HAVANA TIMES — Cuban native Otto Macias is a former combat infantryman who fought in the Vietnam War in the ‘60s before returning to the United States, his adopted homeland.
But in 1981, with no notice, the Department of Veterans Affairs abruptly cut off his benefits. Macias was a U.S. citizen, but he had gone back to Cuba and, as the VA saw it, paying him violated the embargo.
On Wednesday, New Mexico lawyer Jason Flores-Williams asked a federal appeals court to restore Macias’ benefits and compensate him “for benefits that were illegally terminated.”
“By terminating his benefits without providing him notice or a hearing, the VA violated Mr. Macias’ most fundamental due process rights,” Flores-Williams said. “The VA has a statutory obligation to provide due process and to actively ensure that Veterans are fully advised before termination of their benefits.”
Flores-Williams filed his petition on behalf of Macias in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C.
The lawyer had traveled to Havana in 2015 to meet with Macias and his relatives. He learned that Macias was born in Camagüey in 1940. He moved to the U.S. in 1961 and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Macias was trained as a sharpshooter and a 1st Class Gunner and operated the M60 machine gun. He served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, earning the National Defense Service Medal, the Bronze Service Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
By the end of his tour of duty, Macias was suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was moved to a military hospital in Vietnam in 1969, discharged honorably in 1970 “only to spend the next six years lost in a haze of mental illness.”
“He lived on the streets, slept on park benches: he was the homeless Vietnam Veteran that people step over on their way into the coffee house, the Iraq War veteran sleeping in his Chevy in the parking lot behind the mall. His family in Cuba thought he was dead.
“But Mr. Macias was an American war hero, broken but unbowed, a man who had lived through hell and refused to die. In 1976, he was found on the streets and taken in by friends. He applied for and was granted citizenship.
Former President Gerald Ford signed his citizenship letter, which reads, “It is my pleasure to welcome you most warmly to citizenship of the United States of America. As you share the rights and benefits of citizenship with your fellow Americans, I hope the knowledge that you are now a vital part of the Nation that Abraham Lincoln once called ‘the last, best hope of earth’ will always be a source of pride to you.”
In March 1979, the VA was paying Macias $295.83 per month in non-service connected benefits. The agency boosted the amount to $325.16 three months later before dropping it to $60 per month.
In October 1980, the State Department gave Macias permission to travel to Cuba to visit his family for one week. He had intended to return to the U.S., but began suffering hallucinations while in Havana and was hospitalized.
“He suffered a mental breakdown while in Havana. We cannot say why, perhaps the ghosts of the other world. He was delusional, hallucinating, caught between lands – one of the nameless millions lost to the fog of war. Mentally disabled, formally diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was hospitalized for three months. He did not intend to stay in Cuba, but was now unable to live on his own. Mr. Macias has remained in the kind care of his family in Havana since 1981.”
The VA terminated his benefits in August 1981. At the time, the Veteran’s Benefits Manual stated that the VA must follow Treasury Department regulations, which said payment of benefits to anyone on the island violated laws banning trade with Cuba.
“The effect of these regulations was to make nearly all U.S. financial transactions with Cuba illegal, so that even a disabled American war hero, like Otto Macias, was prohibited from receiving the benefits earned in service to our nation,” Flores-Williams wrote.
In July, President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba had restored diplomatic relations. The Treasury and Commerce departments have since revamped their policies toward Cuba, but the VA has failed to do so.
Flores-Williams is calling on the VA to update its policies to fit the Obama administration’s new approach toward Cuba. The lawyer wrote:
“Perhaps – and this is a debatable perhaps – at one time the governmental interest in maintaining the Cuban Embargo could be used as a justification for denial of Mr. Macias’ right to due process and equal protection, but the laws have now changed and the VA must update its policies to be in compliance with them – so that Mr. Macias’ benefits should now be restored.”
Now 75, Macias is ill and his health is deteriorating. Flores-Williams wrote:
“Mr. Macias is in the last days of his life. Along with his schizophrenia and PTSD, he is suffering from skin cancer. Without the expeditious intervention of this Honorable Court, he will die without ever having been afforded the due process and benefits that he has so rightly earned. This Court can use this historic opportunity to move the VA to review its policies regarding the Cuban Embargo, so that it follows the lead of the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce.
“We cannot say with certainty how many thousands of Cuban-American veterans have been negatively impacted by the Cuban Embargo, but ordering the VA to update its policies will help to bring them in from the cold.
“The situation is historical. It is extraordinary. There are no other adequate means by which to address this deficiency in VA policy.”