Vilma Espín Guillois, born in Santiago de Cuba 86 years ago, on April 7, 1930, was characterized by her human qualities, including strong family principles, a sense of justice and condemnation of lies, banality and superficiality (1). Despite her comfortable background, she rejected the social situation she witnessed in Cuba, wondering, “Why are there beggars on the street?” and questioning as to how to solve the problem (2).
She began a Chemical Engineering degree in 1948, at the Universidad de Oriente, coinciding with the struggles for its official recognition and budget, activities in which she participated. She joined the Oriente Federation of University Students (FEUO) and did not hesitate in joining the protests (3).
Following the 1952 coup, in violation of the Constitution and preempting a Cuban People’s Party (Ortodoxo) electoral triumph, which she took as a personal affront, her struggle to end the tyranny intensified. She participated in various opposition actions with other students, and was part of the generation that mobilized its radical thought toward revolutionary militancy, advocating armed insurrection.
In 1953, after condemning the assassination of young student Rubén Batista during a protest in Havana, her revolutionary thinking was consolidated. She had the courage, along with other companions, to support the fighters of the Centennial Generation headed by Fidel, who participated in the attacks on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes garrisons, in Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo respectively. Regarding this she later said: “Many families gave shelter to the compañeros of the Moncada attack, we helped those who remained in the hospital, we brought food to those who were in prison,” (4). An example was her assistance to José Ponce and Abelardo Crespo. She also hid Severino Rosell at her family home in Punta de Sal.
Her links to Frank País and José Tey (Pepito) provided greater ideological preparation that she channeled through the National Revolutionary Movement, which had a serious political program in accordance with her ideas (5).
After taking part in a parade in tribute to Antonio Maceo, which was repressed, she managed to reach his home and wrote a note expressing: “Many of us came out to honor you today, December 7, only a small group have arrived…The police forces that overthrew the nation you liberated, were responsible for detaining them. You will see more, Bronze Titan, your children know how to defend the homeland” (6).
A role model for Cuban women. Vilma Espín cutting sugar cane. Photo: Archivo
When Frank País founded Eastern Revolutionary Action (ARO), Vilma joined and worked with him in the finance section, where she demonstrated honesty and dedication. The organization grew, and was renamed National Revolutionary Action (ANR) at a meeting at Frank’s house with Vilma and Pepito Tey, according to Calas Benavides.
The opportunity to read History Will Absolve Me strengthened Vilma’s ideological convictions. She would later note: “I read it in one go… we were all fascinated, it clarified a program around which we could unite to fight…” (7). She immediately helped to distribute the text. After completing her studies on July 14, 1954, she continued to maintain ties with revolutionaries.
Together with her sister Nilsa, she helped erase gunpowder traces on Frank’s hands following the assault on the El Caney police station.
When Frank was arrested, she assumed some of his work. She was considered his assistant and Graciela Aguiar would note: “She ordered us to do everything possible to ensure his life… we went to the jail together and she told me, I have so much to say in so little time, I don’t know where to start.” Vilma demonstrated her ability to manage the strategies of the movement.
The July 26th Revolutionary Movement was founded in Oriente at the end of 1955, and Vilma participated in the consultation process with Frank, before leaving to study in Boston, in the United States. While her active struggle may have ceased, she continued to be concerned with the situation in Cuba (8). In June 1956, she traveled to Mexico and met with Fidel Castro, who was in exile, before taking his messages for the coordination of supportive actions back to Cuba. She led these efforts in Santiago, where she prepared medical supplies and offered her home for organizing the armed uprising of November 30. The house later became the headquarters of the movement in the region.
The year 1957 was decisive. Vilma met with guerilla leaders in the Sierra Maestra, following the Granma expedition, and participated in Fidel’s interview with U.S. journalist Herbert Matthew. Along with Frank, she organized the first group of men to be sent to the Sierra Maestra and on July 20, was assigned responsibility for the Oriente Provincial Coordination, placing her at the forefront of decisive moments, such as the death of Frank and its consequences.
She remained active and in 1958 was providing supplies to the guerrillas, and took part in the April 9 strike and important meetings convened in the Sierra Maestra, for which the Oriente was considered a bastion of the struggle. In June she participated, together with Comandante Raúl Castro Ruz, in talks with the American consul, following the anti-aircraft operation undertaken in the Frank País Second Eastern Front, and for her own safety she decided to remain in rebel territory, as a National Delegate of the MR -26-7. She participated in various meetings held to plan the taking of Santiago de Cuba and triumphantly entered her home city on January 1, 1959.
From that moment on, a new stage of struggle began for the full equality of women, through the Federation of Cuban Women, which she led for 47 years, as well as the Communist Party, and as a Deputy of the National Assembly of People’s Power. On June 18, 2007, Vilma left us physically, but she continues to be the eternal President of the FMC and her example, as Fidel says, today is more necessary than ever.
* María Esther Mora is a MSc museologist at the Vilma Espín Memorial in Santiago de Cuba and member of the Union of Cuban Historians (UNIHC).
(1) Speech by Asela de los Santos on assembling the Vilma Espín memorial.
2 Margot Randall: “La mujer cubana de ahora” Mujeres magazine, July 1973, p. 6, interview with Vilma Espín.
3 Mirza, Ramos Ochoa: Participación de Vilma Espín en las luchas estudiantiles, 2011 (unpublished).
4 Vilma Espín: “Seguimos a Fidel”, Mujeres magazine, No. 2, 2003, p. 57.
5 Vilma Espín: “Deborah” in Una Revolución que Comienza, p. 56.
6 Renaldo Infante Urivazo: Frank País: Leyenda sin Mitos, p. 104.
7 Vilma Espín: “Deborah” in Una Revolución que Comienza, p. 59.Contra todo Obstáculo, p. 23.
8 Vilma Espín: “Deborah” in Una Revolución que Comienza, p. 60.