A number of Cuban-born baseball stars have returned home for the first time since defecting to play in the United States, as part of an unprecedented goodwill tour organized by Major League Baseball.
The players, once maligned in Cuba for leaving the country illegally, were swarmed Tuesday by fans, family members and media at a Havana hotel at the start of a three-day mission meant to soften relations between MLB and Cuba.
Cuban-born players on the trip include Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena and free agent Alexei Ramirez.
They were accompanied by U.S.-born Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, Seattle Mariners outfielder Nelson Cruz, who is from the Dominican Republic, and Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, a Venezuelan.
"I've been dreaming of this for a long time, having not been in my homeland for almost 20 years," Pena said. "To have the opportunity to go back to my roots and my homeland is something I am very grateful for. I'm so proud that I'm able to share my experiences with my family. I still can't believe it."
"I feel very happy to be in Cuba, and that they gave me the opportunity to return to my country," Puig told the French news agency.
Cuba's government and Major League Baseball have been working hard to rebuild ties since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a year ago that they would be re-establishing diplomatic relations.
The goodwill tour marks a huge step in the rebuilding process, with players holding youth clinics while executives from MLB and the players union discuss business with their Cuban counterparts.
MLB has organized events in Cuba in the past, including a 1999 exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team. But this is the first time that players who defected have been allowed to return.
About 20 Cuban-born players are now active in the Major Leagues.
"This is just incredible," Pena said. "To be here right now at this moment is something I cannot believe is happening.
"To be here with these guys and have great men like Clayton Kershaw, Nelson Cruz and Miguel Cabrera take time out to show support and help the kids on the island shows character. These guys are not Cuban, but they care about people, and they are showing who they really are."