Vilma Espin, wife of acting president Raul Castro, has died aged 77 after a long illness. Espin was considered Cuba’s unofficial first lady and was a key figure in advancing women’s equality in Cuba.
Espin was part of the armed struggle against the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Rebelling against her wealthy upbringing she joined Fidel Castro’s guerillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains in 1956. She married Raul in 1959 in Havana after Batista fled Cuba and the guerillas marched into the capital and a year later she founded the Cuban Women’s Federation, an organisation that mobilised women to support the new regime and to advance gender equality. Today, the federation has about 3.6 million members, or 85 per cent of the island’s women.
Espin was also a chemical engineer and had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is survived by four children including Mariela Castro who heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education and Raul.