Vilma Espín Guillois, a leader of the Cuban revolution and the eternal president of the Federation of Cuban Women, was an important spokesperson for the Cuban revolution, and especially the struggle of Cuban women for their emancipation within the revolution. As a revolutionary, she carried the respect of the Cuban people when in 1960 she helped found the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). She explained, “When we told Fidel that women wanted to unite, to organize, to participate actively in the revolution – that they did not want only to receive the benefits but to give something back as well. […] He understood how important this step was and strongly supported it.” On August 23, 1960, the FMC held its founding meeting. This year, on August 23, 2018, women across Cuba came together to celebrate 58 years of what has become one of the world’s largest feminist organizations – boasting 4 million members – over 90% of women over the age of 14 in Cuba.
Who is Vilma Espín?
Born April 7, 1930, in the eastern province of Oriente to a wealthy landowning family, Vilma began her studies towards a Chemical Engineering degree in 1948, at the University of Oriente. Her revolutionary work began in the urban underground movement alongside Frank País in the city of Santiago de Cuba. They supported Fidel’s leadership and the attack on the Moncada army garrison on July 26, 1953.
In October 1953, Fidel Castro gave his famous courtroom speech, “History will absolve me” where he defended his actions against the U.S.-backed Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. According to Granma Newspaper, Vilma wrote about the first time she read Fidel’s words, “I read it in one go... we were all fascinated, it clarified a program around which we could unite to fight.” She immediately began clandestinely distributing the text to other revolutionaries. She joined the revolutionary July 26th Movement when it was founded, and when Frank País was tragically assassinated in July 1957, she became its coordinator in Oriente province. Soon after, working in the urban setting became too dangerous, and she joined the guerilla fighters in the Sierra Maestra mountains. On January 1, 1959, the Cuban revolution triumphed, and she returned to Santiago de Cuba to begin the process of establishing the new revolutionary leadership.
She married Raul Castro, an important leader of the Cuban revolution and Fidel's brother, in 1959. Not only was she a founder and president of the FMC, but she was also a leader in re-establishing the Communist Party of Cuba, and a deputy to Cuba’s National Assembly of People's Power. She passed away June 18, 2007, but has been named the eternal president of the FMC as she served in that important position for 47 years.
What is the role of the Federation of Cuban Women?
Vilma Espín explained the role of the FMC in the early years of the revolution, "We had to change women’s mentality—accustomed as they were to play a secondary role in society. Our women had endured years of discrimination. We had to show women their own possibilities, their ability to do all kinds of work. We had to make women feel the urgent needs of our revolution in the construction of a new life. We had to change both woman’s image of themselves and society’s image of women." She continued, "We started our work through simple tasks that allowed us to reach out to women, to get them above the narrow, limited framework they lived in. To explain the revolution’s purpose to them, and the part they would play in the process."
She further explained that the founding of a women's mass organization carried with it two fundamental goals: 1) Raising political consciousness through education, to engage women in new tasks and 2) Raising political understanding through participation in those new tasks themselves.
Since 1960, the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) has been developing policies and programs aimed at achieving full equality for women.
- Organizing “Casas de Orientación a la Mujer y la Familia” (Women and family orientation houses) which assist particularly with conflict resolution and advice stemming from issues such as divorce, intergenerational issues in the family, or domestic violence. This can involve providing legal advice, accessing women’s health services and other resources.
- Supporting women’s health, especially with information regarding safe sex, abortion, maternity facilities, and teen pregnancy
- Educating members and the public through workshops, forums, a magazine (Mujeres.co.cu), online blogs, laws and policies, and community block parties
- Contributing to the training and well-being of the next generation
The work of the FMC has had excellent results. According to a March 2018 article in Granma International titled, "Cuban women: A revolution within the Revolution,” today Cuban women are increasingly involved and more successful across many sectors. The journalists, Danae González Del Toro and Nuria Barbosa León, explain, "Cuban women make up 48% of the state sector workforce, with a similar percent occupying management positions. Excellent employment, participation and leadership opportunities are open to women. [...] Likewise, 78.5% of healthcare professionals are women, as well as almost half of all of those conducting scientific research. Women also constitute 66% of the country’s highly trained technicians and professionals, receiving the same salary as their male counterparts for the same work. Cuban women also have access to free and universal education and healthcare, and represent 60% of all university graduates.”
Since the triumph of the Cuban revolution, many laws have been put in place to protect women and children from violence or being kicked out of the home. However, educating men about women’s issues and challenging gender roles has been one of the major challenges in this traditionally machismo society. However, some strides have been made there too, for example, in 2003 the laws around maternity were changed to grant both men and women maternity/paternity leave during the first year after a baby is born. This law was passed explicitly with the intention of redefining traditional roles and encouraging shared responsibility between partners in raising children.
58 years of the FMC: Continuing the “revolution within the revolution.”
On August 23, 2018, women across Cuba came together to celebrate 58 years of the FMC. Reports from across the country show women coming together in their communities for celebrations with music, dance, speeches, poetry, and pride. From the tip of western Pinar del Rio to the tip of eastern Santiago de Cuba, women of all ages, alongside many men and children, celebrated the gains of women throughout the Cuban revolution.
