Celebrating the Life & Work of Vilma Espín, Cuba’s First Lady
by Megan Bridges
The following article was also featured in The Spectrum as the second installment of a five-part series, titled Spotlight on Cuba.
In mid-June of 2007, Cuba grieved the profound loss of one of its most prominent female leaders and revolutionary war heroes, Vilma Espín. The Cuban government declared June 19th the official day of mourning, and Cuban flags were lowered to half mast at all state-operated sites. Espín was the wife of President Raúl Castro, but had long been Cuba’s unofficial first lady, attending political functions with her brother-in-law, Fidel, since the inception of the Communist regime in 1959. Her death came less than a year after Fidel Castro almost died from a perforated large intestine and underwent emergency surgery. The declining health and death of key figures in the Cuban Revolution signal the close of nearly six decades with the Communist Party of Cuba in power.
Espín’s death not only forewarns the impending demise of Communism in Cuba, but, on another note, it has also brought awareness of her accomplishments in women’s equality and education to the international community. Until recently, her work has gained little acknowledgment outside of Cuba, despite its monumental impact on women’s rights movements across Latin America. She served as president of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) for over 40 years, founded the Regional Center of the International Democratic Federation of Women for the Americas and Caribbean in 1978, and established the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) the following year.
Her political success, however, was a historical anomaly. Born Vilma Lucila Espín Guillois on April 7th, 1930 in Santiago de Cuba, Espín was the daughter of the chief accountant and executive assistant to the CEO of the Bacardi rum company. Although most girls did not finish school, and one in three women were illiterate, Espín became the second woman in Cuba to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Oriente. She also spent one year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to conduct post-graduate work, where she learned to speak English fluently. All things considered, how did the bourgeois Vilma Espín become embroiled in the revolutionary fight for workers’ rights and the end of capitalism in Cuba?
The University of Oriente was one of several universities that fostered an anti-Batista atmosphere following the March 10th, 1952 coup that allowed Batista to become president of Cuba. After this incident, Espín decided to “put an end to what was happening in Cuba” because she “saw the coup as a violation of the legality of ‘representative democracy.'” She spent much of her time at the university writing, printing, and distributing materials that heavily criticized Batista, and, in 1953, she joined Oriente Revolutionary Action (ARO), a student group headed by the celebrated revolutionary leader, Frank País. That year, the ARO planned the July 26th assault on the Moncada Barracks that decidedly began the revolution.
In 1954, Espín’s father sent her to study at MIT because he grew fearful that his daughter had become involved in revolutionary activities that threatened to put her in harm’s way. However, she grew restless while in Boston, and became adamant that she ought to aid the revolution. As the final days of her schooling approached, she reached out to the directorate of the Cuban Revolution to take part in a risky and covert operation. Her task: to stop in Mexico on her way back home from the United States to meet with the Castro brothers, who had been living in Mexico City in exile. They were to hand Espín letters and maps to give to Frank País that detailed their plans to return to Cuba and defeat Batista.
Two years later, the Castro brothers landed on the beaches of Oriente in the company of 82 other men who were prepared to sacrifice their lives in the name of the revolution. Not long after their arrival, the young revolutionaries encountered a deadly clash with Batista’s military, killing all but 15 of Castro’s forces. Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, and Che Guevara were among the few survivors, and they fled to the Sierra Maestra mountains where other revolutionaries awaited them. In the months that followed, Espín became a driver, transporting recruits to the Sierra Maestra to be trained in guerrilla warfare tactics. Her gender allowed her to avoid searches at military checkpoints at a time when women were thought to have little agency.
She also became a fully integrated member of the revolutionary army by joining the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon in 1958. Although many women aided the revolution by providing medical assistance, sewing uniforms, and preparing meals for guerrilla soldiers, the thirteen women of the Platoon served active duty. They not only used their femininity to transport weapons and soldiers nearly invisibly, but they also fought in battles alongside their male counterparts at Holguín, Cerro Pelado, and Los Güiros. At first, the Platoon was not well-received by the other guerrilla fighters, who believed that the women would “faint at the sight of blood.” However, Fidel Castro designated the Platoon as his personal security detail to “demonstrate his confidence in women” to serve the revolution in this new capacity.
Women’s involvement in the revolution helped them realize they could thrive outside the domestic sphere, and once the revolution concluded many women refused to return to their previously subordinate positions in society. Fidel Castro established the Federation of Cuban Women in 1960, and he appointed Vilma Espín to lead the organization as its president. The FMC endeavored to not only raise the standard of living among women through education, but to also encourage women to join the workforce. The Federation aimed to provide women with the means to contribute to society in a way they had not been able to before. While its membership originally only included 17,000 women, it has since grown to include 3.6 million women. It has proven popular not only among Cuban residents, but also among the expatriate community residing in Southern Florida.
Despite widespread favorability, the FMC has been scrutinized for subscribing to patriarchal attitudes. For example, upon workplace visits by Fidel Castro, women are encouraged to call him “Papa.” Moreover, the organization has failed to address domestic violence, even though it results in higher rates of suicide among women. The FMC has also made it its mission to eradicate prostitution by closing brothels, and imprisoning pimps and prostitutes. For women who feel that prostitution affords them some level of independence, the work of the FMC disempowers them.
That being said, however, the FMC has made great strides in other areas of women’s rights that ought not be overshadowed by its shortfalls. Espín involved the FMC in the National Literacy Campaign of the early 1960s that reduced illiteracy from 23.6% to 3.9%. Over 100,000 teachers, many of whom were women, were deployed to rural Cuba to teach men and women how to read and write at the third-grade level. More than half of those reaping the benefits of the campaign were women. The FMC also created sanitary brigades that taught women about basic hygiene, as well as established maternity homes to care for women with complicated pregnancies. The organization has also invested its energies in family planning education, the establishment of night schools for maids to learn technical skills after work, and the reeducation of prostitutes to help them in the job search process.
Vilma Espín is survived by her husband, Raúl, and her four children, Mariela, Deborah, Nilsa, and Alejandro. Mariela Castro serves as the head of CENESEX, where she continues the work her mother started in promoting women’s rights, LGBTQ equality, and sexual health.