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Cuban activists say they have 20,000 signatures

A women's group presented thousands of signatures Thursday petitioning Cuba's parliament to close the gap in the communist country's dual economy, which pays state workers in Cuban pesos but offers basics like toilet paper in another currency that few can afford.

Four women wearing white "With the Same Money" T-shirts gathered outside the legislature and attempted to turn in proof of 10,000 new signatures which they said complemented 10,837 signatures they gave lawmakers a year ago.

Their leader, Belinda Sales, said legislative clerks refused to receive the new signatures, saying lawmakers were still studying last year's petition.

She said more than a thousand members of her Latin American Foundation of Rural Women collected signatures across Cuba over the past two years, and found wide support even though authorities repeatedly seized petitions.

"Because it does not include anything political, people aren't afraid to sign," she said. "Everyone who lives in Cuba wants to be paid in one currency and have that same currency meet all their needs."

The group has not provided hard copies of the collected signatures, but Salas said legislative authorities are free to check their authenticity. She said her organization receives no funding from dissident organizations in the United States, surviving solely on donations from supporters inside Cuba.

Parliament meets just two weekends a year and unanimously approves proposals offered by the communist leadership. Still, Salas said she is confident that government officials are working on how to merge the two currencies.

"I really think they are doing some economic experiments on this," she said.

The group's petition seeks the right to use regular Cuban pesos - the currency of state salaries in a country where the government controls well over 90 percent of the economy - in upscale stores, restaurants and hotels that only accept the convertible Cuban peso, worth 24 times more.

The average monthly government salary is 408 pesos, or 17 convertible pesos, though most Cubans live rent-free and their ordinary pesos pay for for heavily subsidized electricity, food rations and transportation provided by the communist system. Convertible peso stores were created for tourists, but offer essentials like cooking oil and toilet paper not sold in other stores.

Those who can't afford convertible-peso prices have to turn to the black market, though most Cubans have access to at least some convertible pesos, either by exchanging foreign currency sent by relatives in the U.S., or by working for foreign firms or jobs in tourism.

President Raul Castro has said this dual economy is one of Cuba's most-pressing problems. But state economists say a sudden boost of the peso against its convertible counterpart would drive Cubans to buy expensive, imported goods at drastically reduced prices - leaving state stores with little income to restock shelves.

Salas countered, however, that Cuba could look to the reunification of Germany and other European examples when governments spent cash reserves to successfully merge two currencies.

"We are not economists," she said. "But a solution must be sought."