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Justin Trudeau to travel to Cuba, retracing some of his father’s historic footsteps

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boards a government plane in Ottawa, Thursday September 29, 2016.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boards a government plane in Ottawa, Thursday September 29, 2016. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will retrace some of his father’s most historic footsteps next week when he travels to Cuba and quite possibly meets an old family friend – retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Officially, Trudeau will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, who took over his country’s leadership in 2008 from his brother, the leader of Cuba’s communist revolution in 1959 and the decades-long antagonist to the United States.

Cuba’s ambassador to Canada says there may also be an opportunity to visit with Fidel Castro too.

“I think this question has been worked out, and there is a chance. I don’t know how it will end,” ambassador Julio Garmendia Pena said in an interview Monday.

“I’m sure Fidel would like to meet him, and it would be a great opportunity for him to say hello to a friend of his father, and for Fidel to greet his closest friend’s son as a prime minister.”

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Fidel Castro has maintained a sporadic public profile since he formally ceded control of the Caribbean island country, 135 kilometres off the southern tip of Florida, to his younger brother. He has met world leaders, including the visiting president of Portugal just weeks ago, and Pope Francis last year, said Pena.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is greeted by Fidel Castro after arriving in Cuba on Jan. 26, 1976.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is greeted by Fidel Castro after arriving in Cuba on Jan. 26, 1976. The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand

Pierre Trudeau became the first NATO leader to visit Cuba when he touched down on Jan. 26, 1976 with his wife Margaret, and his then four-month-old son Michel in tow.

The three-day visit rankled some of Canada’s allies as Margaret Trudeau sang to Castro, while Trudeau at one point exhorted, “Viva Castro.”

The photos of the visit, especially of the bearded father of the communist revolution holding the prime minister’s infant son, have become iconic.

“From a personal point of view, it impressed us that he came to Cuba with his family. He brought his son, who was only three months and 26 days old,” Castro told the CBC National Magazine in an October 2000 interview.

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“I met that little baby when he came here when he wasn’t even four months old, and he won everyone’s heart.”

Margaret Trudeau smiles as Cuban President Fidel Castro holds her youngest son Michel after the Trudeaus arrived in Havana, Cuba, Jan.26, 1976.
Margaret Trudeau smiles as Cuban President Fidel Castro holds her youngest son Michel after the Trudeaus arrived in Havana, Cuba, Jan.26, 1976. CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand

Trudeau’s youngest son died in a British Columbia avalanche in 1998.

Two years later, Castro made a stunning appearance at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral in Montreal, where he also rubbed shoulders with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.

Pena was near the beginning of his own 41-year career in Cuba’s foreign service when word of Trudeau’s death reached Havana.

Fidel Castro immediately dropped everything and made plans to travel to Montreal, he said.

“It was prepared in hours. He met Sacha and Justin,” said Pena, referring to the current prime minister’s younger brother, Alexandre.

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“I think the family appreciated very much the presence of our former president at that sad moment.”

Next week, Trudeau will spend less time in Havana than his father. He is to arrive Tuesday night and depart on Wednesday, said Pena.

Trudeau will meet Raul Castro and other government officials, and will likely tour Old Havana. He may also visit a university where he can interact with Cuban youth, said Pena.

The Cuban government also hopes that the visit will highlight potential trade and investment opportunities for Canadian businesses in Cuba, particularly in the biotechnology sector, he added.

Cuba hopes that the decision of the Barack Obama administration in December 2014 to restore diplomatic ties might make some Canadian companies a little less skittish about running afoul of the U.S. government and seek some long-term investment opportunities.

Canada’s decision to host the secret talks between the U.S. and Cuba that led to Obama thawing relations with Cuba was a pivotal step in the long process towards his country’s “normalization” of relations with the U.S., said Pena.

“Canada served as the connection to be able to carry out such important conversations – talks – in a discreet manner,” said Pena. “Not because of anything against the press, but because things could not be achieved if there was a leak.”

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Trudeau’s visit to Cuba will be part of a larger trip that also includes stops in Argentina, where he will meet the country’s president, and Peru, where he will participate in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ meeting.

“Cuba and Argentina are two of our closest partners in the hemisphere. I look forward to working with President Castro and President Macri to stimulate more trade and investment with Canada, grow the middle class, and foster closer people-to-people ties for the benefit of all our citizens,” Trudeau said in a statement issued Tuesday.