Vietnam vet living in Cuba sues VA to get benefits
By Michael Weissenstein, The Associated Press 12:30 p.m. EST February 9,
HAVANA — Otto Macias was 19 when he left Cuba in the throes of a
socialist revolution, enlisted in the U.S. Army and went to fight
communists as a machine-gunner in Vietnam.
He returned from battle in 1969 — broken and suffering from
post-traumatic stress and schizophrenia, his family says. After years of
hospitalization in New York, Macias, then a U.S. citizen, was well
enough in 1980 to fly to Cuba to visit relatives he hadn’t seen in
decades. He never returned.
As he stayed with family in Havana, Macias’ hallucinations became so bad
he required hospitalization and constant care from doctors or loved
ones, his relatives say. Less than a year later, the U.S. Department of
Veterans Affairs cut off his monthly pension of $60 — a large sum for
Cuba, where salaries today average about $25 a month. The U.S. agency
never explained the cutoff, but the family’s American lawyer says he’s
certain it was because of the Unite States’ trade embargo on Cuba.
Now, Macias’ family is suing the U.S. government seeking to reinstate
the pension. They say President Obama’s loosening of the embargo offers
the ailing 75-year-old a final chance to regain his benefits and win the
recognition of the military service that his adopted country has denied
him for 35 years.
“It’s about justice,” said Macias’ niece, Anitica. “He was on the
battlefield … he dedicated his life to that. He mutilated his life. He
didn’t have a family because of it. They need to pay attention to him;
they owe him an explanation. They need to recognize him.”
While Macias’ situation is highly unusual, even unique, it could take on
wider ramifications if the year-old detente between Washington and
Havana leads to more Cuban-Americans returning to live on the island,
some of them receiving U.S. government benefits.
Macias lives with his brother in a modest apartment in a high-rise in
east Havana. Psychologically stable after years of treatment but
suffering from skin cancer, he spends his days running small errands
like buying bread, then watching television or petting the family’s
Macias declined to speak about his time in Vietnam. He said in Spanish
that even though he feels more Cuban than American now, he remembers
much of his time in the United States fondly and would enjoy visiting
New York again if he were physically able.
“I’d like to go back,” he said.
A spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs said he couldn’t
comment on pending litigation but noted the Treasury Department
regulates payment of U.S. funds to other countries. The Treasury
Department did not respond to a request for comment on Macias’ case.
Macias’ lawyer, New Mexico-based Jason Flores-Williams, said the
veteran’s pension was clearly cut off because the U.S. embargo prohibits
paying government benefits to anyone living on the island. But the
lawyer said he believes legal changes stemming from Obama’s 2014
declaration of detente with Cuba mean Macias has a good chance at
winning his case.
The Obama administration has allowed U.S. companies to do limited
business with the Cuban government and lets Americans send virtually
unlimited sums of money to Cubans for purposes ranging from helping
relatives to supporting a private business.
“We would expect the Obama administration to support this litigation,”
Flores-Williams said. “It would be recognizing what (Macias) has done
for the United States and bringing this man dignity in the last years of
A court win for Macias could create a precedent for other
Cuban-Americans who move back to Cuba in the coming years and want to
receive U.S. government benefits like Social Security payments. While
the number of Cuban-Americans reclaiming Cuban citizenship remains
small, it is likely to grow as travel and trade between the U.S. and
Cuba become easier.
Moving back to the island may appeal especially to some Cuban-American
retirees because of Cuba’s free health care and relatively low cost of
living, meaning that any cases with legal issues such as Macias’ could
eventually become more common.
“The second you cross that 90 miles your benefits are terminated because
you couldn’t receive a check due to Treasury Department regulations,”
Flores-Williams said. “This is an opportunity for the Obama
administration to show the Cubans that it’s serious about human rights
Source: Vietnam vet living in Cuba sues VA to get benefits –