Walkom: Canada had a special relationship with dictator

He was probably Canada’s favourite dictator.

Canadians may not have approved of the methods Fidel Castro used to govern Cuba. His restrictions on press and political freedom, his insistence that trade unions be government-run and the arbitrary practices of his revolutionary courts would have grated here.

But he successfully stood up to the United States. He nationalized American firms. He fought off a U.S.-backed invasion. He brought in universal health care. He insisted on tweaking the eagle’s beak.

And for that, in this country at least, he was forgiven much.

True, many Canadians agree with Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose who issued a statement Saturday attacking Castro’s “long and oppressive regime.”

But my guess is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau better caught the mood when he called Castro a “larger-than-life figure who served his people for almost half a century.”

For an entire generation, Castro’s 1959 revolution was a mythic event.

It inspired real revolutionaries. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela modelled his anti-apartheid struggle on Castro’s strategy of guerrilla war.

His success in Cuba gave hope to opponents of right-wing dictatorships throughout South and Central America.

But Castro also inspired those looking for more peaceful ways to counter U.S. hegemony. He showed that it was possible for a Western Hemisphere country to exist outside of Washington’s orbit.

In the late 1960s, so-called Venceremos Brigades recruited students from Canadian campuses to travel to Cuba and help harvest sugar cane.

Che Guevara, one of Castro’s comrades in arms, became an iconic symbol of opposition to privilege.

Much of the adoration directed at Castro and his fellow revolutionaries was naive. The revolution succeeded not just because of Castro’s boldness but because Cuba’s economy was backstopped by the old Soviet Union.

Che Guevara may have first impressed youthful Canadians as a symbol of revolution. But he soon became a style feature. Would-be rebels wore Che berets and displayed Che posters on their dorm walls.

But there was also something glorious about Castro’s – and Cuba’s – refusal to give in.

They survived the U.S. trade embargo. They successfully fought off a 1961 U.S.-backed invasion.

Castro himself escaped numerous assassination attempts by Washington’s Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1962, Castro’s decision to install Soviet missiles in Cuba almost brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. But it was also a high-stakes victory for the Cuban leader. In exchange for having the Soviets remove these missiles, the U.S. promised to never again invade Cuba — a pledge it has kept.

Throughout, the attitude of successive Conservative and Liberal governments toward Castro remained eminently practical.

Canada never joined the U.S. embargo. Nor did it follow the U.S. lead and sever diplomatic relations with Havana.

Canadian companies operated profitably in Communist Cuba. Canadian tourists flocked to Cuban beaches.

Liberal prime ministers, most notably Pierre Trudeau, were openly friendly towards the Cuban revolutionary. Conservative prime ministers, while more circumspect, essentially followed the same path.

It was through the good offices of former prime minister Stephen Harper that Cuba and the U.S. negotiated their recent, and perhaps short-lived, rapprochement.

With Fidel Castro dead, can Cuba as a socialist country survive? Does it want to? Or will it surrender to the blue-jean and cellphone allure of the imperialism that Castro spent his life fighting?

With Fidel Castro dead, will the U.S. under soon-to-be president Donald Trump dust off its old invasion plans?

In the end, Castro was a classic charismatic leader. When they are alive, such leaders can keep fragile countries united. Think of Tito and Yugoslavia.

But when they die, they leave a gaping hole.

Troy Media’s Thomas Walkom is a national affairs columnist.

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