The Many Ways of Being Raul

By Rosa Miriam Elizalde on June 3, 2021

Cuban Federation of Women, photo: Bill Hackwell

The Revolution will be made with women or it will not be made. They are the ones who create the financing channels, who set up the safe houses, who organize the networks that sustain the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra and who, like Eugenia Verdecia, carry under their skirts dynamite cartridges, hand grenades, bullets, machine gun combs, fulminates.  “With anonymous heroines like these, who imitate in everything the mambisas of the past, there can be no lost cause”, writes the young Raúl Castro, on Saturday, December 29, 1956.

Vilma Espín, Raúl’s guerrilla love and lifelong companion, would complete the revolutionary leader’s feminist education, but it is enough to review what happened before and after they fell in love in the travails of war to discover that this is a story of coherence. It came from before their “feminism”, that idea that men and women are equal and have the same rights, that they share obligations and have in common the same agenda for social change.  Otherwise, it would not be possible to explain Raul’s admiring words in his diary shortly after the landing of the Granma, nor the role played by women in the Rebel Army, where they even formed a platoon, “Las Marianas”, while Asela de los Santos headed the Education Department of the Second Eastern Front, commanded by Raul, in the midst of the insurgency.

In the Rebel Army it was not only the men who had the privilege of living and dying for the homeland. From this perspective, the Cuban guerrilla surpassed other revolutionary fronts, before and after 1959, which gave women only subordinate positions. Teté Puebla, second-in-command of Las Marianas, recalled how they earned the right to come face to face with the Batista soldiers on the combat field and why they had the understanding of Fidel and the other guerrilla leaders; “The causes that matured our decision to insist on joining as combatants, beyond being cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, nurses or messengers, was the fruit of a maternal feeling of fury and rebellion before the atrocities committed on the peasantry by the tyranny during the offensive initiated in May 1958: children killed in bombings and machine-gunning, daughters and wives of peasants raped in their presence, entire families massacred, houses and crops burned.”

A female revolutionary proposal was born and they participated in the combats like everyone else, they walked without rest, shared the hardships, wrote their diaries, kept calm when the enemy shots were heard. One can speculate that perhaps the love between Vilma and Raul would not have existed without those airs of respect, equality and admiration for women. Vilma was delicate as a lily and strong as the volcanic rock of the Gran Piedra, and the guerrilla commander surrendered to a feeling for a woman absolutely out of the ordinary who knew how to aim a rifle and lead men who had fought a fierce war against the dictatorship’s henchmen, and who also had a solid technical and artistic education. She had graduated as a Chemical Engineer and had danced “Swan Lake”; she had a postgraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and sang with a beautiful soprano voice and painted. For him she drew a self-portrait in December 1958: “I hope we will always be together and it is not necessary that when you want to see me you appeal to this photo.”

“It was a very beautiful love, which did not fade over the years”. Who says so is Yolanda Ferrer, who was 13 years old when she met Vilma in the preparations for what Fidel would call “a revolution within the Revolution”: the Federation of Cuban Women. The FMC, which when Vilma died in 2007 Yolanda would lead until 2012, emerged to defend and execute that project of women’s liberation that had to struggle with centuries of macho culture and misunderstandings within the revolutionary ranks themselves: “Why a women’s organization only if we had fought together, if the Revolution had condemned all discrimination, including that of sex?”, was the kind of question that some comrades asked then and that Raul himself would recall on one of the anniversaries of the Federation.

“Raúl was the first to know that the women wanted to organize. Vilma told him and his support was absolute from the first moment,” says Yolanda. “We women of the FMC Secretariat were able to get to know him in his double dimension: first, as the extraordinary leader of the Cuban Revolution that he is – brilliant strategist, of great modesty and loyalty to Fidel, with a great sense of humor… We also got to know him as a human being, as a father, as a grandfather, as a husband. They were an example of family and I speak in the past tense, because she is not physically here.” Yolanda, whose voice cracks every time she mentions Vilma by name, says that, regardless of where they were and the tasks that weighed on them, the couple talked to each other on the phone from work at least a couple of times a day and planned meetings with the children and grandchildren in the intimacy of the family.

Source: Cuba Periodistas, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English