Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Vilma Espin Guillois, Wife of Cuba’s Acting Leader, Dies at 77

June 19, 2007

HAVANA (AP) -- His eyes filled with tears, acting President Raul Castro paid his respects Tuesday to his late wife Vilma Espin Guillois, a fellow rebel fighter who served for decades as first lady of the Cuban revolution.

Raul Castro, who has governed Cuba for nearly 11 months during his brother Fidel's convalescence, was among top Cuban leaders who filed past a huge black-and-white photograph of Espin atop a red, white and blue Cuban flag, each placing a single pink or yellow rose in her memory.

Cuban state television showed several leaders embracing Raul or shaking his hand during the ceremony inside Havana's Jose Marti Memorial.

There was no sign of Fidel, who has not been seen in public since he fell ill last July.

Espin died Monday at age 77. Authorities did not give a cause of death, but she was said to suffer from severe circulatory problems in recent years.

An official period of mourning was in effect through 10 p.m. Tuesday as Cubans remembered Espin both as a guerrilla fighter who helped bring her future husband Raul and brother-in-law Fidel to power a half-century ago, and as the driving force for Cuban women's equality in the decades since then.

At dawn Tuesday in Old Havana, a group of about a dozen women street sweepers, along with a few men, held a minute of silence in Espin's honor, clutching their brooms at their sides in the cobblestone plaza.

''Vilma Espin Guillois passes to become a revolutionary icon,'' official journalist Marta Rojas wrote in the Tuesday edition of the Communist Party newspaper Granma, characterizing her as ''a builder, from the foundation, of a new society.''

''One of her great personal and revolutionary virtues was her modesty,'' added Rojas, who had extensively covered Espin and the Castro brothers since before the Cuban revolution in 1959.

''She is a magnificent guide for women,'' said 58-year-old Sara Hurtado, a member of the parks cleaning brigade in Old Havana, still speaking of Espin in the present tense. ''This is a big loss and we are coping with it.''

A historic black-and-white photograph of Espin in military uniform, flanked by her husband, was posted Tuesday morning on the front door of the headquarters of the Federation of Cuban Women, which she helped found more than four decades ago.

Espin's death was likely to have a profound emotional impact on the Castro brothers at a critical moment in Cuban history. She is the most important revolutionary figure to die since Celia Sanchez, another rebel fighter who was Fidel's closest confidant, succumbed to cancer in 1980.

Her passing is the latest reminder that the lives of the men and women who built Cuba's communist system are destined to end soon, opening an uncertain new chapter in the nation's history.

The 80-year-old Fidel has made no public appearances for almost 11 months while 76-year-old Raul has assumed his brother's presidential duties. The lengthy convalescence from intestinal surgeries has raised questions about whether the elder Castro will return to power, and what changes Raul might make -- if any -- if he doesn't.

Cuba's top leaders will pay homage to Espin with a solemn gathering Tuesday night at the Karl Marx theater in Havana, along with leaders of the Federation of Cuban Women and other representatives of Cuban society.

Raul was expected to attend, but an appearance by Fidel was uncertain.

Formal homages to Espin were scheduled all day Tuesday across the island of 11.2 million, and Cuban flags were lowered to half mast at all public buildings and military bases.

No state funeral was planned. According to Espin's wishes, her ashes will be placed in a mausoleum in eastern Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains that contains the remains of other rebel fighters, including her friend Frank Pais, who recruited her into the movement. That private family interment will be held with full military honors, according to a statement by Cuba's Communist Party and government.

Espin was born in Santiago on April 7, 1930, the daughter of a lawyer for the Bacardi rum distillery there. Originally trained as a chemical engineer in Cuba and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Espin joined street protests after Fulgencio Batista's 1952 coup and quickly became involved in the revolutionary underground.

Working with Pais, a regional leader who was assassinated in 1957, Espin eventually assumed leadership of the clandestine urban rebel movement in eastern Cuba, offering her house as its headquarters.

In 1958, she sought refuge in the mountains above Santiago, where the Castro bothers commanded their uniformed rebel fighters.

She and Raul Castro were married in April 1959, four months after Batista fled the island and rebels marched triumphantly into Santiago, and later Havana.

After the revolution, since Fidel was divorced, she became Cuba's low-key first lady, a role she maintained for more than 45 years, even after Fidel reportedly married Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he is said to have five grown sons. Extremely protective of his private life, the elder Castro has never discussed that relationship publicly and his current marital status remains unclear.

Espin's power base was the Federation of Cuban Women, which she founded in 1960 and fashioned into an important pillar of support for the communist government. She served as its president for four decades, with virtually every woman and adolescent girl on the island listed as members.

A tall woman with spectacles, her auburn hair twisted into a bun, Espin was regularly seen at important government meetings until she became ill in recent years.

Despite rumors of a separation, she and Raul were often seen together and there was never any official word of divorce.

''Vilma and I sometimes argue,'' Raul said in April 2001, with his wife at his side. But, he said, ''this marriage ... has lasted 42 years, and we hope to be together longer.''

Espin's survivors include the couple's four children, Mariela, Deborah, Nilsa and Alejandro, as well as numerous grandchildren.



Vilma's Struggles

(Translated by ESTI)

Vilma is dead. Even though the news was expected, it was still an impact. Out of respect for her delicate health condition, I never raised her name in my reflections.

Vilma’s example today is more necessary than ever. She devoted her entire life to the struggle for women’s rights when in Cuba most women were discriminated against as human beings, the same as in the rest of the world, with only the honorable revolutionary exceptions.

It was not always this way throughout the historical evolution of our species, leading her to fulfill the social role befitting her as a natural workshop where life is forged.

In our country, women came out from under one of the most horrible forms of society, that of a Yankee neo-colony under the aegis of imperialism and its system, where everything that the human being is capable of creating was turned into merchandise.

When what has been defined as the exploitation of man by man started far back in history, the mothers and children of the dispossessed bore the brunt of the burden.

Cuban women used to work as domestic servants, or in luxurious shops and bourgeois bars, selected for their good looks. Factories assigned them the simplest jobs, the ones that were the most repetitive and worst paid.

In education and healthcare --services provided on a small scale-- their indispensable cooperation was as teachers and nurses who had only been offered basic training. The country, 2,009.92 miles from end to end, only had one higher education center located in the capital and later, several faculties in university campuses in two other provinces. As a rule, the only young women who could study there were those from the most affluent families. In many activities, the presence of a woman was not even dreamed of.

For almost half a century, I have been witness to Vilma’s struggles. I cannot forget her presence at the meetings of the July 26 Movement in the Sierra Maestra. She was eventually sent by the movement's directorate to carry out an important mission on the Second Eastern Front. Vilma did not shrink from any danger.

After the triumph of the Revolution, she began her ceaseless battle for the rights of Cuban women and children, which led her to found and lead the Federation of Cuban Women. There was no national or international forum too distant for her to attend in defense of her assailed homeland and of the noble and just ideas of the Revolution.

Her gentle voice, steady and timely, was always listened to with great respect in Party, State and mass organization meetings.

Today women in Cuba make up 66 percent of the technical work force of the country, and they take part, in the main, in almost all the university degree courses. Previously, there were hardly any women involved in scientific activities, since science and scientists did not exist, but exceptionally. In this field as well, today women are in the majority.

Revolutionary duties and her immense work load never prevented Vilma from fulfilling her responsibilities as a loyal wife and mother of several children.

Vilma is dead. Long live Vilma!

Fidel Castro Ruz

June 20, 2007


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