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A Cuban walks by graffiti of revolutionary heroes Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Havana, Cuba August 12, 2018. Picture taken August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

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By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba on Monday began a rare public discussion to overhaul its Cold War-era constitution, a process the government is calling participatory democracy at its best and opponents are branding a fraud.

Cuba's National Assembly approved a draft of changes to the 1976 constitution last month, including amendments that would pave the way for recognition of private small businesses and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

The Communist Party-proposed overhaul will be discussed in 35,000 workplaces and community meetings across the Caribbean island scheduled to stretch into November. Once the debate is concluded, the legislature will approve a new draft and submit it to a nationwide vote in February.

While state media have praised the participatory and democratic nature of the consultations, dissidents say the meetings will simply rubberstamp the changes proposed by party leadership.

With much fanfare in the state-run media, more than a million copies of the proposals have been distributed and they are also available online.

At a state-run health clinic in the capital Havana, a union leader presented the proposed changes point by point to some 50 employees. While a few people asked for clarifications on individual amendments, no one raised any challenges to them.

"We Cubans are going to ratify everything that has already been done, even if there are alternative proposals," said Alina Morada, head of nursing for the municipality of Central Havana, where the meeting took place.

The draft omits a clause in the current constitution that enshrines the aim of building a "communist society" in Cuba. However, it does not change the "irrevocability" of the one-party system and socialist economy.

Alternative systems of government have been dubbed counter-revolutionary since the late Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

But the proposals enshrine a gradual social and economic opening underway since the fall of Cuba's former benefactor, the Soviet Union.

While there are no reliable opinion polls in Cuba, anecdotal evidence indicates many Cubans accept the gist of the changes.

“I think the same-sex marriage issue is the most polemical of the proposals because it never has been discussed here,” said Isabel Palacios, a nurse at the Havana clinic.

“But one does what one wants with their life and that is not a bad thing because we are all human beings.”

However, Hildebrando Chaviano, a retired lawyer and dissident journalist, said many Cubans were afraid of repression if they spoke out publicly.

Chaviano garnered 189 votes for a ward delegate position in Havana in 2015 but was blocked by security agents from attending a nomination meeting two years later.

“Who were these nearly 200 people who voted for me? They are not part of my circle of activists. They feared speaking publicly because of repression but when there was a secret ballot they spoke,” he said.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Daniel Flynn)

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