By Jeff Labine
In 2003, John Pateman, who in later years became Thunder Bay’s chief librarian, once shared the stage with controversial dictator and revolutionist Fidel Castro.
It all started when Pateman was visiting Havana while attending a library conference at the Karl Marx Theatre. He was a guest speaker at the conference and even received an award by the Cuban government for his work in the country’s public library movement the year prior.
He explained when he attended the conference in 2003, he was originally seated among the audience and it wasn’t until five minutes before the show started that he was asked to come on stage.
“The minister of culture of Cuba, who had given me the medal a year before, came up to me and said ‘Fidel wants you up on stage,’” he said.
“I was really shocked. He said he wants all the conference presenters on stage. So I was yanked out of my seat, taken behind the curtain because there was a curtain behind the main stage at the Karl Marx Theatre and placed in a seat. The lights went out, the national anthem started to play. The place was dark and when the lights came on, Fidel was standing there about six feet in front of me, ready to give his speech. The whole place erupted into a full standing ovation. So it was quite a dramatic occasion.”
Pateman, who was living in the United Kingdom, had been working with the Cuban public library for a number of years prior to receiving the recognition award.
He said he did a lot of work to try and dispel some of the myths around Cubans accessing certain material and not being able to speak their minds. He specifically mentioned that George Orwell’s dystopian novel on big brother government was readily available.
“The Cuban library system is one of the best library systems in the world, in my view,” he said. “It is very comprehensive and it is a model others should follow.”
All those memories came back when Pateman heard the 90-year-old Castro died on Friday. Pateman said he was annoyed when he heard some news reports still perpetuating some of the myths around Cuba restricting information that he was trying to show wasn’t true.
He explained that even though he was braced for the news for sometime, he still shed a tear.
“He had to pass at some point,” he said. “It was a very emotional moment when I got the news. The history of the Cuban Revolution is also the history of my life. Fidel landed in Cuba on Dec. 2, 1956 to start the revolution to go up into the Sierra Maestra to win the people over and ultimately triumph in 1959. When he landed there in 1956, that was the month of my birth. Literally, my life has been the life of the revolution.
Since Castro’s death, there have been mixed reactions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose father Pierre Trudeau was friends with Castro, issued a statement following the news offering “deep sorrow” and calling the Cuban president a “legendary revolutionary.” Since releasing that statement, Trudeau has come underfire from all sides, especially from Conservative party leader hopefuls, for not using harsher language and not mentioning Cuba’s poor human rights record.
The prime minister didn’t backtrack any of his statements when pressed by reporters on Sunday and according to CBC, Trudeau thought of Castro as a dictator.
Pateman said Canada has had a long, positive relationship with Cuba. He praised Trudeau for providing the best statement on Castro’s death from any world leader calling it both fair and balanced.
“He understood the man because his father had a direct relationship with Fidel,” he said. “Of course, (Justin Trudeau) met him again at his father’s funeral and he’s been out there recently. He totally gets what Cuba is trying to achieve.”
Pateman said he has been through Cuba 12 times since 1993. He remembers going into the country during a time when the Soviet Union had collapsed and Cuba was dealing with losing a major trading partner. He said even then, there was a lot of strength shown by the people and a lot of support for Castro.
“There was a lot of support for the revolution and all the benefits that brought them, which was obviously, a very good library service but also free health care and free education,” he said. “On every trip back since I’ve not detected any shift in that in popular appeal. It was obviously strong among the older generation who knew what it was like before 1959. They could appreciate the differences. What interests me is that there was that strength there with the young people who didn’t know what it was like in the past.”