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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 May, 2004, 04:35 GMT 05:35 UK
Cuba opens arms to emigres
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC correspondent in Havana

Hundreds of Cuban emigres from around the world are attending a conference in Havana hosted by the Cuban government.

Bay of Pigs participant Antonio Zamora Munne holds a Cuban passport he received from Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque at Friday's conference
Some of the men who tried to overthrow Castro in 1961 got their passports back
Young and old from 46 countries across the world, the Cuban emigres were crammed into a small Havana conference hall.

They were warmly welcomed by Cuba's Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.

He gave particularly special thanks to those delegates who had come from the United States.

President George W Bush has recently tightened restrictions on Cuban-Americans travelling to Cuba and the US government made it quite clear it would not be issuing licences to anyone who wished to attend this conference.

Many of those who came anyway are highly sympathetic to the current Cuban government. Most say that they only left Cuba for economic reasons.

They loudly applauded two announcements from the foreign minister. One was that customs procedures would be simplified for Cubans returning home; another was that Cuba will offer scholarships to Cuban universities to children of Cubans living abroad.

Cuban again

But perhaps the most symbolic act of reconciliation was when seven men who took part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion - a failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro - were reinstated as Cuban citizens.

All renounced their hostility to the Cuban government long ago.

Cuba is currently reaching out to moderate Cubans abroad.

Apart from anything else, they bring the country badly needed tourist dollars when they return.

But there is a significant group of Cubans whose opinion will not be heard at this conference: those hardline exiles who, for 45 years, have been successfully lobbying a succession of US presidents with the message that the best way to deal with Cuba is to isolate it.

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