Sunday, November 18, 2012

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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