In addition to all the other flak he has received for boycotting the national anthem, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been blasted for justifying his decision while wearing a T-shirt that features Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Even this criticism overlooks an interesting fact: Kaepernick’s defiant protest would have been totally illegal in Castro’s Cuba.
The shirt Kaepernick wore commemorates a 1961 meeting between Castro and black activist Malcolm X. A few people, such as George Diaz of the Orlando Sentinel, have pointed out the irony of Kaepernick complaining about racial oppression while wearing a shirt featuring an oppressive dictator. Castro imprisoned thousands of political opponents over the course of his long reign, while driving hundreds of thousands of people to Florida as political or economic refugees.
The irony is even deeper than that. Not only was Cuba under Castro a deeply unfree country, Castro’s regime also specifically banned the kind of complaint Kaepernick is making.
Like America, Cuba is a racially diverse country, where Cubans of European heritage have been ascendant while Afro-Cubans have generally been poorer and more marginalized.
Shortly after the Cuban Revolution, Castro’s government passed a handful of laws intended to curb racism in schooling and employment. The government also abolished the widespread legal segregation that had prevailed in Cuba before the revolution. After just a few years, Castro declared his policies a total success and henceforth made it a crime against the revolution to complain about racism or racial inequality. After that, the subject of discrimination became a taboo in the country, and it would remain that way for decades.
Of course, just because Castro claimed racism was gone in Cuba didn’t mean that was the case. According to first-hand accounts, state offices and positions in the lucrative tourism industry are almost entirely dominated by whites, while Afro-Cubans continue to bear the brunt of Cuba’s socialist shortcomings.
Activists even accuse the government of suppressing the number of Afro-Cubans. According to the official census, a large majority of Cubans are white, while outside estimates believe the country is majority-black.
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