The Associated Press December 1, 2010, 1:48PM ET

Cuba begins public debate of key economic overhaul

Cuba on Wednesday began a public debate over landmark plans to lift the island's struggling economy by liberalizing some private enterprise, streamlining its vast state bureaucracy by laying off a half-million workers and repaying billions of dollars in debt.

The sweeping changes, which also would end the country's unusual dual-currency system and create new ways to buy and sell private property, were announced earlier this year and outlined in a 32-page document circulated among party leaders ahead of an all-important Communist Party Congress scheduled for April -- the first since 1997.

From December until the end of February, Cuban citizens are encouraged to weigh in on the proposals through party organizations, union meetings and neighborhood and workplace gatherings nationwide, according to an editorial published Wednesday in the state newspaper Granma.

"Nobody should remain with an unexpressed opinion, much less be prevented from expressing it," the editorial read. "The Party demands the maximum transparency from all its organizations, the greatest clarity in analysis, the clarification of all doubts and anxieties we may have within the bosom of the Revolution."

"At stake is the future of the Cuban nation," Granma said.

Although the Communist Party is the only political party allowed in Cuba, officials point to street-level forums held to discuss issues and nominate candidates for local office as evidence that the nation is more democratic than most.

It was not clear how much input ordinary people will actually have on the shape of the economic reforms, since many of them have already been announced and the document released last month was extremely detailed.

Nevertheless the Granma article said all Cubans will have "the opportunity to present their judgment, without hindrance, disagreeing if that's what they think."

Cuba traditionally holds a Party Congress every five years to announce major policy changes, but the sixth has been delayed repeatedly as the country underwent a change in leadership and grappled with a serious financial crisis.

The document that circulated last month gave a merciless assessment of the current economic situation, saying the country suffers from "inefficiency," a "lack of capacity in both production and infrastructure" and an aging population.

Cuba also owes billions of dollars to foreign companies that have done business with the island, many of them in Europe.

Still, the document stressed that there will be no change in Cuba's one-party, socialist political system.

"Only socialism is capable of overcoming the current difficulties and preserving the victories of the revolution," the document reads.


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