The First Lady of Cuba

It wasn’t very common for the Cuban news media to report on her and she was only ever glimpsed by outsiders on those formal occasions that she was needed for the role of First Lady. She was a revolutionary leader, a feminist, and a chemical engineer. She was a wife, an activist, and an ambassador. Vilma Espin had many facets to play during her lifetime and she played them whole-heartedly.

Espin was born in April 7,1930 in Santiago de Cuba. She was the daughter of a wealthy Cuban lawyer and her education showed prove of it.  She studied ballet and singing at the Association Pro-Arte Cubano. She was one of the first women in Cuba to study chemical engineer at the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba. She even went to the United States to do some post-graduate work at MIT, though she dropped all of that to join the revolution.

From a young age, she was deeply emerged into the political side of life as Bautista took rein in Cuba. She joined the National Revolutionary Action and became a collaborator with Frank Pais.  That group later joined ranks with the 26th of July movement.

Just before the assassination of Frank Pais, she was made the Provincial Coordinator of the organization and fought alongside the Castro brothers.

Interesting enough, in 1967, General Lyman Kirkpatrick of the CIA had been sent to Oriente Cuba to see if Castro’s Julio 26th movement had ties to Communism. He met with Vilma who, without batting an eye, said it was all false and all “accusations of Batistiano rumors.” And he believed her. He went back to the US in support of Castro.

After the revolution, Espin served a major role in the government. She was a big and outspoken supporter of gender equality in Cuba. She became the President of the Federation of Cuban Women until her death that allowed women equal opportunity in the work force and at home. She was also involved in the passing of the Cuban Family Code of 1975 that addressed divorce, abortion, and marriage issues.

She was also considered an ambassador. She frequently represented Cub at the United Nations General Assembly. She headed the Cuban delegation to the first Latin American Congress on women and children in Chile and in Mexico, Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing.

However, there was something really dark lurking in Espin that very few people got to see.  The LA times in the 1990s somehow got an exclusive interview with her.  Don A. Schanche describes her as someone “unconsciously between two personalities”.  She gives the interviewing charming soft cultured tones that she learned from her french mother and Cuban father and then suddenly switches into the orthodox communist official that she once was denouncing enemies of the regimes as “worms” and “slaves of the United States.”

A good example is shown within seconds of each other as the interviewer asked her about the Chernobyl clinic she had established in Cuba. Compassion is the only words that could describe her reaction. She describes the clinic and why they offered up a section of the country to the victims, saying they’re “very proud of the chance to help them.

The interviewer than ask her about the Cuban human rights campaigners, many of whom were jailed for speaking out against the government.  This is what she had to say: “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.” Though whether that is true or not, the interviewer points out that in the past three years none of the human rights activists had ever expressed such views. She didn’t respond. 

Vilma Espin is a fascinating person, regardless of how she is perceived by various groups, and it cannot be denied that she lived a very long and ambitious life.


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