Some Cubans return

Mauricio Estrada, head chef and owner of a restaurant in the Miramar neighborhood of the Cuban capital, jokes with kitchen assistant Ewar Llerena as they prepare for a dinner. Estrada is a repatriado, a repatriate, one of the growing number of Cubans who have opted to move back to the island.

HAVANA — Mauricio Estrada left Cuba in 2003 full of the same frustrations as so many others eager to move away.

He married a Spanish woman, moved to Barcelona and got a job as a prep cook.

A dozen years later and divorced, Estrada is back, this time as the proprietor of a stylish Iberian-themed restaurant, Toros y Tapas, decorated with old matador posters and the taxidermied heads of longhorn bulls.

"Having my own restaurant is a dream," said Estrada, 48. "I never could have done it if I'd stayed in Cuba."

Estrada is a repatriado, a repatriate, one of the growing number of Cubans who have opted to move back to the island in recent years as the Castro government eases its rigid immigration rules.

The returnees are a smaller, quieter countercurrent to the surge of Cubans leaving, and their arrival suggests a more dynamic future when their countrymen may come and go with greater ease, helping to rebuild Cuba with earnings from abroad.

Not since the early years of Fidel Castro's rule, when his leftist ideals brought home a number of exiles initially sympathetic to the 1959 revolution, have so many Cubans voluntarily returned.

The difference is that today's repatriates are not coming back for socialism. They are coming back as capitalists. Which is to say, as trailblazing entrepreneurs.

Prompted by President Raúl Castro's limited opening to small business and his 2011 move allowing Cubans to buy and sell real estate, the repatriates are using money saved abroad to acquire property and open private restaurants, guest houses, spas and retail shops.

Cuban authorities said they could not provide up-to-date statistics, but in 2012, immigration officials said they were processing roughly 1,000 repatriation applications each year.

The numbers appear to have increased since then, at least judging from anecdotal evidence and the proliferation of new small businesses in Havana run by returnees.

Communist authorities no longer stigmatize such Cubans or view them as ideologically suspicious, provided they're not coming back as anti-government activists.

Virtually all Cubans who emigrated are eligible for repatriation unless they are deemed to have committed "hostile acts against the state."

Returnees can come home with a shipping container's worth of goods and regain access to the socialist country's benefits, including free health care and food rations.

For Cubans nostalgic for home or determined to build small businesses on the island, repatriation offers travel privileges few others enjoy.

Cubans returning from Spain, for example, do not have to renounce their Spanish citizenship and the all-important European Union passports that come with it, allowing them to travel far more freely than ordinary Cuban-passport holders, who need visas for practically any country they wish to visit.

To be clear, the number of repatriates is dwarfed by the more than 70,000 Cubans who left the island in 2015, the highest figure in decades.

The emigration wave is being driven by a range of old and new factors, from the island's perpetual economic troubles to new fears that better relations with the United States will bring an end to the unique U.S. immigration privileges extended to Cubans.

Many of the repatriates are returning from Europe and Latin America. Cubans in the United States may be more reluctant to return to the island because of their relatively high incomes.

But American economic sanctions also make it essentially illegal for any U.S. resident to go to Cuba and run a business.

Estrada describes life abroad as a kind of international business school, an education in capitalism. Estrada said he has struggled with the training and management of his Cuban employees, who he said continue to treat their jobs as if the work for a government-run business.

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