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U.S. Turns Away Ship Laden With Goods for Haiti

October 28, 1994|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — More than a week after the United Nations lifted three years of crippling international sanctions against Haiti, the U.S. military intervention force here turned away the first major shipment of raw materials, spare parts and medicine crucial to jump-starting the Haitian economy and rebuilding the nation's health and welfare, U.S. commanders confirmed Thursday.

After three days of waiting offshore in Port-au-Prince harbor this week, the 1,500-ton American container ship Ocean Fleet was forced to turn and sail late Wednesday for the neighboring Dominican Republic. It took with it vital components that Haitian business people said could have employed about 6,000 workers at more than 20 factories throughout the capital, most of them idled by the embargo that was lifted 13 days ago with President Jean Bertrand-Aristide's return.

The reason, according to commanders of the U.S. military force that now controls the vital Port-au-Prince seaport: Title 46 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, covering civil transportation safety rules in the United States.

Applying U.S. federal safety standards in a sovereign port hundreds of miles off America's shores, the U.S. military's Harbor Defense Command found, after examining the first major shipment to Haiti of formerly embargoed goods and materials, that three of the 76 containers loaded and cleared in Miami three days before were stowed in a way that presented "a potential hazard" to the port and the 1,000 American troops encamped there.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mike Rauworth, who effectively serves as harbor master and port captain in Port-au-Prince, confirmed Thursday that he signed the order refusing permission for the vessel to dock largely because a single container was packed with a potentially hazardous combination of chemicals.

"We're talking about a potential risk that would be very serious if it came up in a U.S. port fully equipped with reliable infrastructure and firefighting facilities . . . and we've got none of that here," Rauworth said.

He added that calcium hypochlorite and sulfuric acid were packed in a single container and stowed at the bottom of the ship's hold, directly violating American regulations. Those regulations, he said, indicate that the combination of the chemicals and their location on the ship presented "an explosion hazard, a fire hazard and the possibility of a dangerous gas mixture."

Rauworth described in detail the human disaster that could result if a fire or explosion occurred involving calcium hypochlorite--a chemical needed to purify Haiti's fouled drinking-water supply. It had been barred under the strict U.S.-sponsored trade embargo.

But his decision to turn away a vessel containing crucial cargo at so critical a moment for Haiti presented another risk: the potential for conflict between the needs of the U.S. military force sent to stabilize Haiti and the needs of the people they came to help.

"I have the impression that were there not hundreds of American troops at the port, we would have unloaded," said an angry Richard Sassine, whose long-established R. Sassine Co. shipping agency consigned the Ocean Fleet and its cargo. "If the U.S. Coast Guard wasn't there, Port-au-Prince would be pumping with work already."

Without tens of thousands of new jobs, said Sassine, other Haitian business people and Aristide himself, no real stability can come to the impoverished nation. Haitian unemployment is estimated at 80%, at a time of unprecedented popular expectations.

Despite U.S. pledges of $200 million in foreign aid, the heart of future job creation lies in Haiti's private sector, a minority group already wary of Aristide's populist past and now flabbergasted by the decision to turn away the ship bearing the goods they need to create jobs.

"There are people who have been out of work for months who believed the minute the military regime was finished, they'd be back to work in a week. It has been a month now, the boat came and went, and it really didn't make any sense to me at all," said one company director, who predicted that the decision to reject the ship will cost his factory 200 jobs.

Sassine stressed that his company deliberately gave priority in its first post-sanctions shipment to Haiti's privately owned medical manufacturers, health-goods producers and assembly-plant owners--"whatever factories are standing by and waiting to start work."

"Now is the time we're looking at the future," he said. "It's time to go back to work."

Rudolph Boulous could not have agreed more. The director general of Haiti's largest pharmaceutical manufacturer, Pharval, was awaiting seven huge containers aboard the Ocean Fleet filled with syrup bases he needs to produce drugs ranging from aspirin and vitamins to sophisticated antibiotics.

"Definitely it's a big hang-up in restarting a factory like this, which employs 125 people and supplies medicines at affordable prices . . . and these things are crucial to us starting up again," he said.

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