Cubans in the United States who return to live on the island may be able to recover some of their rights as Cubans, but they risk losing some of their U.S. benefits
A string of changes in Cuban migration laws in 2013 allow people who left the island before that date to return to live there — Cubans call it “to repatriate” — and recover the benefits of being a resident of Cuba. That includes the possibility of inheriting or buying a home, starting a small business, working there and receiving free health services.
Most of the people who have or are planning to return and were interviewed for this story said they don’t plan to live full time in Cuba. What they may not know: They may lose U.S. retirement and other benefits.
Rene, a 78-year-old Miami man who wants to return to Guantanamo to live with his children, will lose the U.S. assistance he now receives. He expects to live on the money his daughter can send from Miami or whatever his family in Cuba can provide.
Maria Ortega, a Miami public relations specialist for the Social Security Administration said her agency’s “supplemental security income to people 65 and older is never paid outside the United States.”
The SSA’s online help guide, Your payments while you are outside the United States, makes it clear that U.S. Treasury Department regulations prohibit the payment of retirement benefits if the person is in Cuba or North Korea.
“If you are a U.S. citizen residing in Cuba or North Korea, you can get all the payments we withhold once you move to a country where we can send payments,” the guide says. “If you are not a U.S. citizen, you cannot receive payments for the months you lived in Cuba or North Korea, even if you go to another country and satisfy all other requirements.”
Immigration attorney Claudia Cañizares noted that non-U.S. citizens who receive supplementary or disability assistance also risk losing it if they move to Cuba.
“Citizens can go to live anywhere, but while living in Cuba you cannot receive retirement or any other assistance,” she said. “But anyone who is not a citizen can be affected. For example, if you have applied for disability and are living in Cuba, they close the case and you have to apply again.”
Cañizares noted that applications for U.S. citizenship also can be affected if the persons declare that they live in Cuba.
She added that foreigners with U.S. residence cannot spend more than six months per year outside the country, and recommended that those who have applied for U.S. citizenship but are living in Cuba continue to pay U.S. incomes taxes.
But Cubans who obtained U.S. residence under refugee or political asylum provisions — RE-6, RE-7, AS-6 and AS-7 — run the risk of losing their residence and all their U.S. benefits if they repatriate.
“By doing that they are admitting they are not afraid of returning to Cuba,” Cañizares said. “Those types of residence are for refugees or people in asylum, and can be revoked.”
U.S. citizens do not lose all the protections they enjoy if they live in Cuba. If they have any sort of medical emergency or other crisis, the United States protects its citizens, the lawyer said.
But if they are arrested in Cuba, “the United States does not intervene,” Cañizares added.
Manuel, 39, who has applied to the Cuban government for permission to repatriate but plans to continue living in Miami, said he knows people who lost their U.S. residence because they served time in a Cuban prison.
“You enter Cuba under Cuban law. They will do with you whatever they want,” he said.
The Cuban constitution does not recognize dual citizenship.
“Our legislation, like the laws of other countries, follows the principle of effective citizenship, which is based on the sovereign decision of countries to not recognize any citizenship other than its own,” the island’s Gazeta Oficial says.
“That does not mean a Cuban citizen cannot obtain the citizenship of another country, just that the one that is valid here is ours. That explains why citizens born on the island must use Cuban passports to travel to their homeland,” it adds.
What does Cuba gain from repatriations?
Manuel argues that the Cuban government is guaranteed a profitable visit once every two years anytime a Cuban repatriates. Cubans can stay abroad for only 24 months before they lose their residence.
“Cuba makes sure that you return to the country once every two years. So it has a guaranteed tourist,” he said, suggesting that the single largest group of visitors to the island are Cuban Americans.
Emilio Morales, president of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group, said repatriation means “an injection of money for Cuban society.”
“Those who repatriate are not a burden on the government. They have money, and that money is reflected in the economy,” he said. “One person who repatriates benefits four or five others.”
Morales said the Cuban government allows repatriation basically because of the benefits it can get from retirees who return, because they’re receiving remittances from overseas.
“Remittances are Cuba’s principal source of income, and last year it received $3.4 billion in cash,” he said. The year also saw 454,000 Cuban Americans who traveled to the island and delivered $1.7 billion in merchandise.
But the biggest impact of repatriation is social, not economic, Morales added. The money that people who repatriate bring into the country means that thousands of Cubans do not have to depend on the government.
Limits on investments
Economist Elías Amor, who lives in Spain, said repatriation is risky because of the absence of the rule of law and legal guarantees in Cuba.
Anyone who plans to invest in Cuba faces a huge obstacle: the Cuban government.
Cuban law does not allow its citizens to own companies. Instead, they can obtain personal licenses from the government to run small-scale businesses such as restaurants, carpentry and barber shops.
“The government does not legally recognize a business, even if it has 50 employees,” Morales said. “Restaurants can’t have more than 50 chairs and cannot import meat.”
Amor also warned about the risks of taking savings to a country “with an unstable banking system, which can go broke at any time.”
“Trusting money to a government that has already nationalized savings several times makes little sense,” he said.
He added that the health and elderly care systems are “of abysmal quality” and cannot satisfy the needs of elderly persons.
As for people of working age, he noted, the choices are to work for the government at extremely low salaries or establish businesses in one of the authorized sectors.
“There are no real possibilities for saving or investing because people can only buy one property, aside from their own,” the economist noted.
Amor noted yet another problem with buying real estate in Cuba: property titles.
“Any home registered before 1959 and now occupied by someone other than the owner named in the original registry is surrounded by serious doubts about its title of ownership,” he said. “That can mean, in a democratic future, compensation for those with legal rights.”
Manuel said there are also problems with currency exchanges.
“The government takes your dollar and gives you CUCs [Cuban convertible pesos] which have value only on the island,” he said. “The currencies of any other countries can be exchanged at a bank. But if you have CUCs left over when you leave Cuba, you can use them to play Monopoly.”
Repatriated and returned
Miami resident Carlos Diaz said he saw up close the repatriation process of a friend at work who arrived in the U.S. five years ago through Central America and Mexico and returned to Cuba last summer.
“He said that people here work like a horse. He spent five years not even going to McDonald’s. His goal was always to save some money, return to Pinar del Rio, buy some animals, some farm machinery and spend the rest of his days,” Diaz said.
Diaz said that for many Cubans, coming to Miami has turned into a business, and that their goal is to return to Cuba with some money to invest. But he does not want to call them economic migrants.
“No Mexican was ever told, “I am taking away all our freedoms, but I promise you a better future,’” he said. “The Cuban emigration is always political. The only goal of the Castro promises was to stay in power.”
Diaz added that repatriation also “trivializes” the sacrifices that many Cubans made to leave the island. “It feels like spitting on the tomb of my grandmother, who came from Cuba in 1966 with two children.”
Diaz said he lived in Chile from 1995 to 2008, which allowed him to witness the return of exiles who had fled to escape the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship.
“They returned whenever they wanted. They didn’t have to apply to become Chileans again. They only had to legalize children born in other countries,” he recalled.
They were called “returnees,” like the Spaniards who went to other parts of Europe in search of better jobs. When they returned, they invested their savings in businesses and properties.
“Years later, with the tourist boom, some of them sold their little businesses to international groups like Starbucks,” said Amor. “They made big profits, which they then invested in homes or land developments. They made even more profits, which allowed them to launch bigger enterprises. For those who did well, repatriation was profitable.”