Trudeau Treads Lightly After Cuba Cracks Down on Street Protests

Justin Trudeau said Canada would press for greater liberty in Cuba, but stopped short of condemning a wave of arrests and an apparent attempt to shut down social media after unprecedented street protests roiled the communist nation.

The Canadian prime minister, whose father was a friend of Fidel Castro’s, spoke out a day after U.S. President Joe Biden warned the Cuban government against a heavy-handed response to the demonstrators.

“Canada has always stood in friendship with the Cuban people,” Trudeau said Tuesday when asked about Havana’s moves to quell dissent. “We have always called for greater freedoms and more defense of human rights in Cuba. We will continue to be there to support Cubans in their desire for greater peace, greater stability and greater voice in how things are going.”

Trudeau Treads Lightly After Cuba Cracks Down on Street Protests

Canada never broke relations with the Caribbean nation after the revolution that swept Castro to power in 1959 and almost brought the U.S. and Russia to nuclear war in the early 1960s. Before the pandemic shut down travel, Canadian travelers were the biggest source of foreign tourism to the island.

Two years ago, Trudeau’s government attempted to use its cordial ties to persuade Cuba to mediate in the political crisis in Venezuela amid Washington’s attempt to oust Nicolas Maduro from power.

But the prime minister’s friendly tone toward Cuba has raised eyebrows in the past, and his main political rival seized on his latest comments. “We can’t afford more of Mr. Trudeau’s glowing admiration for dictatorships,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said in a statement that condemned “terrible acts of oppression, murder, and tyranny” by the Cuban regime.

When Fidel Castro died in 2016, Trudeau hailed the former Cuban president as a “legendary revolutionary and orator” who “made significant improvements to the education and health care of his island nation.” Though he acknowledged Castro was a “controversial figure,” he made no mention of human rights at the time -- prompting viral parodies and criticism from Cuban-American senators including Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Sunday’s protests saw thousands of people fill the streets of Havana, Santiago de Cuba and other cities, decrying rising prices, the lack of basic goods and frequent blackouts. They represent the biggest challenge yet to the leadership of Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took over as president from Fidel’s younger brother, Raul Castro, in 2018 and as head of the all-powerful Communist Party this year.

The Cuban government hasn’t said how many people have been detained. But Cuba Decide, a pro-democracy group on the island, said in a tweet Tuesday that more than 150 have been locked up by police and state security.

Prior to Trudeau’s remarks, Foreign Minister Marc Garneau’s press secretary declined a request for comment on the protests. A spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada said later Monday the government was monitoring the situation in Cuba and was concerned by recent events.

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