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HAVANA (Reuters) - Spain issued on Thursday the first of a projected 200,000 passports for Cubans who qualify for Spanish citizenship under the country's "historical memory" law.
The first recipient, 38-year-old cardiologist Norberto Luis Diaz, said he already had his bags packed for a flight on Sunday to Spain, retracing in reverse the journey his grandfather made when he emigrated to Cuba in 1916.
"It's the most important day of my life. I am happy," he said upon receiving his purple-colored passport in the office of Spain's consul general.
The Law of Historical Memory makes grandchildren of Spanish immigrants eligible for citizenship, and Spain has estimated 1 million people around the world, including 200,000 Cubans, could apply.
There are special provisions for descendants of exiles who had to flee the country and renounce their citizenship due to the Spanish civil war.
The Spanish consulate in Havana has received more than 25,000 applications since the law took effect on December 29.
A Spanish passport will allow Cubans to emigrate legally to Spain or, if they stay in Cuba, make it easier for them to travel abroad.
"This passport will allow them to travel, but our evaluation is that this in no way signifies an exodus of Cubans," Consul General Pablo Barrios told reporters.
Cuba, battered by economic crisis for more than 15 years, could have the second highest number of people qualifying for Spanish citizenship, following only Argentina.
Diplomats at the Havana consulate did not know if other "historic memory" passports already have been issued in other countries.
While a smiling Diaz received his passport, dozens of other Cubans waited in line outside the consulate to make their applications.
Some arrived from the farthest corners of the island, including Reymundo Puentes, who came from Puerto Padre, more than 435 miles east of Havana.
"I have always had the desire to know my ancestors' roots. If they have given us this opportunity -- OK, it's good," said the 58-year-old evangelical preacher.
An estimated 1 million Spaniards emigrated to Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century, including the father of Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro.
"I don't feel like I'm going to a strange country. I return to my ancestors," said the cardiologist Diaz, who said he has a work offer waiting for him in the Spanish city of Valencia.
"Long live Spain," he shouted.
Reporting by Esteban Israel; editing by Jeff Franks and Cynthia Osterman