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 2016, Justin Trudeau landed at José Martí International airport with his wife Sophie Grégoire 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 Martí, 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 past the honour guard, he affectionately put his arm around him, signaling his respect for 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.
President Raúl Castro invited the Trudeaus out to an official, yet intimate state dinner at a posh government-owned restaurant, Café del Oriente in the heart of Old Havana. This was seen as a friendly gesture and departure from the typical 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.
On this visit, Trudeau was unfortunately not able to meet with Fidel Castro who was in hospital and died 10 days later. He did however meet with his three sons in what was said to be a very warm meeting where he was presented a photo album of his father’s 1976 visit.
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 week’s meeting was not up to the same 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 identifiying 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.
During his visit, the Prime Minister participated in a roundtable dialogue with civil society organizations to discuss diversity, race, gender, and LGBTQ2 issues.
Attending several events in Havana, Prime Minister 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.”
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, “Qué bolá”? – a colloquial expression meaning what’s up?
Trudeau fielded questions about the impact of a Trump presidency and concerns about how Cuban-US relations may proceed. 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.” 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. You could see him smiling through much of the speech. “I’m so happy, Trudeau exclaimed, to be received by the students of the University of Havana 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 “99% diseño cubano” … even better!” referring to a logo by Clandestina, a new Cuban design shop that makes creative t-shirts.
While Trudeau was speaking with students at the University of Havana, his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau had her own agenda at the San Geronimo University in Old Havana. She was the honored guest at a panel discussion on gender equality, a cause she champions back home in Canada. She instantly charmed the crowd with her opening statements in fluent Spanish.
“The hardest thing to change in a society is what is considered normal. Is it normal to work, to have babies, be in charge of the household, be caring for aging parents and family members or loved ones and to have all those responsibilities on our shoulders? Is it normal to face the daily language of violence towards our bodies, our minds our hearts?” she asked.
She said Cuba’s leaders are “already very open-minded and they foresee the work ahead just as we do in Canada. To achieve gender equality, men must be raised from a young age to respect women.”
Notable among the crowd of artists, filmmakers and the media were two of Havana’s most successful commercial entrepreneurs, Idania del Río and Leire Fernández, who are co-owners of Clandestina, the aforementioned design shop. Following the conference, Sophie payed them a visit and picked up some souvenirs to take back home just as Barack Obama had done on his visit earlier in the year. “Sophie as a person is very inspiring, explains Idania. She is very high profile and at the same time she can relate to anybody on any level, she is super sweet, and also very strong in her opinions. The issues she addressed are very important in Cuba and even more important now that we’re facing a new era in our society.”