HAVANA — Vilma Espin Guillois, the wife of acting Cuban President Raul Castro and one of the communist nation's most politically powerful women, died Monday, the government announced. She was 77.
Cuban state television said that Espin died Monday afternoon after a long, undisclosed illness. An official mourning period was declared from 8 p.m. Monday until 10 tonight.
Born into a wealthy family in eastern Cuba, Espin became a young urban rebel who battled against Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship throughout the 1950s. After the revolutionary forces took over in 1959, she became the country's low-key first lady, because Cuban leader Fidel Castro was divorced.
Espin maintained that role for more than 45 years, even after Fidel Castro reportedly married Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he is said to have five grown sons. Extremely protective of his private life, Fidel Castro has never discussed that relationship publicly.
Raul Castro, the country's longtime defense minister, took over as acting president in July 2006 after his older brother underwent emergency intestinal surgery and was sidelined from leadership.
Espin's power was also rooted in more than four decades as president of the Federation of Cuban Women.
She founded the organization in 1960 and fashioned it into an important pillar of support for the communist government. Virtually every woman and adolescent girl on the island is listed as a member.
A tall woman with spectacles, her auburn hair twisted into a bun, Espin was regularly seen at gatherings of the National Assembly and other important government meetings.
Born in Santiago de Cuba on April 7, 1930, and trained as a chemical engineer, she participated in early street protests against Batista, who seized power in a 1952 coup.
Espin later became deeply involved in the revolutionary underground, working with regional leader Frank Pais, who was assassinated in July 1957. Even before Pais died, Espin had assumed leadership of the urban rebel movement in eastern Cuba.