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US company in Haiti blames Cuba for loss of barge

Posted on Sunday, 04.10.11

US company in Haiti blames Cuba for loss of barge
By TRENTON DANIEL
Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A U.S. company is blaming Cuba for the
loss of a barge loaded with supplies to build shelters for displaced
earthquake survivors in Haiti.

Executives with Harbor Homes LLC said late Saturday that the Cuban
government denied the U.S. Coast Guard permission to enter its waters to
reclaim a drifting barge carrying $2 million worth of humanitarian
supplies bound for the quake-devastated Caribbean country.

As a result, the barge carrying cargo to build 1,000 homes in Haiti sank
in December as the Cuban military attempted to tow it ashore. A tow line
snapped and the barge ran aground, scattering building supplies, three
tractors, and a bulldozer into the Atlantic, company officials said.

"At the end of the day the Cuban government is directly and solely
responsible for the sinking of this vessel," said Matt Williams, a
spokesman for Harbor Homes and its subsidiary PermaShelter. "A lot of
homes aren't being built because of the Cuban government."

Cuban government officials could not be reached for comment.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. . Matt Moorlag said he was looking into the
matter but was unavailable to share specifics Sunday.

Executives with Harbor Homes, a Georgia-based company that provides
temporary shelters to disaster-affected areas, did not go public until
now because they hoped their insurance company, Lloyd's of London, would
be able to pay for their loss. They say the company declined to pay out
their claim because of the tugboat's age.

The loss of the humanitarian supplies comes as relief workers and the
Haitian government struggle to house more than 600,000 Haitians
displaced after the January 2010 quake.

According to interviews and email correspondence with Harbor Homes and
partner World Vision, a Christian relief group, a tugboat towing the
barge left Jacksonville, Florida, on Nov. 17. The tugboat captain
refueled in the Bahamas, but officials said the gas was contaminated
with water. The vessel's engine eventually died about 13 miles from
Cuba's easternmost coast.

The barge's GPS tracker then showed something strange.

"The barge took an unnatural turn on Dec. 1," Williams said. A printout
of a map shows the vessel taking a hard right turn south, just north of
the Cuban shoreline.

Williams contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and it dispatched a cutter and a
helicopter to try and pull the boats to safety until they could find a
vessel to take the boats to Haiti or bring fresh fuel.

The Coast Guard contacted the Cuban authorities for permission to enter
their waters but was denied access.

Matthew Batson, vice of Harbor Homes, and Col. Felix Vargas, a
retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who worked as a consultant for the
company, traveled to Santiago de Cuba in December in an effort to
reclaim the barge and cargo.

They said Cuban officials showed them an eight-minute video of the
wreckage site.

"I could clearly see that the vast majority of the cargo had spilled
into the ocean," Batson wrote in an email to World Vision.

The pair tried to visit the barge but Cuban port officials wouldn't let
them. Cuban officials told them they couldn't because they had
visas and the visit was business related.

As they tried to leave, Cuban authorities held them for more than an
hour. Their names, they said, appeared on a no- list. Batson
called the U.S. and they were let go shortly afterward.

Cuba has had humanitarian ties to Haiti for years. Well before doctors
from around the world rushed to help Haiti after the 2010 quake, Cuba
lent hundreds of doctors to provide medical services throughout the
impoverished country.

Associated Press writer Paul Haven in Havana, Cuba, contributed reporting.

http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/04/10/2160813/us-company-in-haiti-blames-cuba.html

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