Under laws passed during recent reforms in Cuba, it has become easier for exiles living in the United States to regain some of their rights in Cuba. If they do so, they run the risk of losing the benefits they gained in the United States.
In 2013, the Cuban government changed their migration laws to make it possible for people who fled the island to return. This process of “repatriation” as it is known gives returnees the ability to receive free health care on the island as well as buy a home, work, and even start a business.
The temptation to return can be strong for some. For example, Rene came to America as a refugee from Cuba in 2004. He settled in Miami and is now a U.S. citizen. Since his wife died, however, Rene has felt the desire to return to Cuba. As with other interviewees mentioned in this article, has Rene chose not to give his real name.
“The loneliness kills me,” he explains. “The end of the road for old people here [in the United States] is an institution because the family cannot take care of us. … I don’t regret coming here. … But in Cuba, life is different. You move around, and you talk to people. Here you can spend a month and not see your neighbor.”
Another Cuban exile, Armando, was left without healthcare in New York when his wife left him. When he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, he felt forced to return to Cuba, where he received treatment and is now in remission.
Unlike Rene, Armando had no desire to stay in Cuba. “I begged God not to leave me there. … I did not belong in Cuba.”
Beatriz, another Cuban exile in Miami, is angry that in coming to the U.S. 25 years ago, she lost her rights in her country of birth. “I want to regain my rights as a Cuban citizen. For example, the right to inherit my mother’s house. Here, I have a good salary and a house that I am still paying for, but my family house is in Cuba, and we could lose it.”
What many Cuban exiles may not realize is they may lose their U.S. benefits if they reside in Cuba. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA) website, retirement payments are withheld if you move to either North Korea or Cuba. According to the SSA, they are paid “once you move to a country where we can send payments.”
If you are not a U.S. citizen, however, “you cannot receive payments for the months you lived in Cuba or North Korea, even if you to go another country and satisfy all other requirements.” Non-citizens are also at risk of losing supplemental security income and disability benefits if they move to Cuba.
Claudia Cañizares, an immigration attorney, explains that non-citizen exiles are in danger of losing their status in the U.S. altogether if they came to the country as a political refugee. “By doing that [i.e., repatriating], they are admitting they are not afraid of returning to Cuba,” says Cañizares.
Another risk in returning is that those who repatriate may not be able to recover property they owned at the time they left. These homes were generally seized by the Cuban government.
Despite these difficulties, a growing number of Cuban exiles continue to apply for repatriation. According to Cuban government figures, 11,176 Cubans applied for repatriation in 2017. The majority of these people lived in the United States.
Image of Havana Airport by Richard Vandervord.