Canadian PM Justin Trudeau defends his praise of Fidel Castro

Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has come under fire for calling Fidel Castro a 'remarkable leader' without making any mention of the Cuban president's human rights record.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/AP
Justin Trudeau participates in the closing news conference at the Francophonie Summit in Antananarivo, Madagascar on Sunday. The Canadian Prime Minister has come under criticism for having said kind words about Fidel Castro upon the Cuban leader's death.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his controversial remarks about the passing of Fidel Castro on Sunday, claiming that he did not intend to gloss over the late Cuban leader's human rights record.

Prime Minister Trudeau, who in his original statement expressed "deep sorrow" over the Friday death of a "remarkable leader" who "made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation," had come under fire for remembering Castro in significantly fonder terms than most other Western leaders, with the comments sparking backlash on Saturday among some US Republicans and Cuban exiles. Critics argued that Castro had suppressed dissent in Cuba, and that there was no other option for national leadership under his rule. 

Mr. Trudeau defended his statement by saying he had only intended "to recognize the passing of a former head of state," and pointing out that he had raised concerns about human rights during an official visit to Cuba earlier in the month.

"The fact is Fidel Castro had a deep and lasting impact on the Cuban people," Trudeau told reporters on Sunday in a televised news conference. "He certainly was a polarizing figure and there certainly were significant concerns around human rights, that's something I'm open about and that I've highlighted." 

When asked during the news conference whether he saw Castro as a dictator, the Canadian prime minister answered: "Yes." 

The legacy of Fidel Castro "depends on where you stand," Riordan Roett, director of Latin America studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told The Christian Science Monitor over the weekend. "The left will always hold Castro in high regard as someone who overthrew a dictatorship," as well as the embodiment of Cuban nationalism. "But if you’re on the right, you see repression of the press and of opposition voices."

As Whitney Eulich and Howard LaFranchi reported for the Monitor on Saturday:

He was a revolutionary and a liberator: delivering his island nation from the colonial powers and mafia dons that ruled over it from the 16th century halfway into the 20th, and inspiring other independence movements in  Latin America and  Africa.

He was a dictator and a despot: delivering basic needs but denying basic rights, ultimately turning his nation of 10 million people into what some considered a collective gulag where the individual with a differing political vision was shown the door – to prison or to exile, or even to the firing squad...

Whether Cuba is one of the longest-running experiments in social equality or a state ruined under a dictatorship, it’s indissoluble from the man known by many as simply “Fidel.” His mixed legacy will be debated for years to come. His power on the world stage, while largely symbolic at the time of his death, was emblematic enough that it continues to inspire long after the close of the cold war. 

Castro's death elicited fond remarks from many admirers around the world, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who described Castro as a "sincere and reliable friend of Russia" who had built "an inspiring example for many countries and nations."

Chinese President Xi Jinping noted Castro's "immortal historical contributions to the development of socialism around the world," writing in a telegram to Raul Castro, "His glorious image and great achievements will be recorded in history forever." 

But Trudeau's Saturday statement was noticeably more positive than the reactions of most other Western leaders, including US President Barack Obama, who offered "a hand of friendship to the Cuban people" during their time of grief despite the "discord and profound political disagreements" that defined the relationship between the Untied States and Cuba under Castro's regime. 

President-elect Donald Trump, for his part, took to Twitter on Saturday to announce the Cuban leader's passing by proclaiming, "Fidel Castro is dead!" In a statement issued several hours later, he described Castro as "a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades," CNN reported.

"Fidel Castro's legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights," said Trump in his statement. "While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve."

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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