Cuba's first lady is no mystery, but you would not know it

from coverage in state media


Mimi Whitefield & Nora Gamez Torres, The Miami Herald


When Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel arrived in Caracas for an official visit to Venezuela on Wednesday, the woman in the purple and black dress with the stylish lilac purse was very much in evidence.


She was photographed holding hands with Díaz-Canel as they walked down a red carpet at the airport flanked by a white-uniformed honor guard, being greeted by Venezuelan Executive Vice President Tareck El Aissami, and at the tomb of Latin American Liberator Simón Bolívar as the Cuban president laid a floral wreath.


But judging by Cuban state media, she is no one.


Not one of the photos that appeared in Granma, the paper of Cuba's Communist Party, nor other major state media outlets identified her by name or even mentioned who she is. The same articles, however, dutifully listed the names of the officials — all men — comprising the Cuban delegation.


The woman, of course, is Lis Cuesta Peraza, Díaz-Canel's wife and a tourism executive. A search of the Granma website doesn't turn up a single mention of her name.


"She isn't a statue or a vase .... she deserves to be recognized officially," a commentator called Rigo wrote on the website of Cubadebate, a digital news outlet that was among those that did not initially identify Cuesta in the pictures from Venezuela. "She also represents Cuba and I believe in a very dignified way."


Cubadebate apparently took that comment and a number of similar ones to heart. By Thursday, the caption in one of the six Cubadebate pictures where she is clearly visible had been amended. That single caption now includes this phrase: "accompanied by his wife Lis Cuesta Peraza."


These pictures that appeared in Cubadebate on Wednesday did not identify Lis Cuesta, the wife of Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel, by name. By Thursday, Cubadebate had added her name in a single photo caption.


Granma provided no such clarification.


Although the Cuban media seems reluctant to admit it, Cuesta appears to be assuming the role of a first lady, something Cuba hasn't seen in nearly 60 years and a position ostensibly rejected during the Castro era as a remnant of capitalism.


Even before Díaz-Canel, 58, was elevated to the presidency, Cuesta frequently appeared in public with him, notably earlier this year when she stood in line with him in Santa Clara to vote for legislative delegates. She also accompanied him on some foreign trips when he was first vice president of Cuba's Council of State and Council of Ministers.


But the idea of a first lady is a concept Cubans aren't accustomed to, and it is not only a quandary for state media but is providing plenty of fodder for debate among Cubans.


Fidel Castro was divorced from his first wife, Mirta Díaz-Balart, well before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and for decades his marital status was practically a state secret. Many Cubans thought he was single.


Not until 1998, when Pope John Paul II visited the island, was Dalia Soto de Valle — the woman Castro is believed to have married in 1980 and with whom he had five sons — seen in public. During Castro's later years, when he had already become ill, she was photographed with him more frequently.


Vilma Espín, the wife of Raúl Castro, was a major revolutionary figure in her own right. She not only fought alongside Fidel and Raúl in the mountains, but she headed the Cuban Federation of Women for many years. When she died in June 2007, it was less than a year into Raúl Castro's presidency. Since that time, their daughter, Mariela Castro Espín, had from time to time assumed a protocol role for her father.


"We are really in uncharted waters here since Raúl was a widower and Fidel always did things his own way. For me, what is significant here is that almost anything Díaz-Canel does, given his generation and personality, will provoke speculation and surprise as it will inevitably contrast with his two predecessors," said Ted Henken, a sociology professor at Baruch College who writes frequently on Cuba.


But Henken said having pictures that show him as a family man, a regular Cuban, serve Díaz-Canel politically.


"I imagine that he is deliberately making sure that these images come out in the Party-controlled press. We should remember that he can’t count on the historic revolutionary legitimacy of having been a founder of the system that both Fidel and Raúl had behind them," he said.


"[Díaz-Canel] is trying to show a softer side of leadership, a civilian with no uniform with his wife, while at the same time, nothing has really changed" in Cuba, said Andy Gómez, the former director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.


There appeared to be a sea change on the matter of a Cuban first lady after Díaz-Canel became president on April 19. When Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro visited Cuba a few days later, a local television reporter made this seemingly innocuous comment: "The presidents greeted their respective delegations that for the first time include the first lady of Venezuela, Cilia Flores, and of Cuba, Lis Cuesta."


Was the use of the term first lady sanctioned or a miscue? The fact that she has now become the nameless lady of mystery would indicate the latter.


But Cubans certainly noticed Cuesta's presence in the official pictures of the Venezuelan trip.


Among the comments on Cubadebate: "Very beautiful our first lady, if one could know her name please."


Another commentator supplied it: "Lis Cuesta, that's the name of the wife of President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Certainly very elegant and pretty. It's good that he always goes out with her; that shows many important things and provides an example."


Still, another speculated that Cuesta wasn't identified because there is no mention of "a first lady figure in our constitution."


Other commentators weren't enthusiastic about the concept of a first lady, calling it elitist and of no use in contemporary Cuba.


"It is not like the rest of the world, in a number of countries the first lady is not mentioned or there is no such title, in the Republic of Ecuador, [former] President Rafael Correa has declared null the position of first lady, because he considers it an anachronism and sexism in these times," said commentator Enrique B.


In Venezuela, Maduro has said he prefers to think of his wife as the "first combatiente (fighter)."


But who is Lis Cuesta?


According to various media reports, she is 47, originally from Holguín, works in tourism and is Díaz-Canel's second wife. She has a Twitter account that identifies her as a "Revolutionary" and a graduate of the University of Holguín with a degree in teaching. Lately she has been tweeting a lot about the tragic Cuban air crash that claimed 112 lives.


John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, an organization that tries to bring Cubans and Americans together, met Cuesta and Díaz-Canel in 2012 when she worked for Paradiso, a tourism agency within the Ministry of Culture, and he was the Minister of Higher Education.


McAuliff was the only American with a booth at Universidad, a large international university congress, when the couple approached and began talking with him. He later met with her at Paradiso, where she was director of academic services because he was interested in projects between U.S. and Cuban universities. They exchanged emails for awhile.


Two years later, he ran into the couple again at a reception for the same biennial congress and they remembered him. "Díaz-Canel and his wife walked through the crowd enjoying the music of Los Van Van, working it like a U.S. politician. They were stopped by people who wanted pictures with them. She was walking the crowd with him, but very much a part of it all.


"There were two sides to her. On one hand, she was a competent, professional person," McAuliff said. "But on the other hand, she was clearly accompanying her husband. With Fidel's various relationships over the years, a woman was not very visible. But this [Díaz-Canel and Cuesta] was much more an American-style political couple."



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