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Are the cracks in the Cuban economic system finally becoming so evident that even the faithful realize it is only a matter of time until the system collapses? It certainly appears that is the case. Cuba's official unofficial pipeline to the inner workings of the party, the Juventud Rebelde newspaper, has begun talking about the problems in the economy.

In a scathing three-part series on graft in shops and bars entitled The Big Old Swindle, the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde said on Sunday a team of university experts will investigate ways to improve services.

The articles uncovered bar employees stealing from the state by serving less beer than stipulated and taxis drivers overcharging passengers, but stopped short of recommending the privatization of such services.

"The current irregularities in the country's services, in the midst of the search for a better economic model, has meant Cuba still does not have a retail and services sector that satisfies people's expectations," the newspaper said.

The debate comes amid growing questions about the future of one of the world's last communist societies since its leader Fidel Castro underwent emergency surgery in late July and disappeared from public view.

"The important thing, to me, is that they are asking the questions. "Why doesn't it work?" a European diplomat posted to Havana said.

"My doubt is whether they are brave enough to start asking themselves questions without trying to confine the answers to Marxist philosophy," he said.

Cubans have long complained in private about poor state services, from deficient public transport to bare shop shelves. Many see privatization as the best way forward.

Since Raul Castro temporarily took over the government from his ailing brother on July 31, foreign and local experts have speculated that the younger Castro, aged 75, is more pragmatic and could move Cuba toward a more open Chinese economic model.

Cuban officials rule out following the example of China, which opened its economy to capitalist enterprise while retaining political power under the Communist Party.

It really is only a matter of time before the system fails outright. If Venezuela doesn't keep propping the economy up, the end may be hastened. And with oil prices plummeting, that may not be very far down the road.

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