.

In praising a man loathed by so many Americans, including the president-elect, Mr. Trudeau was acting as his father’s son, reminding everyone that the Castros and the Trudeaus go back, that successive Canadian governments never accepted or agreed with the American boycott of the socialist regime and that whatever foreign-policy heresies the incoming administration might be preparing to commit, Canada is willing and able to go its own way.

Mr. Trudeau released the controversial statement on Saturday.

“It was a statement to recognize the passing of a former head of state … with which Canada has had a deep and lasting friendship,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters Sunday at Le Francophonie in Madagascar. He made no apologies for his choice of words, which has attracted attention and criticism around the world.

Certainly, the gesture was calculated. Mr. Trudeau was in Cuba less than a fortnight ago, where he met with President Raul Castro, but not with Fidel. He may well have known then that the end was near.

Mr. Trudeau could simply have authorized whatever statement Global Affairs and his own office worked up, which would doubtless have carefully balanced the Cuban dictator’s outsized influence on the 20th century with his record of stifling and punishing dissent. But Mr. Trudeau’s statement had the sound of his own voice, and its unqualified praise – “a larger-than-life leader”… “a legendary revolutionary and orator” … “my father was very proud to call him a friend” – had both American and Canadian conservatives fuming.

“Shameful and embarrassing,” declared Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, while Conservative leadership candidate Lisa Raitt said on Facebook: “The Prime Minister should be ashamed of himself. He must retract this statement and apologize.”

Even Mr. Trudeau’s former policy adviser, Roland Paris, was unhappy. “It’s not a statement I would have recommended,” the University of Ottawa professor tweeted Saturday, observing Mr. Castro was a “historic figure, yes, but for both good and ill.”

But Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion backed up the Prime Minister Sunday, saying the purpose of Mr. Trudeau’s statement was “to focus on the positive the day where this man passed away,” which would leave Canada well placed to encourage democratic reform in the wake of Mr. Castro’s passing. “Mr. Trudeau personally will be in a good situation to do that,” he said on CTV’s Question Period, “because he’s well-perceived in Cuba from a lot of people.”

Contrast the Canadian government’s reaction with Mr. Trump’s characterization of Mr. Castro in his official statement as “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”

During the election, Mr. Trump harshly criticized the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, which played host to the initial, off-the-record talks between the two sides. Mr. Trump promised to close the embassy that Mr. Obama had opened in Havana, and claimed that somehow the United States should have gotten a better deal in return for relaxing trade and travel restrictions.

It’s uncertain what Mr. Trump’s policy toward Cuba will be. Criticizing Mr. Obama’s conciliatory approach during the election campaign helped win the votes of Cuban Americans in Florida, which Mr. Trump narrowly won. But the president-elect has given notice that he might amend or even abandon some of his election pledges: The wall with Mexico might be a fence in places; global warming might not be a Chinese hoax after all.

Incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus made it clear, however, that unless the Cuban government delivered more freedom for its people, Mr. Trump intended to stand firm. “There isn’t going to be a one-way relationship from the United States to Cuba without some action from the Castro administration,” he told Fox News Sunday.

If Mr. Trump does intend to refreeze the Cuban-American relationship, then Mr. Trudeau’s unreserved praise for Mr. Castro can be seen as putting the coming administration on notice that Canada disagreed with the American approach before, and will disagree with it again if need be.

It’s no secret that the Langevin Block was shocked and dismayed by the New York business magnate’s surprise victory on Nov. 8. While affirming his willingness to work with the new administration, Mr. Trudeau is signalling with his statement on Mr. Castro’s passing that if Mr. Trump undermines the Western alliance, starts a trade war with China and reneges on the nuclear agreement with Iran, then Canada will not hesitate to dissent.

The Prime Minister’s eulogy to Fidel Castro may one day be seen as the first item in a cavalcade of differences between Canada under Mr. Trudeau and America under Mr. Trump. The second might be if Mr. Trudeau attends El Comandante’s funeral.

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 8:22PM EST
Last updated Monday, Nov. 28, 2016 9:37AM EST