By ANITA SNOW | Associated Press Writer
Vilma Espin Guillois, the wife of acting President Raul Castro and one of the communist nation’s most politically powerful women, died Monday, the Cuban government announced. She was 77.
As Raul Castro’s wife, Espin was Cuba’s de facto first lady for decades because Cuban leader Fidel Castro is divorced.
Cuban state television announced that Espin died Monday afternoon after “the long illness she was afflicted with” worsened in recent weeks. The announcement was read at the start of the island’s national evening newscast, then repeated half an hour later.
Authorities did not disclose Espin’s illness, but she was said to suffer from severe circulatory problems in recent years and rumors about her poor health circulated periodically.
An official mourning period was declared from 8 p.m. Monday until 10 p.m. Tuesday, and the Cuban flag will be lowered to half mast at all public buildings and military bases during that period, according to the official statement announcing Espin’s death.
Formal gatherings to pay homage to Espin were scheduled for all day Tuesday in Havana and her native eastern city of Santiago, said the statement from Cuba’s Communist Party leadership and government. Memorial gatherings were also planned in every other province across the island of 11.2 million.
Espin’s body was cremated and her ashes will be scattered during a private ceremony, with full military honors, at a date to be determined, the statement said.
“Her name will be linked eternally to the most significant achievements of Cuban women through the Revolution,” the government statement said.
It called Espin, “one of the most relevant fighters for the women’s emancipation in our country and in the world.”
Born into a wealthy family in eastern Cuba, Espin became a young urban rebel who battled against Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship throughout the 1950s. After the 1959 triumph of the Cuban revolution, she became Cuba’s low-key first lady as the wife of Defense Minister Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s designated successor.
Raul Castro, 76, has been Cuba’s acting president since 80-year-old Fidel temporarily ceded power in July due to an undisclosed illness that led to several surgeries from which he is still recovering.
Both as a Castro family member and a leader in her own right, Espin assumed her first lady duties shortly after the revolutionary triumph.
Espin maintained that role over more than 45 years, even after Fidel Castro reportedly married Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he is said to have five grown sons. Extremely protective of his private life, Fidel Castro has never discussed that relationship publicly.
Espin’s power also was rooted in more than four decades as president of the Federation of Cuban Women, which she founded in 1960 and fashioned into an important pillar of support for the communist government. Virtually every woman and adolescent girl on the island are listed as members.
A tall woman with spectacles, her auburn hair twisted into a bun, Espin was a highly recognized figure across the island. She was regularly seen at gatherings of the National Assembly and other important government meetings.
Born in Santiago on April 7, 1930, and trained as a chemical engineer, Espin participated in early street protests against Batista, who seized power in a 1952 coup.
She later became deeply involved in the revolutionary underground, working with regional leader Frank Pais, who was assassinated in July 1957. Even before Pais died, Espin had assumed leadership of the urban rebel movement in eastern Cuba.
Espin sought refuge in 1958 in the mountains above Santiago, where Raul and Fidel Castro commanded their uniformed rebel fighters.
Espin and Raul Castro were married in April 1959, four months after Batista fled the island and rebels marched triumphantly into Santiago, and later Havana. Pictures in Life magazine showed the bride in an elegant white gown and pearls in her hair. The groom was clad in his olive green military uniform, pistol at his side.
Even back then, Raul Castro was his older brother’s named successor, a designation that never changed over the decades.
After forming the Federation of Cuban Women, Espin consolidated her political power in 1965 when she was elected to the Communist Party of Cuba’s ruling Central Committee.
A little more than a decade later, in 1976, Espin was elected delegate to the newly formed National Assembly, or parliament. She was also named to the Council of State, Cuba’s powerful executive body.
She held all those positions until her death.
Although rumors circulated for years that Espin and Raul Castro had separated, they were often seen together and there was never any official word of divorce.
“Vilma and I sometimes argue,” Raul Castro 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.”
The couple had four children.