While millions of Haitians go hungry, containers full of food are stacking up in the nation's ports because of government red tape — leaving tons of beans, rice and other staples to rot under a sweltering sun or be devoured by vermin.
A government attempt to clean up a corrupt port system that has helped make Haiti a major conduit for Colombian cocaine has added new layers of bureaucracy — and led to backlogs so severe they are being felt 600 miles away in Miami, where cargo shipments to Haiti have ground almost to a standstill.
The problems are depriving desperate people of donated food. Some are so poor they are forced to eat cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable oil to satisfy their hunger.
An Associated Press investigation found the situation is most severe in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city. One recent afternoon, garbage men shoveled a pile of rotting pinto beans that had turned gray and crumbled to dust as cockroaches and beetles scurried about.
The men had found the putrid cargo by following a stench through stacked shipping containers to one holding 40,000 pounds of beans. It had been in port since November.
"So many times, by the time (the food) gets out of customs it's expired and we're forced to burn it," said Susie Scott Krabacher, whose Colorado-based Mercy and Sharing Foundation has worked in Haiti for 14 years. "The food is there. It is available. It just can't get to the people."
Though it is unclear how much of Haiti's food supply is tied up in the port delays, the effects could be serious. Haiti imports about 75 percent of its food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And there is little room for error in a country where the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported that almost half the population was undernourished in 2002.
The U.N. World Food Program and large-scale U.S. rice growers say they have been able to get their food into Haiti by hiring local agents to handle bureaucratic procedures. But smaller charities, merchants and private citizens have often been forced by the delays to throw away containers of food or pay exorbitant fees.
The problems stem in part from efforts to clean up a port system the World Bank recently ranked as the second-worst in the region, ahead of only Guyana.
Customs reform efforts
Before the changes were implemented last fall, bribes flowed freely and goods passed through unsearched and without duties being paid. That deprived the government of money and helped make Haiti a major transshipment point for Colombian cocaine destined for the United States.
The international community has encouraged Haiti's customs reform efforts, with the U.S. government helping fund port security and U.N. peacekeepers stepping up anti-smuggling patrols along the coast and Dominican border.
But new requirements for licenses and manifests in triplicate have overwhelmed poorly trained workers and the country's archaic, handwritten customs system.
Unlike U.S. ports, where less than 5 percent of containers were scanned last year and only a fraction of those opened up and inspected, Haitian cargo handlers said each container at Cap-Haitien must now be completely emptied and inspected. Customs chief Jean-Jacques Valentin said that policy was Haiti's own decision.
Frustrated by the new procedures and demanding higher pay, striking workers shut down the port at Cap-Haitien for 20 days in December. Graffiti denouncing the port's director still mars its buildings.
And despite the reforms, some say the bribes are continuing.
Jean-Paul Michaud, a Canadian, said he sailed to the capital of Port-au-Prince late last year carrying 60 pounds of donated clothing and medicine — and that port authorities demanded $10,000 in "customs fees" — code for a bribe to make the fees disappear.
"I'd have rather thrown the aid in the water," said Michaud. The Canadian Embassy intervened and the fee was later waived.
Krabacher's group says it has paid nearly $16,000 in fees in the first six weeks of 2008 alone, compared to $23,418 for all of 2007.
Lawmakers concerned about the situation questioned Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis about the port delays during a February no-confidence vote.
"There is a lot of work being done in terms of the ports," Alexis maintained. "We are looking at a way to implement a 'fast-track' policy, so people can get their merchandise out more quickly."
President urges crackdown
He also recommended splitting the National Port Authority into two agencies, one focusing on the logistics of port management and the other overseeing customs because he does not believe the current agency can handle both tasks.
Haitian President Rene Preval echoed those concerns in a speech to parliament in January, calling for a crackdown on illegal contraband and a lowering of exorbitant container fees that are three times higher than those in neighboring Dominican Republic.
After opening the door of the orange container filled with rotting beans last month, the workers were hit by a revolting smell. They let the odor dissipate for a week before spending two days loading the beans into a flatbed truck and hauling them away for disposal.
The garbage collectors grumbled about the waste of precious food, with one saying he wished he could have taken the beans to his neighborhood before they rotted. The workers then went in search of a container loaded with spoiling rice.
Dimitri Torres, the director of container-handler Cap Terminal SA., said he doesn't even know who shipped the beans. They had already been transferred from one container to another during inspection and the shipping documents had disappeared.
Valentin, the customs chief, blames the backlog on shippers who are trying to skirt the new system. He said some intended to smuggle items into Haiti and avoid customs duties.
"They are people that weren't straight with not bringing contraband, and that's why they're making excuses and that's why things are slow," Valentin said.
Cap Terminal normally has about 50 containers at its yard next to the port, Torres said. More than 200 are now stacked up, at least half belonging to Miami-based Frontier Liner Services.
That company, like several others, has stopped shipping to Haiti until the delays are resolved and its empty containers are returned. Haiti-bound cargo traffic in Florida's Miami River is at a virtual standstill.
"We've had to lay off people," said Munir Mourra, president of Miami-based River Terminal Services. "Pretty much all the stevedores on the vessels have been laid off."