Vilma Espín Guillois (1930–2007), a leader of the Cuban Revolution for more than fifty years, was born in 1930 in Santiago de Cuba, in Oriente province. Her mother, Margarita, was a housewife. Her father, José, was chief accountant of the Bacardi rum company and executive assistant to its president. Espín...
Vilma Espín Guillois (1930–2007), a leader of the Cuban Revolution for more than fifty years, was born in 1930 in Santiago de Cuba, in Oriente province. Her mother, Margarita, was a housewife. Her father, José, was chief accountant of the Bacardi rum company and executive assistant to its president.
Espín entered the University of Oriente in 1948, a year after it opened. There she took part in her first political activity—the fight to win official recognition and funding from the government in Havana for the new university.
Following the military coup of March 10, 1952, that established the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, she joined the Revolutionary National Movement, whose action coordinator in Oriente was student leader Frank País.
On July 26, 1953, 160 revolutionaries under the leadership of Fidel Castro carried out an armed attack on Batista’s military garrisons in Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo. As word spread that dozens of captured combatants had been tortured and killed, Espín and three other young women, one of whom was Asela de los Santos, went to the Moncada military compound to learn the truth. Espín soon joined the newly formed Oriente Revolutionary Action, led by País.
In May 1955, Castro and thirty-one other Moncada combatants who had been captured and imprisoned were freed through a national amnesty campaign. The following month Castro led a regrouping of forces to found the July 26 Revolutionary Movement. Espín became one of its first members.
In 1954 Espín graduated as one of the first chemical engineers educated in Cuba and among the few women in the field. She left Cuba in the summer of 1955 for a year of study in the United States at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In June 1956, as she prepared to return to Cuba, she was asked by the July 26 Movement leadership to travel through Mexico to meet with Fidel Castro. July 26 Movement cadres were training there for what a few months later became the Granma expedition—the landing of the yacht Granma in eastern Cuba, transporting eighty-two combatants under Fidel Castro’s command to launch a revolutionary war to overthrow the Batista regime.
Upon her return to Santiago, Espín began to assume major responsibilities in the July 26 Movement, working closely with Frank País. She helped prepare the November 30, 1956, armed action there, intended to draw Batista’s military forces away from the area of the Granma landing. For a period of time, her family’s home became the organizing center for the July 26 Movement’s underground leadership in Santiago.
In February 1957, Espín took part in the first national leadership meeting of the July 26 Movement to be held in the Sierra Maestra mountains. In July, shortly before País was gunned down by Batista’s police, she became the July 26 Movement’s coordinator for Oriente province.
In June 1958, with Batista’s cops combing the province to find her, Espín was transferred to the Rebel Army’s Frank País Second Eastern Front. Following the July 1958 defeat of the Batista army’s “encircle and annihilate” offensive, the Second Front became a vast liberated zone north and east of Santiago that combatants under Raúl Castro defended, and in which they began to establish a civilian governmental structure. There Espín shouldered numerous responsibilities, including as an instructor in the school training combatants as teachers.
After the triumph over the dictatorship on January 1, 1959, women who wanted to organize to support the deepening revolutionary transformation turned for leadership to Espín, who was among the best known of the women who were leaders of the underground and Rebel Army combatants. She led the efforts to launch the Federation of Cuban Women and was its president and principal leader from its founding in August 1960 until her death in 2007.
Among her many responsibilities, Espín was director of the National Center on Sex Education, founded in 1989, and the National Commission for Attention to and Prevention of Social Problems, founded in 1986. She was vice president of the Women’s International Democratic Federation from 1973 on.
Espín was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party from its inception in 1965, a member of the party’s Political Bureau from 1980 to 1991, and a member of Cuba’s Council of State from 1976 on. As a member of the National Assembly of People’s Power from 1976 on, she chaired the Committee on Childhood, Youth, and Equality of Rights for Women. She received the honorary title Heroine of the Republic of Cuba in 2003.
Espín was married to Raúl Castro Ruz, minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces 1959–2008 and today president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers. They had four children.