For example, in Camagüey, according to Radio Cadena Agramonte, 58 women were honoured with their names in the "Book of honour of Camagüey's Women." These included state and non-state workers, housewives, and senior citizens. These women were honoured by the community for their commitment to the tasks and ideas of the FMC.
Three important areas in which Cuban women are proudly marching forward in what Fidel called a “revolution within the revolution” are their leadership roles in politics; the struggle against homophobia and transphobia; and their commitment to Cuba’s revolutionary process.
Women’s leadership in the “revolution within the revolution.”
On March 11, 2018, over 85% of Cubans participated in elections for their newest National Assembly ( See Fire This Time V12I4 for more on the elections ). Women made important gains in the new parliament which is 53.22% women representatives. Youth also made inroads as 13.22% of representatives are under 35 years old, and 40.17% of representatives are under 50 years old. Indeed, the fact that Cuba’s National Assembly is 53.22% women means Cuba now ranks second in the world for the highest participation of women in parliament (Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world). Women also make up 48% of top officials in the State leadership. All this demonstrates the dynamic contribution of women in society. Deputies of the National Assembly are accountable to their municipalities and provinces, responsible for drafting policy, and enacting changes in their communities towards improving Cuba’s socialist system.
After the elections, Cuba has a new President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, as well as a first vice president, Salvador Valdes Mesa, and 5 Vice Presidents, 3 of which are women – Beatriz Jhonson, Ines Maria Chapman, and Gladys Maria Bejerano Portela. Also, important to note that Beatriz Jhonson, Ines Maria Chapman and Salvador Valdes Mesa are all people of colour. While having women and people of colour in leadership does not automatically make Cuba an equal or perfect society, it has made these changes without a quota system. Clearly, it means there are no seats reserved for people of colour or women, but each of these Vice President’s of Cuba are important leaders in the nation who are becoming more and more known for their important work by the Cuban people.
Fighting homophobia and transphobia in the “revolution within the revolution.”
In an interview with CubaSi Magazine, Mariela Castro, Director of Cuba's National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) who also happens to be the daughter of Vilma Espín and Raúl Castro, explained the work of the FMC towards not only gender equality but the beginning stages of Cuba's struggle against homophobia. She explains, "The first steps were taken by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), with the creation of the National Group of Work on Sexual Education in the year 1972, the forerunner of CENESEX. The FMC also propitiated a public debate on these topics. A landmark moment was the publication of the book "Man and Woman in Intimacy" (Sigfred Schnabel, 1979), in which a scientific voice argued, for the first time in Cuba, why homosexuality is not considered a disease. Many homosexual people have told me the benefits these messages meant to them, against stigmatizing burden society imposes on them."
The basis for queer oppression and women’s oppression are similarly the traditional family unit and its relationship with the patriarchal-class society and capitalist economic and political order. The fact that many women in the FMC are supporting the work of CENESEX and Mariela Castro, and that same-sex marriage is being proposed for Cuba’s new constitution is a positive step forward towards equality for women and queer people in Cuba.
Women and the commitment to the Cuban revolution
Cuba is currently in the process of debating and discussing a new constitution. The previous constitution was ratified by referendum in 1975. The updated constitution will initiate many changes for Cubans. However, it reaffirms the country’s committeemen to socialist principals such as those of Jose Marti, Fidel Castro, V.I. Lenin and Karl Marx ( For further information see “The path to the proclamation for Cuba’s new Constitution” in this issue of Fire This Time, page 12 ). A draft of the new constitution has been approved by Cuba’s national assembly and the document is currently being debated and discussed in sessions across the island. Thousands of sessions organized by the FMC to read the new constitution from a feminist perspective and confirm that this new document will advance the tasks and position of women within Cuban society. In speaking to Prensa Latina News agency, the general secretary of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), Teresa Amarelle said, "it is a commitment, it is a duty, it is a debt to our legacy to reaffirm the new Constitution of the Republic." She went on to add, "to contribute with our modest opinions, with our points of view to a project that is very much in tune with the reality of the people of Cuba and that reflects that trajectory in the participation of our women in the revolutionary process."
On December 10, 1966, Fidel Castro, then the Prime Minister of Cuba, spoke to the 5th national plenary of the FMC. He famously stated, "When we arrived here tonight I told a comrade that this phenomenon of women in the revolution was a revolution within a revolution.” Fidel continued, “If we were asked that is the most revolutionary thing the revolution is doing, we would answer that the most revolutionary thing the revolution is doing is precisely this, that is to say, the revolution is taking place with the women of our country. If we are asked what the things that have taught us most in the revolution are, we would answer that one of the most interesting lessons which we revolutionaries are getting from the revolution is the lesson the women are giving us.” These words were met with great applause by the heroic women of the FMC, then marking six years since the founding of their organization. However, another 52 years later, on the 58th anniversary of the FMC, these words continue to ring true, as women in Cuba continue to learn, organize, educate, and build a stronger more equal and equitable Cuba for the next generation.
¡Viva Cuba y Viva las Mujeres Cubanas!
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