Tue Jun 19, 2007 7:02PM BST
By Todd Benson
HAVANA (Reuters) - Thousands of Cubans lined up in the hot Caribbean sun on Tuesday to pay their respects to Vilma Espin, the late wife of acting President Raul Castro and one of the most powerful women in Cuba's political system.
Her husband Raul, who has been running the country since his older brother Fidel Castro fell ill almost 11 months ago and temporarily handed over power, inaugurated the funeral ceremonies by depositing a flower beneath a large photograph of Espin at a memorial in Havana's emblematic Revolution Square.
The government bussed in thousands of Communist Party militants and workers from around the capital city to honour Espin, the most important symbol of the Cuban revolution to die since Celia Sanchez, one of Fidel Castro's closest confidants, in 1980.
It was unclear if the 80-year-old Fidel Castro, who has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency bowel surgery in July of last year, would make an appearance at his sister-in-law's funeral ceremonies.
But he did send a flower arrangement that was on display next to her photograph at the memorial.
Espin, who was Cuba's unofficial first lady because Castro kept his own wife out of the public eye, died on Monday in Havana from an undisclosed illness. She was 77, a year older than her husband, and was rumoured to be sick for over a year.
Cubans of all ages waited for up to three hours to pay their respects to Espin, some holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the blistering sun. Many of the mourners were women who said they were grateful to Espin for her efforts in promoting gender equality in Cuba, where sexism runs deep.
"She helped give us the status that rightfully belongs to us. Thanks to Vilma, we live in freedom, we aren't slaves to our husbands," Maria Victoria, a 59-year-old civil servant, said as she waited in line to pay homage to Espin.
Though the government declared a day of official mourning, many Cubans went about their daily routines in the streets in Havana. Crowds huddled at bus stops and fishermen lined the city's oceanfront promenade like any other day.
The ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma ran an obituary that took up its entire front page, calling Espin the "heroine of the Rebel Army."
Espin was a member of Castro's inner circle since the early days of the revolution. The daughter of a wealthy executive at the Bacardi rum distillery, she rebelled against her upbringing and joined the armed struggle against right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1956 in her hometown of Santiago.
Soon afterward she met Castro's younger brother Raul, whom she married in Havana in 1959 after Batista fled Cuba.
A year later, Espin founded the Cuban Women's Federation, a mass organization that mobilized women for the revolutionary cause and to advance gender equality.
She was also a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee since its creation in 1965, and sat on the party's Politburo from 1980 until 1991.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes)