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These stories were published Monday, Jan. 3, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 1
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It's a presidential campaign year
2005 promises to be an exciting year here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Ricans awoke this morning to the first workday of a new year.

2005 is a year for a presidential campaign with two ex-presidents in prison, a third refusing to return to Costa Rica and the current president under investigation for campaign financing irregularities.

What looked like a fairly normal election year has been complicated by allegations that leaders in both parties took kickbacks on public contracts. More than a half dozen politicians are trying to set up their own political parties to propel them into Casa Presidencial.

Leaders of both the Partido Liberación Nacional and Unidad Social Cristiana fear that they are vulnerable to a reformist movement, although both will field presidential candidates. Liberación is pinning its hopes on Oscar Arias Sánchez, the man who won the Nobel peace Prize in 1987 for crafting a Central American peace plan.

But Arias, 63, comes with a lot of baggage. He now faces renewed allegations that Manuel Noriega, the former drug-tainted Panamanian dictator, funneled $1 million to his 1985-86 presidential campaign. The United States captured Noriega in its 1989 invasion of Panamá.

With 16 months left in his term, current President Abel Pacheco is still pushing for the revised tax plan that would raise $500,000 in new taxes. That number is equivalent to the total value of Costa Rica’s banana exports in 2004.

Pacheco went on television Sunday to promote the tax plan that is languishing in the Asamblea Legislativa. He said that the tax plan would finance social programs and reduce public debt. 

Education, he said, was the key to eliminating poverty, and that he would continue constructing schools, secondary institutions, science laboratories and centers for languages and computer science in poor areas.

Pacheco also put in a qualified plug for the free trade treaty with the United States. He said he urged the approval of a free trade treaty with the Caribbean nations but said he hopes to 

arrive as a consensus for the approval of a similar treaty with the United States, just and advantageous for Costa Rica.

With these treaties, he said, and with those that exist with Mexico, Chile, Canada and the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica is guaranteed an immense market for its excellent products.

Pacheco’s lukewarm comment that he hoped to arrive at a consensus on the U.S. free trade treaty seems to ignore the fact that the treaty has already been written and initially approved by Costa Rican officials. Further negotiations would seem to be unlikely. However, Pacheco has declined to send the treaty to the legislative assembly where it must be approved by the deputies there.

The free trade treaty certainly will be a key point of dispute in this election year. And with public unions, some farmers and the vocal university set opposed to the agreement, most candidates probably will be too.

One challenge for Costa Rica that may be a campaign issue is to regain the confidence of the international investment community. The country had reneged on an oil exploration deal with Harken Petroleum, is engaged in wrangling with Alterra partners, the concessionaire at Juan Santamaría Airport and has tried to shut down the proposed open pit gold mine operation north of San Carlos.

Each of these disputes stem from the current administration not believing it is bound by the decision of a previous administration.

Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier, one of the two jailed former ex-presidents, got some good news Friday. The Tribunal del Juicio del II Circuito Judicial in Goicoechea heard his appeal of a six-month preventative detention term and decided to reduce it to three months. That means the ex-president will be out of jail March 22 unless prosecutors seek another extension.

Both Calderón and former president Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverría had holiday visits from their wives and family members at the La Reforma prison in Alajuela.

No big developments are expected in these prosecutions for two more weeks. Court employees do not return from vacation until Jan. 17.

 
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From our readers

Rough year is coming,
this reader predicts

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Stock up on Valium

2005 will be anything but a calm year for the Ticos. The diputados will be embroiled in heated debates over the passage of another cure-all "tax package", the 12th over a span of a few decades. Too, ratifying the Free Trade Treaty with the U.S. will have rough ride before approval. The government unions and the herd instinct students will take to the streets when the congress looks like it is passing something not to their liking and when the mid-year salary adjustment falls way short of the inflation rate. By year’s end, the colon will be worth much, much less. And to really stir the emotions this year, the 2006 election campaigns kick off. 

On the other side of the world, the Turks will have their share of agitation. Beginning on the first day of this year, there will be new currency in circulation to get used to. Inflation killed the old one. Just before its demise, the old lira traded at 1,350,000 (yes, million is the correct number.) to one U.S. dollar, up almost 10 times since 1997. Inflation had reached intolerable levels, so the Turkish government accepted the conditions of the international Monetary Fund’s $16 billion bail out loan. The losing catch-up game for the salaried working man against a 70 percent annual inflation tsunami was causing serious political consequences.

So how did Turkey get itself into such a mess, and what do the IMF loan conditions call for? Turkish governments had borrowed too much money to pay for its interventionist policies and bloated bureaucracy. In 2003, almost 40 percent of the Turkish national budget went to debt service. (Costa Rica’s 2005 debt service appropriation calls for 47 percent. Now that’s scary) 

Before, the paternalistic minded Turkish administrations thought nationalization was good for the country. (Sound familiar?) That’s why steel and oil production, banking, telecommunications, transport, and other activities were state owned and operated. The IMF doesn’t think so and is demanding privatization, major downsizing of bureaucracy and get the Central Bank out of the hands of the politicians before those lent billions are injected into the economy. That may be the prescription for what ails Costa Rica. There are, after all, a lot of similarities.

Yep, it looks like it’s going to be a stressful year. Having to drive across town is bad enough, but when the streets are blocked by striking ICE or RECOPE or INS workers one’s patience is pushed to the limit.  Better stock up on Valium before the colon price goes out of sight.  That’s what the Turks did. 

