By Associated Press

HAVANA — In the midst of a regional crisis over Venezuela and tough economic straits, the Cuban government is about to launch a sweeping makeover of its centrally planned, single-party system with dozens of new laws that could reshape everything from criminal justice to the market economy.

Nearly a year of debate and discussion ended last month with the approval of Cuba's first constitutional reform since 1976. Some observers see the new constitution as a merely cosmetic update aimed at assuring one of the world's last communist systems won't get another revamp until long after the passing of its founding fathers, now in their late 80s and early 90s. Others see the potential for a slow-moving but deep set of changes that will speed the modernization of Cuba's economically stagnant authoritarian bureaucracy.

Cuban legal experts told The Associated Press that they expect the government to send the National Assembly between 60 and 80 new laws over the next two years to replace ones rendered obsolete by the new constitution. The assembly is virtually certain to unanimously approve all government proposals, as it has for decades.

"I expect to see big changes in Cuba with the new constitution," said Julio Antonio Fernández, a constitutional law professor at the University of Havana. "A new state structure, a transformed political system, led by the Communist Party, of course, but different and confronting big challenges."

One of the first changes will be in Cuba's political system. Within five months, the government is required to pass a new electoral law that splits the roles of head of state and government between the current president and the new post of prime minister. A new set of governors will replace the Communist Party first secretaries as the highest official in Cuba's 15 provinces.

While the Communist Party remains the only permitted political group, the wording of the new constitution could allow voters to choose between various candidates rather than simply voting yes or no for a candidate pre-selected by a government commission, experts said.

A new business law could create a formal role for small- and medium-sized businesses. Until now, all private workers and employers are legally classified as "self-employed," leading to situations in which hundreds of thousands of "self-employed" waiters, cooks, maids, construction workers and janitors go to work each day for the "self-employed" owners of restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and construction contractors.

Business owners hope legal recognition will bring them privileges like the right to import and export, now held only by state monopolies.

A government campaign billboard in support of Cuba's new constitution in Havana on Feb. 13, 2019.Yamil Lage / AFP - Getty Images file

"There's a full-on effort to give life to the new constitution, to accompany it with laws so it doesn't become a dead letter," Homero Acosta, the secretary of the Cuba's Council of State and one of the key figures in the reform, said on state television this month.

A new family code is expected to address the issue of gay marriage, which was struck from the new constitution after popular resistance.

A new criminal code will for the first time create the right of habeas corpus, requiring the state to justify a citizens' detention, and give Cubans the right to know what information the government holds about them.

The revamped criminal law could also, experts said, contain stronger provisions against domestic violence, greater environmental protections and animal rights and create tougher punishments for government mismanagement and corruption.

Cuba's powerful military and intelligence ministries employ tens of thousands of agents and informants, control much of the economy and are often exempted from the rules governing civilian sectors of the government. Whether the Interior Ministry and Revolutionary Armed Forces will be subject to the new limits in the legal reform remains an open question.

Cuba is in its fourth year of expected zero to minimal growth, and the government feels increasingly threatened by the Trump administration's effort to overthrow Venezuela's Cuban-allied government as the first step in an offensive against socialist states throughout Latin America.

Only 78 percent of registered voters, some 6.8 million out of 8.7 million, said "yes" to the new constitution in a Feb. 24 referendum. That's a massive approval rate in any other country but relatively low for Cuba, where voters usually approve government proposals by margins well over 90 percent.

In this case, some 700,000 voted "no," while others abstained or filed marred or blank ballots.

That could put unusual pressure on the government to come up with new laws that win widespread public approval, rather than simply imposing new regulations after closed meetings of Communist Party and government leaders.

"The referendum showed that Cuba is a more politically diverse society than it often seems on the surface," constitutional lawyer Raudiel Pena said. "Now let's hope that lawmakers really take that into consideration."

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