Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Havana 40 years after his father Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s historic state visit in 1976 when he became the first NATO country leader to call on the island since the 1959 Revolution.
On November 15th, Justin Trudeau landed at Jose Marti International airport with his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, Canadian Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland and a team of journalists.
Trudeau immediately followed in his father’s footsteps by placing a wreath in Revolution Square under the towering white marble statue of national Cuban hero José Marti who is a symbol of liberty for Cuba and Latin America.
President Raúl Castro was waiting to greet the Prime Minister at the official welcoming ceremony across the road in the Palace of the Revolution. As Castro led Trudeau down the grand hall, he put his arm around him as a sign of his affection for the Prime Minister and to honour the Trudeau family. These close ties go back to Pierre Trudeau’s initial visit when Justin, who was not on this trip, was four years old.
On this visit, Trudeau was unfortunately not able to meet with Fidel Castro who was in hospital but met with Fidel ‘s three sons.
President Raúl Castro invited the Trudeaus out to an official but intimate state dinner at a posh government-owned restaurant, Café del Oriente in the heart of Old Havana, which was seen as a friendly gesture and departure from the regular stuffy state dinners. During the dinner he presented Trudeau with a printed copy of the speech that his father Pierre Trudeau gave in Havana on his 1976 visit. Raúl read excerpts from the speech and then wrote a personal message, signed it and gave it to the PM.
Forty years before Pierre Trudeau had exclaimed at a rally in Cienfuegos from the podium: Long live Prime Minister Commander Fidel Castro and long live the friendship of Cuba and Canada! To which the crowd shouted VIVA !!
This weeks meeting was not up the revolutionary fervor of the previous visit but Justin Trudeau stayed true to his father’s close links with the Cubans by reinforcing Canada’s enduring relationship with Cuba and identified a number of areas where the two countries could work even closer together.
In his meetings with President Raúl Castro, Prime Minister Trudeau agreed to collaborate on climate change, gender equality, regional safety and security issues, as well as take steps to grow both economies and strengthen the middle class.
Trudeau also took time to visit the University of Havana and talk to students where he got off to a great start by asking the young crowd Que bolá? – a colloquial expression meaning what’s up?
Trudeau fielded questions about the impact of a Trump presidency and concerns where Cuban-US relations may go now. Trudeau answered “sometimes we disagree with the approach of the US. It not our place to tell them what to do. We want to help Cuba modernize.” Raúl was smiling through much of the speech.
Trudeau told the students, “ in everything that we do, our government will stay true to Canadian values: values of inclusion, honesty, hard work, fiscal prudence, and generosity of spirit.”
Raúl was present as well though it was not on his agenda. He wanted to be there to honor the longstanding friendship between the two families. Trudeau said how happy he was to be received by the students of Havana University and by my friend Raúl who took time out of his busy schedule to be here today.
Trudeau encouraged the students to feel empowered. “And you don’t need to wear a suit to do it. I know that you are all capable of doing big, important things. And if you do it wearing a t-shirt that says “noventa y nueve por ciento diseño cubano” … even better!” referring to a logo by Clandestina, a new Cuban design shop that make creative t-shirts.
Attending several events in Havana, Trudeau emphasized the ties between the countries. “Canada and Cuba have been trading partners for many years. We see this in the tremendous flow of tourists from Canada to Cuba. Canadians account for more than 40% of all visits to Cuba, making 1.3 million visits each year. Last year, trade between our two countries was worth more than a billion dollars … with much room to grow.
“But of all the links between our two countries, I think the most significant ones exist not by way of commercial or development ties, but through one-on-one, person-to-person connections.”