Obituary - Vilma Espín Guillois
Campaign News | Monday, 25 June 2007
A central figure in the Castro revolution and the reorganising of Cuban society
Wednesday June 20, 2007
Vilma Espín, who has died in Havana at the age of 77 after a long illness, was the most prominent surviving woman revolutionary in Cuba, both in her own right and as the wife of Raúl Castro, the younger brother of Fidel Castro and currently the country's acting president. An organiser of the civilian resistance to the Batista dictatorship in Santiago de Cuba in the 1950s, Espín became the formidable founding president of the Federation of Cuban Women in 1960, remaining in charge for more than 40 years.
A tall woman with bright auburn hair, she had done post-graduate work in the US and spoke fluent English. One starstruck British diplomat recorded in 1967 that "she manages to make even her uniforms smart and feminine."
She formed part of an impressive group of revolutionary women, all survivors of the guerrilla war of the 1950s, and all the wives or lovers of Cuba's top leadership. They included Haydée Santamaría, wife of Armando Hart; Aleida March, wife of Che Guevara; and Celia Sánchez, the confidante of Fidel.
Espín came from a prosperous family living in Santiago, Cuba's second city after Havana, subject to considerable French influence since the Haitian revolution of 1791. Her mother came from this French tradition; her father was a lawyer working for Bacardi rum, the town's principal employer.
A student activist at the time of Fidel's abortive attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago in 1953, Espín was sent by her family out of harm's way to the US, where she studied industrial chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She went back to Cuba via Mexico in 1956, to receive detailed instructions for political work in Santiago from Fidel, then preparing for his own return to Cuba with an armed force in December.
She worked closely with Frank País, the local leader of Castro's July 26 Movement, and became its provincial organiser after his death in 1957, with the code name of "Deborah". Her tasks included liaison with the US consulate in Santiago, where the CIA desk officer later recalled that "my staff and I were all Fidelistas". As the Batista police closed in on her, she joined the guerrilla movement established in the mountains in June 1958, teaming up with Raúl Castro's group in the Sierra Cristal, six months before the final march on Havana.
She had originally met Raúl in Mexico, and they were married in January 1959, after Fidel, with a fine sense of bourgeois propriety, had requested all his comrades to regularise their guerrilla liaisons. The reception for 2,000 guests took place at the Rancho Club Motel in Santiago, where, according to Time magazine, "the bride wore lace and a Juliet cap of pearls; the groom wore a .45 automatic and a ponytail hairdo."
As a senior organiser of the original revolution, Espín became active at the highest level of government, a member of the central committee of the Communist party and also of the council of state. As a prominent member of the Cuban nomenklatura, she was not without critics. One woman told a visiting writer in 1969 that "when I see her picture in Granma [the official party newspaper], all dark glasses like a Yankee tourist, meeting foreign ladies and dining them in traditional Cuban high style, I wonder where's the guerrilla?"
Yet Espín's work was not without value. The Federation of Cuban Women that she founded and ran until recently was a countrywide organisation set up originally in the wake of the first agrarian reform to create schools for peasant women, and to organise childcare centres. Schools were started to upgrade the skills of domestic workers, in an attempt to allow women to escape from the tyranny of the home.
The federation was an essential component of the literacy campaign of 1961, when 100,000 student teachers, most of them teenage girls, spread out across the country to teach a million people to read and write. From this unorthodox start, the federation eventually developed into a typical woman's movement on the Soviet model, trying to improve the conditions for women in a resolutely macho society.
The Cuban family code that Espín promoted sought to persuade men to take part in household chores and childcare. More than 3 million women were enrolled in the federation's ranks, but in spite of its many achievements it failed to persuade women to take much interest in local or national politics - or to get people to vote for them.
Espín and Raúl Castro had three daughters, Mariela, Deborah and Nilsa, and one son, Alejandro. However, the couple, although not formally divorced, had led separate lives for the past 20 years. Mariela continues much of her mother's work through the national centre for sex education, of which she is director, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of lesbians, gays and transsexuals.
· Vilma Espín Guillois, revolutionary organiser, born April 7 1930; died June 18 2007