Social Security says benefits can’t be sent to Havana

It’s the dream of some elderly or poor Cuban Americans — to move back to the island, where the cost of living is cheap and their U.S. Social Security retirement and other benefits can stretch a long way.

But no, they can’t do that, says the Social Security Administration (SSA). At least not legally.

Social Security retirement benefits cannot be sent to Cuba or North Korea, said Maria Diaz, SSA spokesperson for the South Florida district.

For U.S. citizens who spend more than 30 days in either of those countries, their retirement payment for the month is withheld but paid out when they go to another country, Diaz said. Those who are not citizens lose their retirement payment for the month.

Supplemental Security Income, paid to people who are 65 or older or are disabled and have low income and resources, cannot be paid at all outside the United States, not even Puerto Rico, she added.

Intermediaries also cannot receive the payments or forward them to Cuba, Diaz told El Nuevo Herald. All those restrictions have been in place for decades, as part of U.S. economic sanctions on the two communist-ruled countries.

But questions about the limits and possibilities have been growing since Cuba reformed its migration system, according to the Miami blog Café Fuerte, which first published a report on the issue.

The Jan. 14 reforms eased the restrictions on Cubans who live abroad but want to return to the island and reestablish their legal residence — which gives them access to the free health and education services and the ability to pay for some goods in cheap Cuban pesos.

Up until the change, Cubans who lived abroad more than 11 months generally lost their residency.

Havana also eased restrictions on Cubans who travel abroad, meaning that more will be able to travel to the United States, obtain residency after one year and one day under the Cuban Adjustment Act, and then return to the island in time to preserve their residency there.

An estimated 350,000 Cuban Americans — both residents and citizens — traveled legally to the island in 2012 for family-reunification trips. Obama administration regulations also allow Cuban Americans to remit unlimited amounts of cash to people on the island.

Havana’s immigration reforms sparked a wave of speculation on whether large numbers of Cubans would be arriving in the United States, as well as whether Cuban Americans in South Florida could continue to receive their Social Security benefits if they moved to the island.

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) tops out at $710 per month and carries with it access to Medicaid benefits, said Diaz. People who receive SSI can be totally disqualified if they stay abroad too long.

SSI benefits are restricted to U.S. citizens or refugees, Diaz said. But Cubans qualify because the Cuban Adjustment Act grants them refugee status. They can receive SSI benefits for seven years after their arrival, and longer if they become U.S. citizens.

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