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2012-11-19T00:00:00Z jane workingThe Associated Press The Associated Press
November 19, 2012 12:00 am  • 

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 ... I'm 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.

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.

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.

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 his daughter's upbringing. He hasn't yet booked a plane ticket home to see 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 existed.

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 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."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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