It marked a turning point in Canada’s relationship with Cuba, but Margaret Trudeau remembers the groundbreaking trip as one in which a dictator melted at the sight of her young baby.
In some of the photos of Pierre Trudeau’s closely followed 1976 trip to Cuba with Margaret and four-month-old Michel, Fidel Castro had a telltale stain on the front of his uniform, she remembers with a laugh.
“Fidel made it clear in his opening remarks that the parents were important but not nearly as important as the baby. In some pictures Fidel had a big patch of wet saliva on his uniform because he had come over early to cuddle the baby.”
Thirty-eight years after that trip, Trudeau says she is celebrating the thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations along with the Cuban people, a move that was helped along through secret meetings held in Ottawa.
She remembers Castro during that visit as a “very warm and charming man — I enjoyed him.”
She knew, however, that it was not easy politically for her husband. “It was a difficult regime that had a lot of human rights issues that were pressing and difficult for us,” she said, adding that the change in U.S.-Cuban relations opens the door for Cubans to reach their potential.
“I am very proud that Canada helped facilitate this, we have long, trusted ties,” she said. “This is good news and I celebrate with the Cuban people. I think it is about time.”
On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations with the beginning of normalization after a half-century trade blockade and no diplomatic ties. Castro’s communist revolution, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, considered the world’s closest brush with nuclear war, slammed shut relations between the two countries during the Cold War.
The announcement was greeted with joy by many Cubans who have struggled to support themselves and their families through deprivations their government says are a result of the economic blockade.
Canada’s relationship with Cuba followed a different — if sometimes controversial — path, led by then-prime minister Trudeau on his 1976 visit.
That trip set the stage for partnerships between the two countries in agriculture and other areas, and strong ongoing tourism links. Almost one million Canadian tourists visit Cuba every year.
It also marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Pierre Trudeau and Castro, who made an unprecedented trip to Montreal in 2000 to attend the former prime minister’s funeral, although frail and ailing. Margaret Trudeau said she visited Castro at his hotel before the funeral to welcome him on behalf of the family.
The Cuban dictator had an ongoing fondness for the Trudeaus’ youngest son who had charmed him as a baby. Castro was in tears, Trudeau said, when he learned of Michel’s death in 1998 in a British Columbia avalanche.
Trudeau said Castro had wanted them to send Michel back to Cuba when he was seven to attend pioneer camp for children, something the family often teased Michel about.
“It was very kind of him,” she said of Castro’s offer. “He was very proud of what he was doing with their children in establishing them as strong citizens.”
Pierre and Margaret Trudeau toured daycares, schools and hospitals with Castro during their visit to the island. Castro told them his concern was to give people educations and help get them out of poverty.
Trudeau said she fell in love with Cuba on the trip.
“What a fabulous place, the people are filled with life and music and happy in spite of very difficult times. Some of them work four jobs to support their families. They are wonderful people and I think this is an opportunity for them to really evolve as they need to.”
Trudeau said the social change they saw in Cuba was overwhelming, but the regime has also been “extraordinarily repressive.”
“I hope that is over for the Cuban people.”