Vilma Espin de Castro; Politician Empowered Women in Cuba

Vilma Espin de Castro with her husband, Raul Castro, Fidel Castro's brother and Cuba's acting president.
Vilma Espin de Castro with her husband, Raul Castro, Fidel Castro's brother and Cuba's acting president. (United Press International)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Vilma Espin de Castro, 77, a daughter of privilege who became one of the most powerful women in Communist Cuba -- as the de facto first lady for her brother-in-law, Fidel Castro, and as a champion of women's rights -- died June 18 in Havana. Her husband, Defense Minister Raul Castro, is acting president of the country.

The cause of death was not disclosed by Cuban state television, but the Associated Press said she had "severe circulatory problems."

In 1986, Ms. Espin became the first woman elected to full membership on the Cuban Communist Party's Politburo, the country's highest policy-making body. Although this elite designation came late in her career, her long-standing authority stemmed from her work in the 1950s as an underground leader fighting with the Castros against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

One of the most feared and ambitious of revolutionary fighters, she also was regarded as a gifted organizer and diplomat. She was an ideal roving ambassador for her country after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and was reported to have smoothed relations with her country's Soviet sponsors during the Cold War.

For more than four decades, Ms. Espin filled the role of Cuban first lady because Fidel Castro was divorced and remained guarded about letting the public know too much about his female companions. It is still unclear whether Fidel Castro wed Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he is said to have fathered five sons.

Starting in 1960, Ms. Espin spent nearly all her political career as head of the Federation of Cuban Women. According to news accounts, more than 3 million of the country's adult women belonged to the federation.

She was credited with improving the status of women in a society known for its history of machismo by articulating the need for a more equal environment between the sexes. She gave prominent voice to improvements in maternal and child health-care policies as well as the need for women to educate themselves.

She successfully lobbied for passage of the Cuban Family Code of 1975, which codified the duties of men to participate in household responsibilities, such as child raising.

"From the feminist perspective, she empowered women in a home to say to a husband, 'It's my national, patriotic duty to work, to volunteer in the community," said Ileana Fuentes, executive director of the Cuban Feminist Network, a Miami-based social-needs organization that tries to help women in Cuba. "Whether you are for or against Castro, that's an empowering tool for women."

However, some scholars found that Ms. Espin's federation had accomplished far less than Cuban propaganda revealed.

In her 1997 review of the book "Sex and Revolution: Women in Socialist Cuba," Ann Ferguson wrote in the National Women's Studies Association Journal:

"The free higher education system allowed an unprecedented number of women in a Third World country to become professional and technical workers, but the highest posts of managers and supervisors, even in work coded as feminine (elementary school teaching, nursing, waitressing), were reserved to men."

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