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Cuban dancers performing abroad are allowed to return home

The end of Cuba's "white card" exit permit program allowed more Cubans to leave the country, but it also permitted expats who left previously to return. This year, Cuban dancers living abroad returned to Havana for an international dance festival – a first for many.

Desmond Boylan/AP
Cuban expat dancers Taras Domitro and Adianys Almeida (t.) perform in Havana on Oct. 29. Cuba has invited a record number of dancers back to the island to perform in its international dance festival.

As a young dancer compared with ballet legends Vaslav Nijinsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rolando Sarabia made headlines around the world when he abandoned Cuba in 2005 for a career in the United States.

He didn't dance in his homeland for 13 years, banned as part of a wider Cuban punishment of citizens who illegally left the country.

A company dancer for The Washington Ballet, Mr. Sarabia stalked across the stage last month in the starring male role in "Gisselle" at Cuba's National Theater. Asked about his feelings upon performing once again in Cuba, he began to cry.

Sarabia and four other renowned defectors from the Cuban National Ballet took the stage at the 26th Havana International Ballet Festival as part of a wide-ranging and profound reconciliation between Cuba and its millions of expatriates and exiles around the world.

"Happiness, happiness. I just don't have any other words," Sarabia's brother and fellow dance star Daniel told The Associated Press after a rehearsal of the "Grand Pas Classique." ''This is something big. Global stars have come but even more important are those of us who've left. This is my audience, my Cuban audience."

The country did away with the hated "white card" exit permit in 2013, allowing Cubans to leave freely for any country that would grant a visa. The change unleashed a wave of emigration that continues to this day, with tens of thousands leaving annually for destinations around the world. Also in 2013, Cuba allowed citizens to retain all of their rights – from free health care to owning property – as long as they at least briefly returned every two years.

Those 2013 changes unleashed an opposite wave of more than 40,000 Cubans who have repatriated and reclaimed the same rights as residents. At the same time, Cuba's state-controlled cultural and sports institutions began opening to stars who left, allowing musicians who went abroad like singers Isaac Delgado, Kelvis Ochoa, Decemer Bueno and Raul Paz to live and perform in Cuba again, and welcoming baseball players like Dodger Yasiel Puig at official state events.

Cuba's relationship with its citizens overseas remains highly fraught and painful in many circumstances, particularly for families who left the height of the revolution – publicly cursed in state-organized "acts of repudiation," with their life's work confiscated by the state and handed over to strangers. Many Cubans abroad have sworn never to return while the island's Communist government remains in power.

But tens of thousands of others are reconciling with the state. They include Sarabia; his brother Daniel of the Maurice Bejart Ballet in Switzerland; San Francisco ballet dancer Taras Domitro; Marize Fumero of the Milwaukee Ballet; Carlos Quenedit of the Houston Ballet; and retired star Lorna Feijo, a fierce critic of 96-year-old Cuban ballet director Alicia Alonso. Their return is one of the most symbolically charged reconciliations, given the immense importance Cuba places on its prestigious state-run ballet program.

The stars' return began during the warming between Cuba and the United States begun by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro in December 2014. A year or two later, a Cuban ballet official traveled to Miami and met with a group of former national dancers, who said they wanted to return to perform in Cuba.

The dancers wrote a letter requesting permission and, unlike in previous years, Ms. Alonso and the then-Minister of Culture expressed no objection to the dancers' return, according to a Cuban official with knowledge of the process who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the process. The plans were not derailed by the broader chilling of relations under President Donald Trump, who has tightened regulations on travel to Cuba and hardened official discourse toward the island.

"This is the correct path," said Mr. Domitro, who defected during a tour of Canada in 2007, one of the highest-profile departures from Alonso's company. "We're talking about ballet; we have nothing to do with politics."

Cuba continues to try to repair relations with expatriates despite the chilling of relations with the country that's home to 1.5 million of the 2 million living Cubans outside the island, a number one-fifth the size of the country's actual population.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez announced last year that Cuba would be slightly easing onerous documentation requirements for returning Cubans, and easing the process of obtaining citizenship for children born overseas.

In September, President Miguel Diaz-Canel held high-profile meetings with expatriate Cubans in New York, including many who have been criticized by hard-liners on the island.

Mr. Diaz-Canel said the expatriate community had become ideologically diverse and an important source of support for Cuba.

"We're counting on you," he said. "We are all Cuba."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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