Saturday, December 27, 2014



The seeds for Canada being the honest broker of the talks that led to the thaw in the Cuban boycott by the U.S.  were sown in a remarkable visit in 1976 to the island. It was sandwiched between state visits to Venezuela and Mexico, like a prison between two meadows.
It starred the Three Mouthketeers of Fidel Castro, Pierre Trudeau, and Margaret with baby Michel on one hip when she hadn't lost him in Mexico.
What a trip! The press corps had a wonderful time. So did the islanders. The Cubans turned out by the tens of thousands  (although many were forced to.)  Canucks were more fun that the dour Soviets and their grim faces and  monolithic architecture. Secret police were obvious everywhere. You had to write down your currency transactions.
It was an Iron Curtain country floating in the Caribbean, which led to a zany touch to the coverage. There are still bizarre bits about that trip floating in myths soaked with Cuba libres.
For example, there was a story that Trudeau once tried as a youth to canoe to Cuba from the Florida keys.
For example, John Harbron, a professor and editor who had studied in Havana and boasted a personal relationship with Trudeau, told me the reason the PM's Spanish was so good is that he had attended university in Cuba too.
For example, a good source told me that one reason for the rapport between Castro and Trudeau, besides the fact that neither gave a damn about what anyone else thought, is that a Jesuit priest who had taught Trudeau and made a great impression was later one of Castro's teachers.
For example, the media left Margaret alone for a wacky week, despite her stunts, because we believed she was mentally ill. For starters, we wondered about postpartum depression because Michel was only four months old.
So we cut her a break, so to speak. It was an uneasy truce because after all Trudeau was thrusting both his wife and his son into our faces when he knew she was having problems. It got so bad that Castro at some points carted Michel around as if he was the babysitter.
Finally I discovered Margaret in the lobby of the Caracas Hilton, very sexy but also shouting curses at her husband's secretary. When I intervened, she unloaded on me. Turned out I knew more swear words. So she fled to the state banquet where she gave a Nazi salute as O Canada was played and turned her back in the receiving line.
Almost matched her giving Michel in Mexico to a young Canadian backpacker to cuddle and then wandering off, forgetting about him, which led to a frantic RCMP search.
On the plane trip home, I got her to sing childish songs that she had composed for the wives of the leaders of Venezuela and Mexico into the media microphones. The next day I was on TV to refute her claim that I had pledged it was off-the-record.
But back to diplomacy. Castro and Trudeau had open admiration for each other. Trudeau generally wouldn't speak to me but when I asked him about SCUBA diving with the Cuban dictator, he was almost giddy in his praise, saying that they had gone deeper than he had ever been before and that Castro and his bodyguards just cut the fish apart in the depths, not caring a whit about sharks.
Ironically, years later, another Canadian that made an impression on Castro also went SCUBA diving with him even though he wasn't experienced.
As James Bartleman, our former lieutenant-governor, says in one of his fascinating four books on his life as our ambassador to countries like Cuba, he went to clear his mask when he was with Castro and one of the bodyguards held him up out of the water so he could do that without difficulty.
Years later, after the able Bartleman had been a key advisor to Jean Chretien as PM, the Liberal government dispatched him back to Cuba for secret talks when Canada was trying to improve the relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Nothing much happened that time, Bartleman told me, even though he had had a relationship with Castro who had routinely dropped in on him unannounced and talked all night when he was stationed there. Bartleman said he was fascinated by the attention until he realized that Fidel was probably just looking for an audience. His feelings for the Cubans cooled a trifle when they poisoned his beloved dog.
Various partnerships between Canada and Cuba, even when the Soviet Union kept the island economy from drowning, have blossomed over the years, along with Canada being the largest source of tourists.
In recent years, the Americans dreamed up strange reasons for charter flights even though it was illegal technically for an ordinary Yank to visit.
 Yet Canada continued to be the major source of  tourism  from the entire world, and Canada continued to be the secret neutral territory when the two wanted to talk, all due to the personal chemistry 38 years ago between two dictators, a giddy dame and a drooling baby.


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