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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

During and after the war in the mountains of eastern Cuba, she played a key role as one of a group of 20 in Fidel Castro's inner circle that formed the shadow government that eventually took over and declared the country Communist.

According to scholars and diplomats here, Espin's power extends beyond family and social concerns to the whole range of economic and political issues that occupy her as a member of the Politburo and Central Committee of the troubled Cuban Communist Party. Ultimate authority rests with President Castro and, to a lesser degree, his brother, but both are known to listen appreciatively when she talks. This was evident in April of last year when she served as the president's official hostess during Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's visit to Cuba.

As Cuban dignitaries waited at the towering Jose Marti monument in central Havana for Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, to arrive for a ceremony, Espin could be seen a little apart from the crowd talking forcefully and with energetic gestures to Fidel and Raul Castro, both of whom appeared absorbed in her words. Although the conversation could not be overheard, it was clear from the sober expressions of all three that the subject was not family and housework.

Although the Gorbachevs remained formal and cool toward the Castros in their public appearances here, Espin said she had a warm relationship with both Gorbachevs in private.

"We have known them for many years, ever since 1977, when we spent some days with them in Sevastopol when he was the chief there," she explained. "Ever since, when we see them, he is always so kind."

She seemed confident that despite Gorbachev's political and economic problems and despite his country's cuts in foreign aid, he will continue to be kind to Cuba, which depends on Soviet help for its survival.

"It is mutually beneficial," she said. "The Soviets are getting something from Cuba, and it is in their interests to continue, so until now we have had no problem in that regard."

Biography

Name: Vilma Espin Guillois

Title: President of the Cuban Federation of Women. Considered to be one of the five most powerful people in the country.

Age: 59

Nationality: Cuban. Born in Santiago, Cuba.

Family: Married to Raul Castro, the country's second most powerful leader after his brother, President Fidel Castro. Four children, three daughters and one son; three grandchildren.

Education: Studied chemical engineering in Cuba. Did graduate work in the United States at MIT.

Quote: "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, but we have to fight to see that men and women share the household tasks."

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