The duty continues its journey back to the sources of French America, focusing on the exploration of Quebec newspapers and archives. To broaden our horizons, we will travel from the northern confines of the Hudson to the sunny dreams of Florida, while tracing the thread of a shared history. Today, Fidel Castro’s visit to Montreal.
On April 26, 1959, Fidel Castro arrived in Montreal, just three months after taking power in Cuba. The revolutionary is all the more expected as his plane landed at Dorval airport, a good three hours late.
Dressed in his eternal khaki fatigues, the Cuban is acclaimed as soon as he arrives on the ground of what is still the metropolis of Canada. The security services are overwhelmed. The crowd reaches him. She surrounds him, touches him, celebrates him. Among the notables present is Sarto Fournier, the mayor of Montreal.
A black limousine and its driver are waiting for the revolutionary. When Castro finally gets on board, he refuses to sit behind. He sits next to the driver. The limousine is at the heart of a procession of twenty vehicles placed under escort. The objective is to reach the city center, but a stop is planned on the way. Castro indeed asked to visit the Sainte-Justine hospital, with the intention of being inspired by it for the Cuban children.
In the hospital, Castro speaks to everyone, takes children in his arms, provokes smiles, arouses attention as well as consideration. The photographers have a field day. Castro says he wants to take advantage of his stay in Montreal to collect toys for children in the regions most affected by the revolution.
In front of the Queen Elizabeth hotel, where we have been waiting for him for hours, curious people and admirers have gathered. Castro plants Mayor Fournier there to let himself be carried away by this wave. It is only with much delay that Castro and his family finally enter the famous hotel. Inside, it’s not much simpler. Castro ultimately has to rely on security to make his way to the elevators.
The communist shadow
During a press conference at the Queen Elizabeth, Castro was introduced by the president of the chamber of commerce, a francophone who, for the occasion, found it fashionable to speak only in English. Behind him, the Red Ensign, the flag of the British merchant navy serving as the Canadian flag, acts as a backdrop.
All the media are there. The photos show the stretched microphones of Radio-Canada, CKVL, CKAC and CJMS. Very tall, sure of himself like no other, an outstanding speaker, Castro dominates his interviewers. Even if he speaks in a somewhat laborious English, he does it without hesitation, voluble as always. He begins by stating that he intends to learn French soon.
In search of international support, Castro flatters his hosts. “We see Canada as an example of what a country can do when people work hard. »
A reporter from CFCF asks him if he flirts with communism, this great fear of America. “I don’t know what you call flirting with communists. If you call flirting not murdering or persecuting them, you are right because we are true democrats, we believe in civil and political freedoms, in all freedoms. We intend to install a democracy. We want neither bread without freedom nor freedom without bread. »
To those who would reduce it to a label, Castro retorts: “It is an analysis that is worthy of people who have no political culture or who do not want to have one. In fact, the new regime is neither communist nor capitalist, he says. “We simply want to be ‘humanists’. »
For The duty, it was Jean-Marc Léger who was given the task of interviewing the 32-year-old revolutionary. Elegant, full of manners and consideration as usual, Léger noted the words of this man who would remain in office for nearly half a century: “Neither I nor those who are with me dream of clinging to power , but we passionately want to make Cuba a pilot land for social democracy in Latin America. » Featured To have tothe headline could not be more favorable: “A revolution which is not an illusion”.
René Lévesque is present. He holds out his microphone towards this man who, cigar in mouth, punctuates “in incendiary arabesques long, dense and sometimes incomprehensible sentences”, will write the journalist. Fidel, “it was for our jaded world the reincarnation of the ancient or mythological hero, Achille or Alexandre”, adds René Lévesque, who considers this big fellow “young, pure, like a pitiless and spotless sword”. Lévesque adds more. “Fidel was the idealism we lacked,” he wrote a year later.
The memory that attaches to a photo of Lévesque and Castro will be used as background to feed the worst conspiratorial gossip about the journalist when the latter, who has become a Liberal minister, undertakes to nationalize the private hydroelectric companies.
Former journalist at To have to, co-founder of the journal free city Along with his friend Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Gérard Pelletier was assigned to describe Castro’s press conference for the benefit of Radio-Canada. Fidel, underlines Gérard Pelletier, is the “most romantic character of the news”.
But why are there no elections? Castro is asked. It is that our movement is in the majority, answers the colossus. If we held an election right away, it would be a plebiscite. And we would be accused of hijacking democracy. We must give the opposition time to organize itself, he said, so that we do not find ourselves in the usual situation of coups d’etat that Latin America is used to.
Cuba is a land that pursues an ideal, a humanist and democratic ideal, Castro repeats to his hosts. “We want a free democracy, based on social justice. We want to set an example. Are these the true intentions of the revolutionary? Is it the circumstances which, in the sequence of things, will force him to inflect his speech and to go back? Many historians will wonder.
At the end of this press conference, as on any occasion, Castro must be arrested. He had to be trained, says René Lévesque, “because he still agreed to discuss Montesquieu and his ideas on politics and the temperament of peoples”.
What marked Castro during this brief stay in Montreal? In any case, the revolutionary showed a keen interest in the Royal Gendarmerie. “When I arrived this morning, I was moved to see the mounted police. In South American countries, says Castro, some policemen are worse than criminals. The example of this folk-like Canadian police force pleases him. So he wants us to show him around the RCMP headquarters. He wishes, he says, to be inspired by it for the foundation of a new gendarmerie in Cuba. “We want a police force which is not the enemy of the people, but which defends the law. »
My friend Fidel
In January 1976, the Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, visited Cuba. He is the first leader of a NATO member country to visit the island since 1959.
Trudeau’s visit is a perfect opportunity for Havana to normalize its relations with one of its North American neighbors. The Cuban president needs international support to oxygenate his nation’s economy. the leader maximo is going to play his seduction number wonderfully for three days.
Castro did not wait for Trudeau’s visit to woo him. The Canadian Prime Minister owes one to his Cuban counterpart for having pulled a thorn out of his side, six years earlier, by agreeing to accommodate the FLQ members of the Liberation cell. They had obtained safe conduct in exchange for the release of their hostage, James Richard Cross.
In his memoirs published in 1993, Trudeau senior says he was seduced by Castro. In front of him, Castro presents himself as a calm man rather than a tribune capable of soliloquizing for hours. He asks questions and lets Trudeau answer. The Canadian Prime Minister is visibly under the influence of the “unusual magnetism” of the leader maximo. The two men continue to see each other on occasion, at a time when Canadian tourism on the island is becoming a significant source of income for Havana.
On October 3, 2000, during the funeral of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in Montreal, among the relatives gathered for this occasion at the Notre-Dame basilica, we found in particular Fidel Castro, installed not far from the poet-singer Leonard Cohen.
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When René Lévesque was enthusiastic about Fidel Castro
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