A leading Cuban politician has welcomed proposals to allow gay men and lesbian marriage rights, as the country continues to discuss its future direction.

The poor health of Fidel Castro, who has led the country as a one-party state since 1959, has sparked a renewed national debate in the only Communist country in the Caribbean.

The revered leader’s brother Raul Castro, who is acting President, invited Cubans to speak out without fear, and among complains about taxes and restrictions on foreign travel and internet access the issue of gay rights has come to the fore.

The Cuban culture minister Abel Preito supports gay marrige.

“I think that marriage between lesbians, between homosexuals can be perfectly approved and that in Cuba that wouldn’t cause an earthquake or anything like that,” said Mr Prieto, who is also a member of the powerful Politburo of the Communist party and the Council of State, the nation’s supreme governing body.

Last month Mariela Castro, who is the daughter of acting President Raul Castro and niece of Fidel, revealed that the Cuban Communist party is considering granting legal recognition to same-sex unions, as health officials prepare to authorise sex-change operations.

The proposed change to Cuban family law would put members of same-sex unions on a par with heterosexual couples.

The principal needs of Cuban homosexuals “are related to the right to their recognition as consensual couples, as non-matrimonial couples, but that authorities recognise their property and inheritance rights in those non-legalised unions,” she said.

“That is their principal interest. They are not interested in marriage, they are not interested in adoption, because in Cuba there are hardly any children to adopt.”

She added that besides legal recognition, gays, lesbians and transsexuals in Cuba want respect.

“Let no one feel the right to humiliate them, nor harm them, nor exclude or reject them, that we strengthen within the family this ethic of accepting everyone and of not being discriminated against for sexual orientation.”

The Public Health Ministry in Cuba is currently in the process of approving regulations that would allow sex-change operations.

Mariela Castro said that a team of Cuban physicians is already in training to perform such procedures.

In an interview with EFE last August, the 45-year-old psychologist said her struggle for the equality of the sexes and gay rights would “enrich the Cuban Revolution.”

But she added that the task is not an easy one in a “patriarchal” society where many remember the UMAP labour camps where homosexuals and the ideologically suspect were interned in the late 1960s.