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Cuba opens discussion of constitution overhaul to citizens abroad

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba announced on Friday that its citizens living abroad could participate in a public debate over planned changes to its 1976 constitution, a first for the communist-run country that for many years has excluded emigrants from domestic politics.

Ernesto Soberon, Foreign Ministry Director of Consular Affairs and Cubans Residing Overseas, delivers a message to the media in Havana, Cuba August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

A draft proposal of changes to the constitution was passed last month by the National Assembly and will be debated by the public in 35,000 workplaces and community meetings in Cuba into November, before a final version is submitted to a referendum.

The amendments maintain Cuba’s one-party socialist system but institute a major government reorganization and pave the way for recognition of private small businesses and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, among other matters.

The government said it would make the proposed changes available on the internet, along with a form that citizens living abroad could fill out with their opinions and proposals.

Ernesto Soberon, Foreign Ministry Director of Consular Affairs and Cubans Residing Overseas, delivers a message to the media in Havana, Cuba August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

“This constitutes proof of the government’s continued efforts to strengthen ties between the Revolution and Cuban residents living abroad,” the government said in a statement.

It did not say whether Cubans abroad would also be eligible to vote in the referendum.

During the Cold War, Cuba branded citizens who left the island as “traitors” and “worms,” especially if they lived in the United States, and they were rarely granted permission to return home, even for visits.

That began to change with the fall of the Soviet Union. Most Cubans living abroad are now considered to have economic motives and are welcome to come and go as they please if they have a Cuban passport.

Some 2 million Cubans, including those born outside the country, are estimated to live abroad, compared to a population on the island of around 11 million.

Around 600,000 Cubans visited last year, according to the government, the majority from the United States.

Reporting by Marc Frank, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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