By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT
Customs-related improvements are necessary for Caribbean countries to fully capitalize upon trade opportunities, according to the president of a major shipping line in the region.
‘We need to work together to make the Caribbean world-class competitive,’ Rick Murrell, president of Tropical Shipping, said after leading a panel discussion on Caribbean transportation and logistics at last month’s 29th Miami Conference on the Caribbean Basin, sponsored by Caribbean-Central American Action (C-CAA).
Murrell, whose company serves more than 30 ports in the region via its base at the Port of Palm Beach, pledged to help facilitate efforts aimed at implementation of streamlined, compatible customs systems throughout the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nations.
Such procedures, with requisite customs laws amendments, would include use of information technology to manage transactions, permitting electronic submissions of documentation prior to the arrival at destination of cargo.
‘We want to have the ability to electronically make submission for cargo entries,’ Murrell said.
In addition, he said, ‘regular bona fide importers’ and others with long histories of compliance with customs laws should be permitted to have their goods move in an expedited manner.
Panel discussion participant Merton Moore, permanent secretary of the Caribbean Customs Law Enforcement Council, said most customs officers in the region lack the skills to make full use of electronic filing systems, so much ‘training and retraining’ will be needed.
‘The logistics in the customs have been moving rather slowly,’ said Moore, who urged shippers to work more closely with customs officials to improve the way the system operates and simplify clearances.
Moore said he would like to see the Caribbean Development Bank assume a ‘rare responsibility’ to assist Caribbean island nations in putting in place appropriate customs infrastructure, including means for electronic filings.
‘The problem really is in the lack of capacity in customs,’ Moore added, noting that customs officials in the Caribbean have long had to concentrate upon fraudulent invoicing and other abuses.
Ana Guevara, UPS vice president of public affairs for the Americas, suggested creation of a users’ group that could address customs changes in the region. She said that, while customs-related mistakes are frequently made by shippers in the Caribbean, 80 percent of the errors do not represent intentional fraud.
Working together also is a needed step among the countries of the region, according to Corah Ann Robertson-Sylvester, president of the Caribbean Shipping Association and Kingston-based chief executive officer of Seaboard Jamaica, the Jamaican arm of Miami-based ocean carrier Seaboard Marine.
‘The systems have to be harmonized so it’s easy to do business in our region,’ said Robertson-Sylvester, who noted that trade volumes in the Caribbean already are at an all-time high. ‘It doesn’t mean you lose your sovereignty. All you’re trying to do is enhance your business. Harmonization is the key.’
Frank Santeiro, managing director of customs and regulatory affairs for the Miami-based Latin American and Caribbean operation of FedEx, said that delays in implementation of regional free-trade agreements should not deter participation in a program to facilitate trade through improved customs procedures.
‘We don’t need a trade treaty to focus on trade facilitation,’ Santeiro said. ‘Customs is that one point in the chain where we do not have control. If we can focus on reducing the number of steps in customs clearance, I think we will go a long way to making this a much better and easier place to work in.’
More efficient customs procedures could lead to a five percent reduction in transaction costs in the Caribbean, according to Santeiro, who added that improvements in port infrastructure and security are among steps that would further cut costs of doing business.
Santeiro said industry participants, including ocean carrier