Since the early days of the Revolution, Vilma Espín Guillois led the Federation of Cuban Women. Photo: Granma Archives

For younger generations, the figure of Vilma Espín Guillois (April 7, 1930 - June 18, 2007) is indelibly associated with the Federation of Cuban Women. She is featured on the organization’s logo, but this outstanding revolutionary was much more. The first step in discovering her life devoted to the Revolution, is reading Las luchas de Vilma(Vilma's struggles), the reflection Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro wrote after the decorated Heroine of the Republic’s death.

“The example of Vilma is today more necessary than ever. She devoted her life to the struggle of women, when in Cuba the majority faced discrimination as human beings like everywhere else in the world, with honorable revolutionary exceptions,” he wrote in an article published in June of 2007.

In her years at the Universidad de Oriente, already apparent was the political vocation that led the young woman from Santiago to participate in actions in support of the 1940 Constitution, in favor of Puerto Rican independence, and denouncing the dictatorship in student demonstrations. She was one of the first women in Cuba to graduate in chemical engineering."I have been witness to Vilma's struggles for almost half a century. I cannot forget her in July 26th Movement meetings in the Sierra Maestra. She was finally sent by the leadership on an important mission in the Second Eastern Front. Vilma did not flinch before any danger," Fidel said in his reflection.She was close to Frank País García, action and sabotage leader for the July 26th Movement in Santiago de Cuba, beginning in the 1950s. After the March 10, 1952 coup d'état, Vilma’s revolutionary trajectory took an ascending path, both in terms of responsibility and in the risks she assumed, at a time when the country’s second largest city took concrete steps in the armed struggle.

She met with Fidel in Mexico, where preparations were underway for the Granma expedition, and took part in the November 30, 1956, uprising meant to distract the dictatorship’s forces from the landing, although the expedition’s arrival was delayed several days.

After the Moncada assault on July 26, 1953, her home had served to support the young rebels, and the story was repeated November 30, three years later.

Vilma became the July 26th Movement’s coordinator in the former province of Oriente, and between 1956 and 1958 worked closely with the Rebel Army, supporting the guerillas in the Sierra Maestra, and guiding journalist Herbert Matthews to a meeting with Fidel. She ultimately joined the Frank País Second Eastern Front.

Once she joined the armed struggle in the Sierra, she contributed to critical decisions, a delegate and member of the July 26th Movement’s highest leadership body.

Fidel continued in his reflection, “Once the Revolution triumphed, her unstoppable battle for Cuban women and children began, leading to the founding of the Federation of Cuban Women. There was no national or international forum that she failed to attend, no matter the distance to be traveled, to defend her besieged homeland and the Revolution’s noble, just ideals.”

On August 23, 1960, the Federation of Cuban Women was founded, as an organization that united all revolutionary women’s groups, and that since its very beginning sought to advance the inclusion of all Cuban women in society. Vilma was there, at a time when the country was the object of constant attacks, as was Fidel, with his visionary understanding of the role of women in the Revolution and the nation’s unity.

The day proved to be, he said, “…a welcome and significant coincidence. At the precise moment when our country faces intrigues, when the powerful empire mobilizes all its millions and all its influence to maneuver against our country, when it comes to besieging our country and to justifying aggressions against our country there, within the OAS, today precisely, today precisely, the Federation of Cuban Women has been constituted, as a dignified response, as an eloquent response on our part. Here we are, first of all, very calm; secondly, very safe; thirdly, very clear; and fourth, very united…

”From then on, with her work in the women's organization and as part of the country’s highest leadership, Vilma was at the forefront of important projects in favor of women such as the National Assembly of People’s Power Commission on Childhood, Youth and Equal Rights for Women.

It would be difficult to speak of the achievements of women, the presence of women in different social settings, their participation and accomplishments in science, sports, and culture; of access to higher education and participation in society without mentioning Vilma and the organization she founded, which recently celebrated its 10th Congress.

It is clear that statistics showing how much has been achieved in the protection of working mothers, maternal health, and families, and the social integration of women are the result of government policies that protect women.It would be unthinkable to ignore the role that women have in Cuba’s economic, social and political life, including the National Assembly and government. Very little of this would have been achieved without the example of a young woman who took to the mountains and dedicated her life to consolidating the unity of the Cuban women.

Photo: Eduardo Palomares