Coast Guard, company dispute Cuba barge incident

AP News
Posted: Apr 12, 2011 8:51 PM
Coast Guard, company dispute Cuba barge incident

The U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday that it never sought to enter Cuban waters to recover a stranded barge, contradicting an American company's account of an incident that resulted in the loss of $2 million in building supplies bound for Haiti.

With the barge adrift about 15 miles (24 kilometers) off Cuba's northern coast after the tugboat towing it broke down, the Coast Guard alerted Cuban authorities, who said they would respond, said Chief Petty Officer Russell Tippets, a spokesman based in Miami.

The housing company, Harbor Homes LLC, had said over the weekend that Cuba rejected the Coast Guard's request to recover the drifting barge and tug.

Tippets gave a different account.

The crew of the barge and tugboat were not in immediate danger, which would have allowed the Coast Guard to enter Cuban territorial waters without permission under international law, and the Cuban authorities reported that they were capable of responding to the drifting vessels, he said.

"We let them know there's a barge that needs assistance," Tippets said. "They said, 'OK, we've got it.'"

What happened next was an expensive loss: The Cuban military allegedly towed the two vessels toward shore, but a line broke and the barge ran aground, spilling into the ocean equipment and materials that had been meant to build 1,000 homes in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Harbor Homes, which was hauling the material to Haiti on behalf of the aid group World Vision, disclosed the Nov. 30 incident publicly only after its insurer, Lloyd's of London, denied a damage claim, citing the age of the tugboat, according to the company.

The company said the tugboat broke down because fuel purchased in the Bahamas was contaminated with water. But its announcement late Saturday blamed the Cuban government for the loss on the grounds it wouldn't let the Coast Guard tow the vessels to safety.

Cuban government officials have not responded to requests for comment.

Tippets said executives from Harbor Homes may have misinterpreted the Coast Guard's role in the incident, but the company stood by its version.

"It looks like damage control to us," said Matt Williams, a spokesman for Harbor Homes, based in Thomasville, Georgia.

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, Cuba, in December seeking unsuccessfully to reclaim the barge and cargo. Batson said Cuban officials held them up as they tried to leave the country but were released after 90 minutes.