Vilma Lucila Espín Guillois was a feminist with a gun
She bore four children and led the struggle for women's rights
throughout the world winning awards for her achievements

Read the remarkable story of how the wealthy daughter of the lawyer for the giant Bacardi Rum distillery and a science graduate who attended the U.S. Massachusetts Institute of Technology became a frontline Castro rebel in Batista's Cuba, the most powerful woman of the revolution, a Communist, a poster girl for the cause, and the mother of Alejandro Castro Espin likely to become President of Cuba when his father Raúl fades from power.

By Carl Dow
Editor and Publisher
True North Perspective

Vilma Espin guillois in 1958 in the mountains with Raul Castro, left, whom she married in 1959.
Vilma Espin Guillois in 1958 in the mountains with Raúl Castro, left, whom she married in 1959.
Highlights from a revolutionary feminist life

1961: Helped create a network of daycare centers for the children of working women.

1963: Represented Cuba at the Women's Congress of the Americas, held in the Cuban capital.

1965: Designated member of the Cuban Communist Party's Central Committee upon its founding.

1968: Planned for the creation of the Childhood Institute, founded 1971, to implement state policies for the education of pre-school children.

1969: Presided over the World Women's Congress held in Helsinki.

1970: Headed the Cuban delegation in solidarity with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. While there the US resumed bombing attacks against the Asian country.

1975: Awarded the Order of Ana Betancourt Order. Traveled to Berlin, heading the island's delegation to the World Women's Congress.

1976: She was elected Deputy to the Cuban National Assembly of Peoples' Power, representing the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba. Selected to become a member of the Cuban State Council.

1977: Awarded the commemorative medal of the 20th anniversary of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). Become deputy president of the World Federation of Democratic Women.

1978: Attended the first meeting of the regional subcommittee for Women's Active Participation in the Economic Development of Latin America. Attended meeting of the council of the World Federation of Democratic Women, held in Moscow.

1979: Awarded the Lenin International Prize. World Federation of Democratic Women acknowledged her contribution to strengthening peace among the peoples.

1980: Ratified as the FMC President during the organization's Third Congress. Appointed deputy member to the Central Committee's Political Bureau.

1981: Accepted UNESCO's Nadezhda Krupskaya award on behalf of the Federation of Cuban Women for its effort to enhance the skills of Cuban women.

1983: Designated deputy president of the Board of Advisors of the United Nations Women's Institute. Reelected to the post the following year.

1985: Reelected to presidency of the FMC. Attended UN conference on the situation of women. Elevated to the Order of Mariana Grajales [19th century Cuban independence fighter and abolitionist]. Granted a medal commemorating the 40th anniversary of victory over fascism by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

1987: Attended the World Women's Congress in Moscow.

1989: Enlisted to the Order of Friendship by the Democratic Republic of Laos. Received commemorative order award of the 10th anniversary of Nicaragua's Sandinista National Liberation Front.

1991: Participated in the Second Congress of Venezuelan Women. Reelected as member of the Central Committee of Communist Party of Cuba.

1992: Traveled to Geneva for a summit on the situation of women farmers. Visited Niteroi, Brazil to inaugurate a family doctor's office, donated by Cuba. The city recognized her as an outstanding world personality.

1993: Elected a member of the Cuban Council of State.

1994: Attended second regional meeting of the World Federation of Democratic Women held in Argentina. Met with Argentine women legislators. Participated in the sixth regional conference on women organized by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL).

1995: Granted UN distinction award for her contribution to the success of the UN Year of the Family. Reelected to the post of FMC president.

1997: Designated a member of the PCC's Central Committee during party's Fifth Congress.

1998: Reelected as member of the Council of State. Represented Cuba at the seventh conference of first ladies and women lawmakers of the Americas held in Chile. Met with the Association of Families of the Pinochet Dictatorship's Victims, which granted her the "Where Are They," medal, its highest distinction.

2000: Attended meeting of Latin American female government ministers in charge of adopting and implementing women-related policies in Panama. The meeting was in preparation for the Fifth Ibero-American Summit, also held in Panama. Attended an extraordinary session of the UN General Assembly to evaluate the promotion of the rights of women initiatives from 1995 to 2000. Gave presentation to Assembly on the negative impacts of International Monetary Fund policies on women.

2001: Invited to the Venezuelan National Women's Institute of Latin America. Institute granted her the Argelia Laya [Black Venezuelan feminist and revolutionary] award of distinction for efforts to secure the rights of Latin American women. Cuban Council of State granted her the title of Heroine of the Republic of Cuba and the Order of Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs).

2002: She attended the 13th Congress of the World Federation of Democratic Women held in Beirut.

2003: Reelected as a member of the Cuban Council of State. — Radio Havana Cuba

This is a story that almost didn't get written. On April 8, as I panned the world for golden nuggets of news not carried by the mainstream media, as I always do, I came across a brief, 259-word item, about a tribute in Cuba on the 80th birthday of a deceased woman called Vilma. The piece reported the glowing things that are said about someone who has died. In this case about the "humane influence of our Cuban heroine, outstanding combatant and a paradigm of revolutionary womanhood."

Umm ... well yes ... and I thought gently out of respect for the dear recently departed ... so what? We're all heroes just surviving in the rough-and-tumble of our day-to-day world.

