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CUBANS ARE EAGER FOR ECONOMIC CHANGE

As Fidel Castro's control wanes, citizens' expectations for small, free-market reforms build.

Many Cubans are hoping Raul Castro will embrace free markets and more if he becomes president Sunday - perhaps moving Cuba to something more like Vietnam or China, which also have communist leaders who control all things political, but let markets largely rule their economies.

"China is a communist country but the people are free to earn a lot and buy cars, cell phones," said Alberto, who rolls cigars in a government factory for $15 a month and did not want to give his last name. "Why can't Cuban communism be like that?"

The answer could start to emerge Sunday when Cuba's Parliament meets to choose new leaders. The choices for 30 lawmakers on the Council of State could indicate how far the island's supreme governing body is willing to go toward opening the economy.

Raul Castro, 76, has already tantalized many reform-seekers while serving as acting president for 19 months. He has urged unspecified "structural changes" in Cuba's communist system, acknowledged that state salaries don't meet basic needs, and called on Cubans to complain openly when government control of the economy flounders. So far, there have been few changes beyond better pay for farmers and increased food production.

The Cuban government provides free housing, education and health care, and ration cards help cover the costs of basic food. Few Cubans want to part with those benefits and fully embrace U.S.-style capitalism, although many are hoping the new government could accept tweaks to the system and enough small economic opportunities.

"No one dies of hunger in Cuba, but the system of everyone equal, prisoners the same as students, the same as doctors - it doesn't work," said Evelyn, a 24-year-old student. "People who work hard deserve to be paid well."

Nearly 80 percent of Cubans work for the government and the average monthly state salary is about $19.50.

The government limits access to luxuries such as cell phones and private vehicles. While the government provides credits for appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and televisions, the government alone may buy or sell a home.

For the first time under communist rule, Cuba may be ready to allow a large percentage of its population accumulate wealth - as long as they pay taxes.

Vladimir, a 27-year-old who studied economics at the University of Havana, said he supports Raul Castro's small steps so far, but recently quit his job at a state agricultural cooperative and sees working with a foreign company as his only hope.

"I think, 'What can I have in 10 years?' and it's very sad,"

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