Cuba blamed for sunken barge
HAVANA, Cuba – The Raul Castro administration in Cuba has refuted claims by a United States firm that Havana is responsible for the sinking of a disabled barge, which was adrift in Cuban waters as it carried US$2 million worth of aid for victims of Haiti’s devastating earthquake. Cuba’s Transportation Ministry said in a statement here on Saturday that a Cuban tugboat received a distress call from the American tugboat, Muheet, just before midnight on November 30.It said its tugboat responded immediately, towing the Muheet and its two barges.But the ministry said both captains decided to head for port with the ship because of high seas and that they planned to return later for the barges. The statement said one of the barges was “deemed a total loss while the other was salvaged.”
But Matt Williams, a spokesman for Harbor Homes, a manufacturer of emergency housing in Thomasville, Georgia, said “the loss of this barge was the direct result of Cuban government decisions.”
He said the barge and the Muheet were en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to Haiti in late November when the tug’s engine broke down, apparently because of contaminated fuel, and that the vessels drifted into Cuban territorial waters.
He said the US Coast Guard was notified and asked Cuban authorities for permission to enter their waters briefly to retrieve the vessels, but were denied.
Miami Coast Guard spokesman, Chief Russell Tippets, said, however, that the Coast Guard checked on the US vessels but did not ask to enter Cuban waters, because the crews were not in danger and the case “did not meet the criteria for assistance entry.”
Williams said Cuban authorities sent a vessel from the northeastern port of Moa on Dec. 1 to take the tug and barge under tow.
But he claimed that the Cuban boat started off too fast, causing the cable between the Muheet and the barge to snap.
Williams said the Cuban vessel headed back to port with the tugboat in tow, and told the Muheet’s crew that a Cuban military ship would arrive later to tow the barge to safety.
“This did not happen. Instead, the Government of Cuba, which had been well-apprised of the vessel’s cargo and the destination and humanitarian purpose of the voyage, simply permitted the barge” to hit a reef and sink, said Williams in the statement.
He said the barge was carrying equipment to build about 1,000 emergency housing units in Haiti, and that the cargo included a large bulldozer, six new tractors and a large number of power generators.
It also carried 15,000 sheets of plywood, a ready-to-assemble building for manufacturing the shelters and a containerized commercial kitchen that would have fed the construction crew, Williams said.
He said that the company is moving ahead with the Haiti project with its own funds because the company that insured the barge, Lloyd’s of London, is arguing that the vessel was too old to meet insurance requirements.
Williams said the barge received US Coast Guard approval after it was worked on in Jacksonville.
He said Harbor Homes’ vice president, Matthew Batson, and Felix Vargas, a retired US Foreign Service officer who works as a consultant for the company, traveled to the eastern city of Santiago in Cuba in December to reclaim the barge and cargo.
Batson said Cuban officials showed them an eight-minute video of the wreckage site, showing “that the vast majority of the cargo had spilled into the ocean.”
But he said they were not allowed to visit the site in person and “were denied any information after the first day because they arrived on tourists visas.” The two had US licenses to travel to Cuba.
Cuban authorities, however, said they were in constant touch with the Coast Guard and the US government about the issue and that the salvaged goods are being stored in a customs warehouse.
Haitian officials said over 300,000 people were killed and 1.5 million left homeless by the massive earthquake that struck the impoverished, French-speaking Caribbean country on January 12 last year. (CMC)