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A placard opposing gay marriage is seen on a pole in Havana, Cuba, July 19, 2018. . The placard reads "Marriage is the voluntarily arranged union of a man and a woman". REUTERS/Stringer

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By Sarah Marsh

HAVANA (Reuters) - The draft of Cuba's new constitution opens the path to same-sex marriage, a government official said on Saturday, which would make the country that once persecuted homosexuals an unlikely leader in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

In the early years of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, many homosexuals were sent to correctional labour camps, part of an institutionalized homophobia for which Castro later apologised.

Yet Communist-run Cuba has made great strides over the past decade on LGBT rights, approving sex-change operations and banning workplace discrimination, partly thanks to the high-profile advocacy of Castro's niece Mariela Castro.

Proposals to recognise same-sex unions had stalled in view of the slow legislative process and lingering stigma in the macho society.

That will start to change with the new constitution that will replace Cuba's 1976 Soviet-era Magna Carta, the secretary of the council of state, Homero Acosta, told lawmakers on Saturday.

The draft, elaborated by a commission headed by former President Raul Castro - Mariela Castro's father - defines matrimony as between two individuals rather than between a man and a woman, he said.

"The possibility of marriage between two people strengthens our project's principles of equality and justice," Acosta told lawmakers, adding that further legal changes would be needed to allow for gay marriage.

The move reflects a trend in Latin America where same-sex couples have been allowed to marry in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and some parts of Mexico in recent years, despite church opposition.

The battle has not yet been won however, Cuban LGBT rights activist Isbel Diaz Torres cautioned on social media.

While the national assembly is expected to approve the draft constitution this weekend, it will then be submitted to a popular consultation, and final draft will be put to a national referendum.

"We will continue in the streets until the final process of the constitutional reform," said Diaz Torres. "And after the constitutional modification has been approved, we must ensure that same sex marriage is approved."

Grassroots campaigns for and against gay marriage have made it the most broadly debated proposed constitutional modification.

Five evangelical denominations shared a statement on social media last month declaring marriage "exclusively the union of a man and a woman, according to the Bible."

Churches also plastered neighbourhoods with anti gay marriage posters such as one reading "I am in favour of the original design - the family as God created it," showing a heterosexual couple with a boy and a girl.

LGBT rights activists fought back with their own posters such as one reading "I am in favour of Cuban design - a very original family," showing a panoply of different family configurations including same-sex unions.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh, Nelson Acosta and Marc Frank in Havana, Editing by Franklin Paul and Nick Zieminski)

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