Revered as a Cuban revolutionary

Anthony DePalma

Anthony DePalma

Vilma Espin, who fought alongside Fidel and Raul Castro in the mountains of Cuba and later, as Raul's wife, became a prominent advocate of women's rights and a powerful member of the Cuban Communist Party, died on Monday in Havana.

She was 77.

Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, said she had succumbed to "the long illness with which she was afflicted".

As sister-in-law of Fidel, who is divorced, Espin was Cuba's unofficial first lady for decades, often appearing with Fidel at official events.

Espin was a revered figure of the revolution. The image of her and several other prominent women shouldering rifles and wearing combat fatigues during the rebel war helped change attitudes about the role of women in Cuba. She founded the Federation of Cuban Women in 1960 and remained its president until her death.

She became an international figure in the struggle for women's rights.

Speaking before an International Women's Year conference in Mexico City in 1975, she said: "We have already obtained for our women everything that the conference is asking for. Women are part of the people and unless you talk about politics, you are never going to change anything."

Vilma Espin Guillois was born on April 7 1930 in Santiago de Cuba to a wealthy family. She was one of the first women to obtain a university degree in chemical engineering. In 1955, she spent a year doing postgraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After returning to Cuba, Espin became deeply involved with the opposition to the dictator Fulgencio Batista. She helped organise an armed uprising in late 1956 to coincide with the landing of armed rebels under the command of Fidel.

She later joined the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra where she met Raul and fought beside him. They were married in 1959.

Espin is survived by Raul, four children and eight grandchildren. - New York Times