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Cuba migration change eases return for defectors

Posted on Saturday, 11.17.12

Cuba migration change eases return for defectors


Associated Press

HAVANA — Sydney Gregory has never met her father, an Olympic silver

medalist in fencing who defected from the Cuban team at a tournament in

Lisbon in 2002 when she was 15 days old. But he recently rang from Italy

with good news: Papa's coming home to visit.

"I'm very happy," the 10-year-old girl said, smiling in her school

uniform with a headband holding back her jet-black hair. "My father

called me on the phone and told me he's going to come. I'm going to meet


Under Cuban law, those who abandoned their homeland have had to apply

for permission to return, even for the kind of brief family visit Elvis

Gregory hopes to make. Many high-profile people considered deserters

have had their requests to return rejected by a communist-run government

that complained about the large financial investment it made in their

careers. Some didn't even bother to ask, knowing their petitions would

be turned down.

But a change taking effect in January will make it simpler for Cubans to

visit the homeland they abandoned. It essentially establishes a single

set of rules governing the right of return that will apply to everyone

who left illegally, no matter what the circumstances of their departure.

The new rules could potentially affect many leading cultural and

athletic figures, from musicians and doctors to ballet dancers and

former Yankee pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. Tens of thousands of

people once considered traitors could now be welcomed home.

Cuba is "normalizing the temporary entrance into the country of those

who emigrated illegally following the migratory accords of 1994 if more

than eight years has gone by since their departure," Homero Acosta,

secretary of the governing Council of State, said in a recent TV program

examining the changes announced last month. The migration accords with

the US called for 20,000 immigration visas to be issued to Cubans each

year, and for the repatriation of islanders caught at sea before

reaching American shores.

For Cubans who abandoned the country while on missions overseas, the

rule applies to those who defected after 1990.

Exiles who want to return for visits must use Cuban passports and will

be able to come as often as they like. They initially will be allowed to

stay up to 90 days, with possible extensions.

Elvis Gregory has kept in touch with Sydney by phone and video letters

over the years, and sent money to support her upbringing. He hasn't yet

booked a plane ticket home to see the girl who is his only child,

preferring to wait and see how the new rules are applied.

"I'm taking this calmly. I'm going to wait for (summer school) vacation

to go," Gregory, 41, said by phone from Rome, where he teaches fencing

to children. "Still, I'm going to see my daughter. I've been waiting for

this a long time."

Gregory's wait-and-see attitude hasn't stopped his mother, Maria

Victoria Gil, from preparing for his return. She recently removed the

furniture from her living room and bought paint to spruce up the room

for his visit.

"Finally the ice will be broken!" Gil exclaimed, tears in her eyes.

"Elvis is going to come. His family, his friends and above all my

granddaughter Sydney will receive him with open arms."

Defection is a highly sensitive topic on the island, and has splintered

families for years and even decades. The names of baseball players who

defect suddenly disappear from newspapers. Except for gossip on the

streets about their Major League exploits, it's almost as if they never


Cuban authorities denied the late Grammy-winning salsa singer Celia Cruz

permission to return to the island for her mother's funeral two years

after she defected during a 1960 visit to Mexico and moved to the United

States. Before her own death in 2003, Cruz often lamented that she never

was able to return to Cuba, where her songs are never played on the

radio or TV.

In the last 20 years, hundreds of ballplayers have left Cuba along with

many more athletes from Olympic sports including volleyball, boxing and

track and field. Just last month, several soccer players disappeared

before a World Cup qualifier in Toronto, forcing Cuba to field a team of

just 11 players with no substitutes available.

Then there are the medical professionals who never returned from

international missions to treat the poor in other countries, and the

ballet stars who left for careers in more innovative companies abroad.

Other defectors include the 43 members of the Havana Night Club dance

revue who sought political asylum after leaving in 2004 to perform in

Las Vegas.

"We had been waiting for this, but in truth I didn't think it would

happen so quickly," said Estrella Rivera, mother of Ihosvany Hernandez,

a former national volleyball team captain who defected in 2001. Rivera

learned about the measure from the TV program with Acosta.

"I got very excited and happy," she said. "Right away the phone began

ringing and didn't stop for hours. It was family and Ihosvany's friends

calling to say they were already preparing the party."

The last time Hernandez saw his parents was four years ago when they

traveled to Poland, where he played on a local team.

"I plan to go. Not right away, but next summer for vacation, God

willing," said Hernandez, who is now a coach in Alicante, Spain, after

retiring from the game. "I'm going to start saving up money."

For some people, the rule is provoking major soul-searching about their

relationship with Cuba.

"El Duque," who fled the island on a boat in 1997 and went on to win

three World Series with the Yankees, applauded the measure but said he's

not sure whether he will take advantage of it.

With some bitterness in his voice, Hernandez alluded to how, shortly

after his brother Livan defected, Cuban sports authorities interrogated

him about contacts with a U.S. agent and ultimately kicked him out of


"I left in search of something that they had taken away from me. They

had banned me for life, and I would have no life without baseball,"

Hernandez said. "For that reason I thank this country (the U.S.), which

took me in."

He paused, silent, before continuing: "I never deserted."

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