Cubans gather 10,000 signatures for monetary reform

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HAVANA, Nov 22 (Reuters) A group of dissident women handed in a petition signed by 10,738 people demanding an end to Cuba's dual currency system which they said caused poverty and inequality.

Seven women took the petition to the National Assembly, which is obliged by Cuba's constitution to consider any legislative proposals requested by more than 10,000 citizens.

In Cuba's socialist society, people get paid in Cuban pesos but need a harder currency called the convertible peso --worth 24 times more-- to buy most consumer goods.

''We demand for all the nation that the Cuban peso be an acceptable means of payment in every establishment without exception,'' the petition said.

The signatures were gathered by members of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women, a group that receives support from Cuban exile organizations in Miami.

''We expect a positive reply from the government because this is a demand that all Cubans are making,'' said Maria Antonia Hidalgo, from the eastern province of Holguin.

Cuba introduced the convertible currency in 1994 when Cubans started receiving remittances from their relatives in Florida to help them weather a deep economic crisis triggered by the break-up of Havana's benefactor, the Soviet Union.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro said the measure was temporary and the government's goal is to eventually unify the two currencies when economic expansion permits.

The campaign for monetary reform recalls a signature drive called the Varela Project led in 2002 by prominent dissident Oswaldo Paya, who gathered 25,000 signatures to petition for a referendum on civil liberties in Cuba.

The Assembly rejected Paya's request and Castro mobilized for a referendum to preserve Cuba's socialist state.

The Cuban government does not acknowledge the existence of dissidents and labels all opponents as ''mercenaries'' on the payroll of the United States, its ideological nemesis.

Some telephone calls made by the organizers of yesterday's petition to the National Assembly came from the US-funded Office of Cuba Broadcasting in Miami, which oversees anti-Castro radio and television broadcasts to Cuba.

REUTERS TB BST0455

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