Wed, Jun 20, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Cuba mourns passing of de facto first lady

FIRST LADY Vilma Espin Guillois, chemical engineer, guerrilla revolutionary, wife of acting president and women and gay rights activist, died on Monday

AFP , HAVANA

Vilma Espin, president of the Federation of Cuban Women and wife of Defense Minister Raul Castro, speaks to thousands of people gathered for the annual International Women's Day celebration in Santa Clara, Cuba, in this March 8, 2001, file photo. Espin, the wife of acting President Raul Castro and one of the nation's most politically powerful women, died on Monday, the Cuban government announced. She was 77.

PHOTO: AP

Cuba held a day of mourning yesterday for Vilma Espin Guillois, the guerrilla who became the most powerful woman in the revolution that propelled her brother-in-law Fidel Castro to power.

She died in Havana on Monday aged 77 after a long illness and was cremated, an official statement read on television said. It did not name the illness.

It called her a "heroine of the underground, an outstanding fighter of the rebel army and a tireless struggler for the emancipation of women and the defense of rights of the child."

As wife of the now acting Cuban President Raul Castro, Espin was considered the country's first lady as the veteran leader Fidel Castro's own partner has stayed away from public life.

The government declared an official period of mourning lasting to yesterday evening.

A chemical engineer by training, Espin became a top figure in the communist regime, where she championed women's rights as founding president of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), and won victories for gay rights.

Born in the city of Santiago to a Cuban father and French mother, she studied in the US at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before taking up arms in Fidel Castro's guerrilla movement to topple Cuba's dictator Fulgencio Batista.

It was during her time in the underground movement, singing in the camps at night as the guerrillas hid out in the Sierra Maestra mountains, that Espin -- known by the nom-de-guerre "Deborah" -- met Raul Castro.

"I was 28 and had never had a lover ... He said I had bewitched him with my singing," she once said of her husband.

They married in January 1959, shortly after the guerrillas' victory in the revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power at the head of the Caribbean island nation's long-lived communist regime.

Fidel Castro handed power to Raul, the chief, on a temporary basis in July 2006 while the 80-year-old president recovers from gastrointestinal surgery.

While the president's companion, Dalia Sotto del Valle, has avoided the public stage, Espin embraced politics and worked calmly for change.

With her brother-in-law in power, she helped to set up the FMC in 1960.

The FMC mission was to fight illiteracy and bolster women's political participation. Espin also campaigned on issues such as abortion, contraception and children's rights.

Women now account for 65 percent of the Cubans who hold a university degree, according to official figures.

Espin successfully pushed for the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1979.

Her daughter Mariela, 45, one of Espin and Raul Castro's four children, is a sexologist and a lawyer working for gay people and transvestites.

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