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: Papas coming home to visit.
Im 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 hes going to come. Im going to meet him!
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 didnt 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 U.S. 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.
Elvis Gregory has kept in touch with Sydney by phone and video letters over the years, and sent money to support her upbringing. He hasnt yet booked a plane ticket home to see his only child, preferring to wait and see how the new rules are applied.
Im taking this calmly. Im going to wait for (summer school) vacation to go, Gregory, 41, said by phone from Rome. Still, Im going to see my daughter. Ive been waiting for this a long time.
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 hes 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 baseball.
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.