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Fidel, in Montreal and other places


Many memories came to my mind when I learned about the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro: mostly my years as a university student, avid reader of the many documents, speeches and theoretical texts outlining political action. Then the Revolution was seen as a kind of apocalyptic moment, indeed a time of revelation, especially to the young people in those years.


Fidel Castro at City Hall paying his respects to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
Fidel Castro at City Hall paying his respects to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau

The first time I saw Fidel—as most people in Cuba call him with a mix of familiarity and respect—was during the visit he paid to Salvador Allende’s Chile, in 1971. There was a huge meeting with the Cuban leader at Santiago’s Technical University, located in a working-class district near the central rail station in the Chilean capital. The largest gathering, however, took place at the National Stadium, with Fidel calling on the people to be aware of the dangers that were pending over the process of social and economic transformations that Allende was implementing. Unlike Fidel, who had come to power as a result of a successful armed rebellion against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Allende—a member of the Socialist Party—had been elected president in 1970.  He intended to fulfill his promises of leading his country toward a socialist system through the mechanisms that the constitutional frame provided. It was called a democratic transition to socialism, or more colloquially: “the road to socialism with empanadas and red wine” a reference to the peculiar way the Chilean revolution would take, everything would be done following the existing legal structure. The experiment lasted only three years: a bloody military coup led by Augusto Pinochet ended that utopian dream.


Besides his speeches, of course, focused on far-reaching matters at that time, he also had time for a dose of humour.  At the time it was customary for people of the Left attending demonstrations to start jumping at the time that they shout: “The one who doesn’t hop is a momio” (in Spanish, a demeaning term for right-wingers, it literally means ‘mummy’ implying that their way of thinking was very old-fashioned). Fidel was puzzled seeing all those people suddenly hopping; an aide explained to him what was going on and then the Cuban leader joined in the festive jumping as well.


Many years later, in the year 2000, I saw the Cuban leader again, this time at the funeral of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. When in office in the 1970s, Trudeau had defied Washington by paying an official visit to Havana. Since then a life-long friendship was cemented between the two leaders. Fidel was one of the pallbearers on that solemn occasion.


The sad occasion of that visit was just his second to the city: in an entirely different context and a happier time he had visited Montreal at the invitation of the Junior Chamber in 1959.  Just months after he had taken power in Cuba, Fidel, then on a trip to the United States, came to Montreal accepting that invitation and helping in the Junior Chamber’s campaign to collect toys for Cuban children.


No matter what one might think about Fidel as a ruler, the truth is that he was a leader larger than life, as our Prime Minister characterized him. A man who put Cuba on the map and transformed a country that was literally the brothel of the United States, run by gangsters and corrupt politicians, into a nation with the best education and health-care systems in Latin America. Yes, the standard of living of Cubans is still Spartan, but you don’t see the extreme poverty and homelessness that you find in other cities in Latin America or even in our urban centres here in Canada.  Something to think about: things are more nuanced that what is sometimes reported by the big media.

By Sergio Martinez – totimes.ca


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