PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A U.S. housing 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. Cdr. 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 president 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 tourist 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-travel list. Batson called the U.S. Interest Section 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.