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Cuba to welcome back many who left

In order to normalize relations with Cubans abroad, Cuba's most recent policy is expected to allow the return of many now banned from the island, estimated any anywhere from 70,000 to 300,000.

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Cuba said Thursday it will welcome back tens of thousands of its citizens who left illegally – including rafters, doctors, and baseball players – in the second round of a migration reform it claims will help normalize relations with Cubans abroad.

Havana has barred the return of rafters since its 1994 migration accord with the US government in order to deter risky escapes across the Florida Straits. But the ban is not part of the accord and is not expected to affect the agreement or US policy.

"We will normalize the temporary entry to the island of those who emigrated illegally after the 1994 migration accords," Homero Acosta, secretary of the ruling Council of State, announced in a television appearance late Wednesday.

Also allowed to return will be medical personnel and top athletes who left illegally or defected while abroad after 1990 and who have been out for more than eight years, as well as Cubans who left when they were 16 or younger and those who want to return for humanitarian reasons, such as caring for ailing relatives.

The change is expected to allow the return of many Cubans now banned from the island, estimated any anywhere from 70,000 - mostly rafters - to 300,000, including important Cubans branded by Havana as defectors and even traitors.

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Still banned are those who escaped through the US Navy base in Guantanamo in southeastern Cuba, Acosta added, "for reasons of defense and national security." Havana also can ban the return of those who "organize, encourage, or participate in hostile actions against the political, economic, and social basis of the state," and anyone at all "when reasons of defense and national security require it."

Cuban ruler Raul Castro announced last year that he wanted to reform the country's migration regulations "as a contribution to the growth in the links between the nation and the communities of its emigrants."

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But most analysts outside the island believe Castro wants to squeeze more money out of migration so that he can finance the dramatic economic reforms that he has been pushing since 2007.

"It is time to do justice to the poorest of the migrants, the rafters, even if this will generate tens of millions of dollars for the government by way of passport and other fees," said Pedro Gonzalez Munne, a Miami businessman who monitors travel to Cuba.

The fee for Cuban passports rose from $60 to about $110 in the first round of migration reforms announced last week, which lifted the hated requirement of exit permits for Cubans who want to travel abroad. Havana retained the right to block any travel.

"I have to submit a humanitarian request so that someone can decide whether to allow me to return to where I was born? ... Big deal!" said Juan Antonio Blanco, a former analyst with the Cuban Communist Party's Central Committee now living in Miami.

Although the number of Cubans living abroad is critically important for its economy – cash remittances were estimated at more than $2 billion in 2011 alone – the exact details of the migration flows are almost impossible to obtain.

Nearly 2 million Cubans are estimated to have emigrated since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, and about 85 percent now live in the United States.

Cuba's National Statistical Office (ONE) reported that 400,000 citizens living abroad visited the island in 2011, including 300,000 who live in the United States. The emigre arrivals are sometimes listed in the official arrivals count as "other Caribbeans."

The number of rafters banned from returning has been estimated at 70,000 – the 35,000 who left during the Rafter Crisis in 1994, when Fidel Castro opened the doors to anyone who wanted to leave, plus those who escaped afterward. About 14,500 rafters arrived on US shores in fiscal year 2005 to 2012 alone.

The US and Cuban government signed migration pacts in 1994 and 1995 to end that crisis and assure safe migration. The pact requires the US to deliver 20,000 visas to Cuban migrants per year.

Havana officials have told employees of Miami companies that handle trips to the island that the number of citizens on their don't-come-back list in fact totals 300,000, including senior government defectors, sports figures, and medical personnel.

One travel company employee said that 1 percent or 2 percent of Cuban Americans who request Havana's permission to visit the island get rejected, with notices from Cuban authorities saying "Cannot Board. Illegal Exit."

Acosta also complained that Cuba has an unfair image as a country that does not allow its people to travel abroad freely, "a great prison or tropical gulag."

He boasted that 99.4 percent of those who requested exit permits to make personal trips abroad between 2000 and 2012 received them – a total of 941,953 people.

That works out to 78,496 Cubans allowed to travel abroad per year for a country with a population of 11.2 million people. The US Department of Commerce estimated that 30 million US residents traveled abroad in 2009 alone.

Acosta added that out of the 941,953, those who did not return totaled 120,705, for a defection rate about 10,000 a year or 12.8 percent. That number does not include Cubans who leave illegally or those who leave with migrant visas.

RELATED: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

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