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Profile : Cuba's 'First Lady'--Her Power Is Real : Born in privilege, Vilma Espin fought for Fidel Castro in the mountains, then married his brother. Today, this woman of contradictions is one of the island's political elite.

May 15, 1990|DON A. SCHANCHE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — Vilma Espin Guillois was an upper-middle-class dropout from graduate school when Fidel Castro began his guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra, and like other young women working underground for the rebel cause, she used her long skirts and petticoats to conceal ammunition.

By the time the war ended, she was fighting in the mountains beside Castro's brother, Raul, whom she married a few months later.

Today, approaching her 60th birthday, this woman of privileged means, who was once almost recklessly adventurous, is ranked by most specialists as one of the five most powerful persons in Communist Cuba. And she is as much a study in contradictions as she was then.

In a rare interview in her keepsake-cluttered office at the old mansion that serves as headquarters of the Cuban Federation of Women, which she heads, Espin slipped alternately and seemingly unconsciously between two personalities: one a charming grand dame flashing shy smiles and talking in the soft, cultured tones of her French mother and patrician Cuban father; the other a hard-as-nails orthodox Communist official harshly denouncing enemies of the Castro regime as "worms" and "slaves of the United States."

At one moment the stout, graying matron talked lovingly of her four children and their achievements. Two daughters and a son are engineers; the third daughter is a schoolteacher. She described her grandson, 6, and her two granddaughters, 5 and 2, with obvious pride.

Compassion touched her face as she turned from thoughts of her healthy offspring to the thousands of children affected by the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl, in the Soviet Union, where a reactor exploded and burned in 1986.

"We have offered to take 10,000 of them, and the first 139 children arrived a few days ago," she said, describing a treatment program for the Soviet children at a youth camp called Jose Marti Pioneer City in the beach resort town of Tarara, not far from Havana.

"It's a very attractive place for these kids who have suffered and are suffering," she said, "and we're very proud of the chance to help them."

Moments later, Espin was the hard-line Stalinist as she damned Cuba's human rights campaigners, most of whom have been jailed for speaking out against their government, which runs one of the world's most rigidly policed societies.

"They are against the rights of all the people and for the rights of only some of the people, and our people don't like that," she thundered. "They are working for the United States and want education for only some of the people, and our people don't like that. They are people who don't want black children going to school with white children, and our people don't like that."

When her interviewer said to her that none of the Cuban human rights activists who have been punished for speaking out in the past three years has been heard to express such elitist or segregationist goals, she responded only with a steely glare.

Espin is rarely publicized by the Cuban news media and is glimpsed by outsiders only on those formal occasions when she acts as first lady for her bachelor brother-in-law. Nevertheless, she wields power in Cuba far beyond what would accrue naturally to the wife of Fidel Castro's heir apparent. Her 60-year-old husband, Raul, heads the armed forces and presides as the president's No. 2 in both the government and the Communist Party.

In terms of sheer numbers if not arms, Vilma's political constituency may outweigh even that of her husband, because the Federation of Women, which she founded and still leads, includes an estimated 80% of all adult Cuban females, or about 2 million members--far more than the number of males in the 200,000-strong armed forces commanded by Raul. Many Cuban women say they are personally devoted to her for elevating the status of women in Cuba to a level unheard of in any other Latin American country.

Perhaps the most radical piece of family legislation ever promulgated in the macho Hispanic world--the Cuban Family Code of 1975--was hers. It requires men to share housework and child care with their wives or face stern penalties.

"Of course there are still vestiges of machismo within the heart of the family, and even some women in positions of leadership still have old-fashioned ideas," she conceded with an indulgent smile, "but we have to fight to see that men and women share the household tasks."

Breaking with the traditionally secondary woman's role in life was relatively easy for her, she said, because "I come from a middle-class family. . . . My parents weren't prejudiced; they encouraged us all to study and achieve."

She studied industrial chemical engineering in Cuba and attended graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before dropping out to help Castro's July 26 Movement in its fight against the right-wing government of Fulgencio Batista. She politely skirted questions about what her father, a director of the Bacardi rum company, thought of her revolutionary activities.

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