[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

#2976: Customs dispute over rice halts U.S. aid to Haiti (fwd)


Published Thursday, March 23, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Customs dispute over rice halts U.S. aid to Haiti____ BY DON BOHNING 

 What began Jan. 31 as a customs dispute over rice shipped to Haiti for
an American-owned Haitian company has boiled over into a controversy
that has halted the little remaining direct U.S. aid to Haiti. The
dispute centers on Haitian government accusations that the Rice
Corporation of Haiti tried to smuggle rice into Haiti. The government
assessed a fine that the two American owners say could cause the
liquidation of the company and loss of their estimated $5 million
investment. The company's processing plant on the outskirts of
Port-au-Prince, a downtown office and a company home were taken over at
gunpoint and sealed. The ship carrying the rice, on charter to supplier
Archer Daniels Midland, was seized but finally allowed to leave last
week after the rice had been unloaded. Although the rice-processing
plant is back in operation, it remains firmly under Haitian customs
supervision to ensure that the fine of about $1.4 million is
 exacted from sale and distribution of the five million-ton plus


 The American owners, Doug Murphy and Larry Theriot, who deny charges of
 illegal activity, fled Haiti across the Dominican Republic border Feb.
24 ahead of warrants for their arrest that were first assumed to be
connected to the contraband charges. But Haitian officials now say the
arrest warrants and sealing of some of the properties were linked to a
separate and unrelated ownership fight over the company that is being
played out in Haitian and Texas courts. ``These two things unfortunately
happened together, which make it appear as if they were related but they
are two entirely separate issues,'' Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, general
counsel for the Haitian government, said in a telephone interview
 from Haiti, where he has been discussing the rice case with U.S. and
Haitian officials. Others see the timing of the two events as more than
coincidental, however.


 In Washington, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign
 Relations Committee, has put a hold on any aid to the Haitian
government and is asking the State Department to deny U.S. visas for 10
Haitian officials, including two Cabinet ministers and the heads of
Haitian police and customs. ``Under the guise of a customs dispute,
Haitian officials have run the proprietors of the U.S.-owned Rice
Corporation of Haiti off their property at gunpoint,'' Helms
 said in a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asking that
the visas be denied. ``In spite of efforts to negotiate a settlement,
Haitian officials appear determined to extort money from several U.S.
businessmen and confiscate their property,'' Helms added.
 ``I think Mr. Helms has been severely misinformed in this case,''
Kurzban told The Herald. Haiti has done nothing, he said, other than
``follow the normal procedures in smuggling cases. The company has been
fined, they have acknowledged their guilt and entered into an agreement
with the government.'' ``We paid the duty but paid no fines,'' responded
Theriot, the company's secretary treasurer, in a telephone interview
from Washington, where he has been lobbying U.S. officials. ``We have
not acknowledged guilt and in fact are not guilty.'' The U.S.
government, meanwhile, has been walking a fine line, trying to help
 resolve the customs controversy and avoid the ownership dispute.
 ``We see this as a purely commercial dispute. . . .'' said a State
Department official.


 One problem might be the Haitian judicial system itself, as described
in two U.S. government reports released within the past month. ``The
judiciary is theoretically independent. However, in practice it remained
 largely weak and corrupt,'' the State Department's annual report on
human rights said of Haiti, adding that ``years of rampant corruption
and governmental neglect have left the judicial system poorly organized
and nearly moribund.'' The State Department's International Narcotics
Control Report, released March 1, was even more damning, noting that
``in the justice, customs and port authority sectors, corruption remains
a thriving force'' and although judges' pay has been increased, it
remains ``sufficiently meager to make them vulnerable to bribes.''
``Similarly, poorly paid customs agents profit from widespread
contraband activities in Haiti's ports. An estimated two-thirds of
Haiti's imports arrive without the knowledge of or with the collusion of
Haitian customs.''