The Houston Chronicle
June 19, 2007, 3:32AM
By ANITA SNOW Associated Press Writer
HAVANA — Vilma Espin Guillois, the wife of acting President Raul Castro and a former rebel fighter who served for decades as first lady of the Cuban revolution, was mourned across the island Tuesday.
Espin, 77, died Monday afternoon after "the long illness she was afflicted with" worsened in recent weeks, according to Cuban state television. Authorities did not disclose the illness, but she was said to have suffered from severe circulatory problems in recent years.
An official period of mourning was in effect through 10 p.m. Tuesday as Cubans remembered Espin both as a guerrilla fighter who helped bring her future husband Raul and brother-in-law Fidel to power a half-century ago, and as the driving force for Cuban women's equality in the decades since then.
Espin's death was likely to have a profound emotional impact on the Castro brothers at a critical moment in Cuban history. She is the most important revolutionary figure to die since Celia Sanchez, another rebel fighter who was Fidel's closest confidant, succumbed to cancer in 1980.
Her passing is the latest reminder that the lives of the men and women who built Cuba's communist system are destined to end soon, opening an uncertain new chapter in the nation's history.
The 80-year-old Fidel has made no public appearances for almost 11 months while 76-year-old Raul has assumed his brother's presidential duties. The lengthy convalescence from intestinal surgeries has raised questions about whether the elder Castro will return to power, and what changes Raul might make — if any — if he doesn't.
Cuba's top leaders will pay homage to Espin with a solemn gathering Tuesday night at the Karl Marx theater in Havana, along with leaders of the Federation of Cuban Women and other representatives of Cuban society.
Raul was expected to attend, but an appearance by Fidel was uncertain.
Formal homages to Espin were scheduled for all day Tuesday across the island of 11.2 million, and Cuban flags will be lowered to half mast at all public buildings and military bases.
No state funeral will be held. According to Espin's wishes, her ashes will be placed in a mausoleum in eastern Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains that contains the remains of other rebel fighters, including her friend Frank Pais, who recruited her into the movement. That private family interment will be held with full military honors, according to a statement by the leadership of Cuba's Communist Party and government.
Espin was born in Santiago on April 7, 1930, the daughter of a lawyer for the Bacardi rum distillery there. Originally trained as a chemical engineer in Cuba and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Espin joined street protests after Fulgencio Batista's 1952 coup and quickly became involved in the revolutionary underground.
Working with Pais, a regional leader who was assassinated in 1957, Espin eventually assumed leadership of the clandestine urban rebel movement in eastern Cuba, offering her house as its headquarters.
In 1958, she sought refuge in the mountains above Santiago, where the Castro bothers commanded their uniformed rebel fighters.
She and Raul Castro were married in April 1959, four months after Batista fled the island and rebels marched triumphantly into Santiago, and later Havana.
After the revolution, since Fidel was divorced, she became Cuba's low-key first lady, a role she maintained for more than 45 years, even after Fidel reportedly married Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he is said to have five grown sons. Extremely protective of his private life, the elder Castro has never discussed that relationship publicly and his current marital status remains unclear.
Espin's power base was the Federation of Cuban Women, which she founded in 1960 and fashioned into an important pillar of support for the communist government. She served as its president for four decades, with virtually every woman and adolescent girl on the island listed as members.
A tall woman with spectacles, her auburn hair twisted into a bun, Espin was a highly recognized figure, regularly seen at important government meetings until she began ailing in recent years.
Despite rumors of a separation, she and Raul often were seen together and there was never any official word of divorce.
"Vilma and I sometimes argue," Raul 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."
Espin's survivors include the couple's four children, Mariela, Deborah, Nilsa and Alejandro, as well as numerous grandchildren.