Caribbean nations struggling to save lives and prevent the deadly spread of the coronavirus in their vulnerable territories should not look to the United States as they seek to acquire scarce but much-needed protective gear to fight the global pandemic
A spokesperson from U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed to the Miami Herald that the agency is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prevent distributors from diverting personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as face masks and gloves, overseas. Ventilators also are on the prohibited list.
“To accomplish this, CBP will detain shipments of the PPE specified in the President’s Memorandum while FEMA determines whether to return the PPE for use within the United States; to purchase the PPE on behalf of the United States; or, allow it to be exported,” the statement read.
In the past week, three Caribbean nations —the Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Barbados —have all had container loads of personal protective equipment purchased from U.S. vendors blocked from entering their territories by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“We are talking about personal protective equipment; we’re talking about durable medical devices and gloves, gowns, ventilators as well,” Bahamas Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands told the Miami Herald.
On Tuesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection informed a shipping company that its Nassau-bound shipment of medical supplies could not be offloaded in the Bahamas and the containers had to be returned to Miami “for inspection.” But even before that, Sands said the Bahamian government had already been fielding multiple “complaints from freight forwarders and shipping companies that they were having challenges clearing certain items.”
“Over time, that grew to a crescendo with certain persons having the same experience,” he said.
The blockade experienced by Caribbean nations followed President Donald Trump’s April 3 signing of the little-known Defense Production Act. While the order gave the federal government more control over the procurement of coronavirus-related supplies, it also allowed the administration to ban certain exports. Trump invoked the act following a Twitter attack against U.S. manufacturer 3M over the export of its highly sought N95 respiratory face masks.
In a release, the Minnesota-based company said the Trump administration wanted it to cease exports of the masks to Latin America and Caribbean nations. Pushing back on the request, 3M said such a move carried “humanitarian consequences.”
Soon after the president’s order, Caribbean governments and shippers started hearing from Customs and Border Protection, learning that shipments of vital supplies had been blocked.
In the case of Barbados, it was a shipment of 20 ventilators purchased by a philanthropist that were barred, Health Minister Lt. Col Jeffrey Bostic told his nation in a live broadcast on April 5. After accusing the U.S. of seizing the shipment, Bostic walked back the allegation and told a local newspaper the hold up had “to do with export restrictions being placed on certain items.”
For the Cayman Islands, it was eight ventilators and 50,000 masks that were produced and purchased in the U.S. and removed from a Grand Cayman-bound ship in Miami — also on Tuesday. In a Friday afternoon tweet, the British overseas territory’s premier, Alden McLaughlin, said the U.S. had released the shipment with help from the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Donald Tapia.