The rest of the article described the opening of a six-room museum and its contents, music for the ceremony, the placing of flowers before the obelisk holding her remains. Certainly not insensitive to honouring the dead, I was caught between boredom and curiosity. My curiosity was peaked by the fact that presiding over the ceremony was Cuban vice-president José Ramón Machado Ventura.

Also there were Army Corps General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, member of the Political Bureau and minister of the interior, as well as Central Committee Armando Hart, Yolanda Ferrer and Lázaro Expósito, who also attended the inauguration.

Vilma without her gun.
Vilma without her gun.

That's an awful lot of brass to honour a dead woman.

The problem for me was that the writer made the mistake of presuming the reader would know all the background necessary. A cardinal elementary rule in journalism is never presume anything. I would have given the journalist a failing grade. However, determined to free myself of frustration I started digging in the best traditions of journalism and here is what I discovered from sources in more than one country including Canada.

Wow!

Vilma Lucila Espín Guillois was born in Santiago de Cuba April 7, 1930. She was the daughter of a wealthy lawyer who represented the Bacardi Rum dynasty, José Espin, and his wife Margarita Guillois. In 1954, at age 24, Vilma was one of the first Cuban women to graduate in chemical engineering and went to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for further study.

Meanwhile she had met and became closely associated with Frank País, leader of the urban underground in Havana of the 26th of July Movement (M-26-7) which was dedicated to the overthrow of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. Batista had turned over Havana to the Mafia and the rest of the country to the unrestrained exploitation of mostly American corporations. Most Cubans were so poor they couldn't even afford footwear.

The July 26th Movement grew out of the armed guerilla attack on the Moncada Garrison in Santiago de Cuba in 1953. The attack failed but Vilma converted her family's Santiago home into the headquarters of the movement of which she became a key leader.

Fidel Castro and other Cubans who had participated in the 26 July 1953 attack on the Moncado barracks were arrested and after years of jail time found refuge in Mexico. There they planned and organized a future invasion to overthrow Batista.

Vilma Espin, wife of Raul Castro, standing beside brother-in-law Fidel Castro, with a rifle slung over her shoulder.
Vilma Espin, wife of Raul Castro, standing beside brother-in-law Fidel Castro, with a rifle slung over her shoulder.

In the summer of 1955, Frank País' urban organization merged with that of Fidel's in Mexico. Frank became the leader of the new organization in Oriente province, and Vilma served as a frequent messenger between revolutionary forces in Cuba and Mexico.

Vilma took up arms and was part of the uprising at Santiago de Cuba on November 30, 1956, in support of the Castros and 81 other revolutionaries including Che Guevara who sailed to Cuba on a ship called Granma. Batista's soldiers wiped out most of the invaders. Those who survived escaped to the Sierra Maestra mountains where they established the beginnings of the guerilla army that was to march into Havana three years later.

Shortly before Frank País was murdered by the Batista forces on July 30, 1957, he had named Vilma provincial coordinator of the 26th of July Movement in Oriente, a post she held until July 1958.

Because of vicious harassment by the Batista regime it was decided that she should head for the hills and join the rebels in the Sierra Maestra.

While in the rebel army she met Raúl Castro whom she married on January 26, 1959. They went on to have four children.

Vilma and Fidel celebrating after the victory over Batista.
Vilma and Fidel celebrating after the victory over Batista.

After the success of the Revolution in 1959, she flowered as part of the establishment of the new government. Vilma headed the unification of women's organizations across the island and in August 1960, she helped found the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). She was elected its president and served in that capacity throughout her life.

As FMC president she lead women in their struggle to build a more equitable and just society, in which men and women would enjoy equal opportunities and rights.

A member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) since 1965, she was elected as a substitute member of the PCC's Political Bureau during the Party's Second Congress, an acting bureau member during the Third Congress and later ratified as a Central Committee's member during the Fourth Congress.

In 1976, when the National Assembly of People's Power (parliament) was established, she was elected Deputy and member of the Cuban Council of State.

She also fulfilled several other important responsibilities. She was the Director of Industrial Development of the Food Industry and President of the Childhood Institute. She presided over the National Social Prevention and Assistance Commission and the Cuban Parliament's Commission for Assistance to Children and Youth, and the National Group on Sexual Education. She was instrumental in training young generations of Cubans. She took part in various activities in support of the country's scientific development.

Internationally, she was regarded as an outstanding political leader. She would often head Cuban delegations to international events. Vilma frequently represented Cuba at the United Nations General Assembly, and was the recipient of many decorations from other countries.

As the spouse of Raúl Castro, the younger brother of longtime Cuban president Fidel Castro, she was for decades regarded by foreign diplomatic circles and the western press as the unofficial first lady of Cuba.

Vilma and Raúl had four children, Mariela, Deborah, Nilsa and Alejandro. Daughter, Mariela Castro Espín, currently heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX). Son Alejandro Castro Espín is Cuban Ministry of Interior with the rank of Colonel.

Vilma died on June 18, 2007 in Havana following a protracted illness.

Her name is linked to the most significant achievements of Cuban women in the revolution and as one of the most important fighters for the emancipation of women in Cuba and elsewhere throughout the world.

23 April 2010 — Return to cover.
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