Justin Trudeau defends initial remarks about ‘polarizing’ Fidel Castro

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who was widely criticized for fondly remembering Fidel Castro without mention of his human rights record, has defended his comments but said the late Cuban leader was a dictator.

Trudeau sparked fury and online mockery after he referred to Castro as a “remarkable leader” and expressed his sorrow at the death of “Cuba’s longest serving president“.

A Twitter hashtag, #trudeaueulogies, sprung up, prompting users to share unlikely tributes to the organisational and leadership abilities of figures such as Adolf Eichmann, Pablo Escobar and Nightmare on Elm Street horror character Freddy Krueger.

Many critics were quick to point out that Castro suppressed dissent and there was no option for other leadership on the island nation under his regime.

On Sunday, Trudeau said his statement was simply meant “to recognize the passing of a former head of state” of a country that Canada had longstanding ties with, and not to gloss over unflattering history.

“The fact is Fidel Castro had a deep and lasting impact on the Cuban people,” Trudeau told reporters in a televised news conference at a Madagascar Francophonie summit.

“He certainly was a polarizing figure and there certainly were significant concerns around human rights, that’s something I’m open about and that I’ve highlighted.”

Asked if he thought Castro was a dictator, Trudeau said: “Yes.” He also said he raised the issue of human rights during an official visit to Cuba earlier this month.

Some Conservative opposition lawmakers on Sunday urged Trudeau to boycott Castro’s funeral while contenders for the Conservative leadership criticized his comments.

The prime minister’s office said no decision had yet been made on who would be representing Canada at the funeral.

Castro was an honorary pallbearer at the 2000 funeral of Trudeau’s father, former Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who in 1976 was the first Nato leader to visit Cuba.

Trudeau’s initial statement, which was markedly more positive than those from most western leaders, sparked a backlash on Saturday, especially among Republicans and Cuban exiles in the US.

“You wouldn’t go to Pol Pot’s funeral,” Texas senator Ted Cruz told ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “You shouldn’t be doing what Obama and Trudeau are doing, celebrating Castro.”

Canada has long been one of Cuba’s closest western allies, maintaining ties after its 1959 revolution.