Vilma Espin was one of the female leaders of the Cuban Revolution in the Oriente province, and she became Raul Castro’s wife. She was born into a wealthy family of rum distillers in Santiago de Cuba on April 7, 1930. Taking advantage of her family’s status, she became one of the first women in Cuba to obtain a degree in chemical engineering. In 1955, she came to the U.S. and did graduate work at MIT. When she returned to Cuba, she became involved in the anti-Batista movement.
Espin joined Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement in Mexico, where the Castro brothers were plotting the overthrow of Batista. She returned to Cuba with revolutionaries in 1956 and lived with them in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where they trained. Espin served as a messenger for the revolutionaries and a translator to visiting American journalists reporting on their activities.
Espin married Raul Castro in 1959, four months after the revolutionaries overthrew Batista. She and Raul had four children. Espin became a member of the government’s small inner circle. In 1960, she founded the Federation of Cuban Women to support women’s rights and enable women to become part of the workforce by providing avenues of childcare. She built the organization to more than three million women members and served as its president. In 1965, she was named to the Communist Party’s ruling Central Committee and was a member of the Council of State, the country’s inner circle of power. It was never known if she and Raul stayed married, though they did make occasional public appearances together over the years. Espin died in Havana in June 2007.
Vilma Espin with Raul Castro
Celia Sanchez, arguably the most powerful woman in the Cuban Revolution, was one of Fidel Castro’s closest aides. Many believed Sanchez was Castro’s girlfriend, but that was never confirmed. Sanchez joined the revolution in March 1952 and was the founder of the 26th of July Movement chapter in Manzanillo. One of her earliest and most important contributions was helping Castro and his men survive after the disastrous landing of the Granma in Cuba in December 1956. Sanchez was supposed to greet the Granma, but the battered boat missed its landing point by miles. Once the surviving men made it to safety in the mountains, Sanchez organized a secret network of peasant families that provided food and supplies to the rebels, enabling them to survive.
After Batista’s government discovered that Sanchez was aiding the rebels, she became the most wanted woman in the country. Sanchez moved into Sierra Maestras with the rebels. At the command post of La Plata, she oversaw the distribution of food, clothes and weapons. She even took up arms herself in several battles.
When Castro came to power in 1959, Sanchez became his most trusted and valuable aides. She oversaw his education reform initiative and established a historical archive of the revolution, and often traveled with Castro on international visits. Sanchez continued to work alongside Castro until her death in 1970.
Celia Sanchez and Fidel Castro