As foreign do-gooders try to send humanitarian supplies, they are encountering problems — for a variety of different reasons.
BY FRANCES ROBLES, TRENTON DANIEL AND JACQUELINE CHARLES
PORT-AU-PRINCE — The “Wishmobile” is a 36-foot mobile medical unit with full examination and triage rooms, and it’s stuck at a Haitian port, captive to bureaucratic red tape and a daunting Customs tax bill.
Ohio-based Granted Wish Foundation shipped the vehicle along with a four-wheel drive ambulance, after a fundraiser hosted by former Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn at South Beach’s Clevelander Hotel earlier this month. The organization flew two emergency room doctors to Port-au-Prince, who planned to use the vehicles to treat Haitian earthquake survivors.
But the mobile medical units are stuck at Customs, victim of tighter controls on duty-free aid by a quake-ravaged nation that desperately needs both medical services and tariff income from its ports. The bill to release the vehicles: $23,379. Some call it a shake-down.
“These are vehicles Haiti has never seen the likes of, and it’s unconscionable that this is happening,” said Granted Wish chairman Rodney Napier, a part-time Miami Beach resident. “We believe they are expecting us to slip them money to make this go away.”
NEED FOR MONEY
The story of the “Wishmobile” underscores the Haitian government’s quest to return to normalcy, when people paid taxes on items shipped to the port before more than 200,000 people died in a Jan. 12 earthquake. The government has begun to crack down on non-profit organizations it believes were profiteering from the disaster by bringing in duty-free goods and selling them on the side.
A post-disaster needs assessment report indicates that the quake wiped out 65 percent of Port-au-Prince’s economic activities and 85 percent of Haiti’s tax receipts. Officials said on Tuesday they need $34.4 billion over 10 years to rebuild the country, of which $11.5 billion is needed for the next 18 months.
The nonprofit organization that raised the funds to send the medical gear say the ordeal at the port is emblematic of another Haitian plague: corruption.
The organization claims that Customs officials first asked for $65,000 to release the units and a container of medical supplies, and then demanded repeat inspections when Granted Wish refused to pay. Customs officials even tried to pressure them to put the cars in their name, said Stefanie R. Coletti, executive director of Granted Wish Foundation.
Coletti and others with the group say they raised $100,000 to purchase the pair of medical vehicles to send to Haiti.
The vehicles aim to serve as “hospitals on wheels” where severely injured children can receive therapeutic and rehabilitation care. After being shipped by Phoenix International, the vehicles found themselves held up in Port Lafiteau north of the capital.
The Haitian government insists the organization has to pay customs taxes because the shipment arrived in the name of a private individual, not a certified aid group. Granted Wish says they initially sent the delivery in the name Double Harvest, a certified non-profit organization registered by the Haitian government, but was told by Customs that things would go more smoothly if the shipment were in the name of a Haitian citizen.
“I obey and apply the law; I do not interpret it,” said Eric Charles, director of port customs. “If the vehicles were in the names of U.S. AID, Food for the Poor, or some other group, they would be out in five minutes. I am not the Ministry of Finance. I am not the president. We have no provisions in the customs tariffs to give him an exception.”
A significant portion of Haiti’s budget comes from imports, and as a result of less taxable items coming into the country and other losses, government ministries have been told their budgets may be reduced by as much as 40 percent.
As millions of dollars in donated aid stream into Haiti, some groups and individuals have complained about being forced to pay taxes at airport.