When I was younger, my parents always said “Don’t speak ill of the dead” when someone died. Basically, they didn’t think it was nice to say bad things about the deceased—even if it was true. Perhaps Justin Trudeau was following the same rule last Sunday when he found out Fidel Castro had died. Canada’s Prime Minister issued a statement that said, in part, “A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.” Fair enough, those things were all true, including that part about Cuba being an island.
But Trudeau continued, saying: “While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for “el Comandante.” That line that got the Prime Minister into some trouble.
How could those who opposed Castro or were victimized by his government possibly acknowledge his love for the people? Many Cubans who lost their property and civil liberties after the communist revolution in 1959 probably didn’t think Fidel Castro was doing them any favors. If Cubans really thought Castro loved them, then how come so many of them made dangerous escapes to the United States or other countries over the past 55 years? Trudeau also referred to Castro as a “remarkable leader.” Those two words really got him into hot water.
In response to the Prime Minister’s comments, Twitter traffic surged with mock eulogies of other controversial figures in history, all under the hashtag #trudeaueulogies. “We mourn the passing of Henry VIII. A man who always kept his head, while all around were losing theirs,” read one, while another said “We mourn the death of Vlad the Impaler, who spearheaded initiatives which touched the hearts of millions.” Trudeau’s eulogy of Fidel Castro blew apart like an exploding cigar. The Prime Minister hastily acknowledged the next day that Castro was indeed a dictator.
The problem for Justin Trudeau in this situation was that Fidel Castro was an old friend of his family. Back in 1976, his father Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister and established diplomatic relations with Cuba. Pierre’s memoirs contain photos of him and Castro skin diving and fishing together, Fidel playing with baby Michel, the youngest Trudeau son, and there’s a goofy photo of Pierre’s then-wife and Justin’s mother Margaret smoking cigars with Castro. In recent days, entertaining but ridiculous speculation in the less noble quarters of the media has revealed a chronologically impossible conspiracy theory that Fidel Castro was Justin Trudeau’s real father, hence the lenient eulogy.
When Pierre Trudeau died in 2000, Fidel Castro flew to Montreal and went to the funeral. It was an unusual sight to see him ditch his usual olive drab fatigues for a suit and to be seen in such an un-communist place as a church. Castro also had a friendly chat with former President Jimmy Carter.
The Prime Minister is not attending Castro’s funeral. For Justin Trudeau, it was probably difficult to say something bad about his parent’s departed friend. However, being a good leader isn’t just about being friendly. It’s about being objective and principled, even if it means speaking ill of the dead.