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 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 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 existed.
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 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."