What Trudeau's Castro comments reveal

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justin trudeau castro statement sot_00003029

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    Trudeau defends his tribute to Castro

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  • Peniel Joseph: Fidel Castro re-shaped global politics before reaching the age of 40
  • Joseph writes that as a revolutionary, Castro was both an icon and an oppressor

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently "Stokely: A Life." The views expressed here are his.

(CNN)The firestorm over Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's praise for Fidel Castro is proof that, despite the US government's official denunciation of the Cuban leader, Castro's legacy around the world ultimately remains far more complicated.

Trudeau's characterization of Castro as a "legendary revolutionary and orator" drew swift and withering rebukes from American elected officials, most notably from Sen. Marco Rubio, who tweeted that Trudeau's remarks are "shameful & embarrassing," and Sen. Ted Cruz, who called them "disgraceful." Both senators are descendants of Cubans who fled pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba and both remain determined to close off US-Cuban ties until the island's communist regime is replaced with free elections.
    Peniel Joseph
    Castro's death, taking place against the backdrop of President Obama's efforts at the end of his tenure to normalize relations with Cuba, has touched off a fierce international debate over the meaning of human rights, social justice and political revolution.
    Trudeau's praise illuminates the fact that the meaning of Castro's legacy largely depends on historical context. He stands alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as a political icon who indelibly shaped world history and re-shaped global politics before reaching the age of 40. Castro's successful 1959 revolution overthrew the US-backed Batista regime in favor of a socialist political experiment that was soon backed by the Soviet Union. Castro's acumen as a revolutionary reached far beyond his country's borders. He excoriated American imperialism in jaw-dropping three-hour speeches before the United Nations, met with Malcolm X and stayed in Harlem during a September 1960 visit to the States. He offered military, financial and medical assistance to unfolding liberation movements in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Trudeau calls Castro a "remarkable leader." As the leader of a tiny island 90 miles off the coast of Florida determined to reject the dictates of US foreign policy, Castro was nothing if not a survivor: He weathered assassination attempts, fallout from the Cuban missile crisis and the economic punishment of the US embargo to emerge as the symbolic leader of revolutionary movements raging across the Third World during the 1960s and 1970s.
    For liberation movements—including Nelson Mandela's African National Congress in South Africa—Cuba proved itself to be, under Castro's leadership, a friend of last resort, willing to stand by jailed and demonized guerrilla fighters who, over time, emerged as global statesmen. Cuba provided safe space for Black Panthers, political exiles and revolutionaries around the world challenging what Castro blasted as American imperialism.
    Castro's swashbuckling forays into international affairs also overshadowed a visible dark side: the ruthless suppression of anti-Castro opposition forces, the curtailment of freedom of speech and expression, the imprisonment and killing of political enemies and a failure to confront racial hierarchies in revolutionary Cuba.
    For all the genuine strides his regime made in offering free education, medical care, housing and resources for the Cuban people, Castro's authoritarian rule atrophied a once-promising revolution into a virtual dictatorship.
    Castro's most enduring legacy is a contradictory one. For millions around the world, he remains a defiant figure: the handsome, cigar-chomping leader who attended UN meetings in olive fatigues, comfortably gossiped with Cuban peasants without security guards and challenged the hypocrisies of American politicians who balked at his close ties to the Soviet Union and nationalization of Western industries on the island but were willing to support pro-capitalist dictators. For his critics, especially the large Cuban-American exile community in Florida, Castro remains in death an egomaniacal dictator who murdered friends, families and innocents and forced them into over a half-century-long exile they pray will end soon.
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    Trudeau's expression of "deep sorrow" for Castro's death takes us back to an almost-vanished historical era, one in which public admission of complexity was not forbidden, statesmen did not use Twitter to make rash declarations and where even political enemies were offered a measure of dignity and respect in death. Trudeau's words acknowledge the achievements of a towering, but flawed, political figure. A warts-and-all portrait of Castro will satisfy neither unblinking supporters nor inveterate critics. Neither the saint nor the monster he's been often characterized as being, Castro was something far more and far less: a lawyer turned guerrilla leader who, in an extraordinary historical moment, threatened the legitimacy of the world's greatest superpower. He did it with a charismatic panache that dazzled millions and inaugurated political regimes that, like his own in Cuba, simultaneously furthered human rights and denied these same rights to internal critics.
    Trudeau's remembrance of Castro reminds us that the Cuban leader's final legacy has yet to be written, but will be as interesting, complex and messy in death as it was in the course of his lifetime.