Walter Fila
Ciudad Colón

Praise of Hospital CIMA

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I have recently been treated at CIMA Hospital and would like to tell all about my emergency treatment and stay.  They were MARVELOUS. 

I have had a long life of illnesses and have never had treatment anywhere as good.  The emergency room had had an earlier phone call from an asthmatic and were fully prepared for my problem which was a plus.  After four hours I was out of danger and taken to a room.  The emergency room doctor and Drs. Guadamuz and Breñes really knew their business. 

The only problem I had I now understand.  A deposit was required because I had no insurance and being a Sunday morning it was difficult for my husband to get the money necessary, also when I checked out cash in full was required.  I fully understand now what the problem was. It is so easy to skip the country and not pay the fees that in order to remain in business they have to be paid. 

I had also been in therapy for an injured hand for a month and give 4 stars to the therapist department.  I feel that with all the gripping being done that is time for some plaudits. 

Lucy Gucofski 
A.M. Costa Rica
Consultantes Río Colorado S.A.

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Going, going
soon to be gone

Street vendors near the San José Central market were working on borrowed time Sunday.

The municipality gave a deadline of Dec. 31 for the vendors to leave. Now officials are putting together a force to evict the small business owners within 24 hours.

A Sala IV constitutional court appeal filed Friday has not yet been heard. The area is along Avenida 1.

A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas

 
When a person can be like a pebble in your shoe
Más incomodo que una piedra en el zapato

"More irritating than a pebble in a shoe." Everyone has experienced the irritation of having a small pebble find its way into a shoe. Sometimes it seems impossible to get it out, and the longer the little rock is in there, the more uncomfortable it makes us. 

We might use this dicho to refer to a friend or member of our family who is impossible to get rid of. But I’m sure there are some in Costa Rica who might also feel this way about the prosecutor who has put ex-presidents Calderón and Rodríguez in jail. He certainly is irritating to certain folks, and he shows no sign of going away any time soon. 

Some members of the political establishment are probably feeling a little jittery because the longer the investigation drags on the more likely they will be to be implicated in the scandals.   Más incomodo que una piedra en el zapato, I sometimes use in slightly different ways, for example:  Molesta más que una piedra en el zapato, meaning "more bothersome than a pebble in a shoe." Or, una piedra en el zapato molesta menos que usted, meaning "a pebble in the shoe is less bothersome than you are." In any case, it’s a way of saying that someone is annoying and a real bother. 

A very dear relative of mine always seems to have problems, often of a financial nature. If someone gets robbed or cheated, it’s she. If she makes an investment, the bottom drops out of the market the next day. If she takes the bus to come for a visit, there is bound to be an accident along the way. If she bought a car you would know it’s bound to be a lemon. 

It’s strange how some people seem to attract problems to themselves, but when I remember this particular relative, the first thing that comes to my mind is how much she loved being the center of attention. She and I went to same high school, and I remember how the tales of her many calamities helped her obtain the notice she craved from others. Back then she was pretty and witty and was always ready with a clever remark or an amusing story. She was fun and funny, and she filled our school-bus rides with jokes and laughter. 

But I often wondered if the joke wasn’t really on her, 

The
way we say it

By Daniel Soto

and if there might not be some tears behind all the laughs. I felt rather sorry for her, but she was intelligent, pretty and made friend easily. Still, when it came to husbands her legendary bad luck came through with a particular vengeance. Two disastrous marriages left her with three beautiful, smart kids and very little else. It is a good thing she works like a horse and is smart, otherwise her troubles would be far worse. The family is always full of talk about her latest misfortune, and though she is sometimes referred to as una piedra en el zapato, nevertheless we cannot stop worrying about her and her children. For though she may be a pebble in our shoe, it hasn’t caused a callus.

Some people don’t seem to realize that we care for them even though we can’t solve all their problems. We have a title for these folks: Nuestra Señora de las Calamidades, Our Lady of Calamities. These are people who are born to suffer, and there’s not much the rest of us can do about it except to be good listeners. But when someone else’s problems start becoming a rock in your shoe, it may be time to back off a bit. 

Now, here’s a New Year’s resolution we should all make, and it’s one we should be able to keep too. Let’s all try to be a good friend to others, and always a good and caring listener, but let’s keep those pebbles out of our shoes and leave them on the beach or along some mountain path where they belong. 2005 will be a better year if we do.


 
Former soldiers in rebellion against Peru's Toledo
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LIMA, Peru — The leader of a group of former soldiers holding a Peruvian police station says they will hand in their weapons if their safety is guaranteed.

Retired army major Antauro Humala made the offer Sunday after he said he spoke on the phone with his brother, fellow retired army officer Ollanta Humala.  Antauro Humala said his brother urged the ex-soldiers to lay down their arms.

This comes hours after the dissident soldiers, who are demanding the resignation of President Alejandro Toledo, killed four police officers in a shootout at the police station in the Andahuaylas region.

It is unclear if any of those officers were among the 10 that Humala and the armed ex-soldiers took hostage upon seizing the police station Saturday.

Witnesses and local media say the gunbattle broke out early Sunday at the station where hundreds of supporters of Humala were gathered. 

Saturday, Humala and about 150 armed dissident soldiers attacked the station. President Toledo has ordered a state of emergency in the area.

Humala heads an ultranationalist group. He accuses Toledo of corruption, and claims the president has sold out Peruvian business interests in favor of investors from Chile, Peru's neighbor and long-time rival.


 
Families begin to bury young victim of Bueno Aires nightclub fire
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Families have begun to bury relatives killed in a nightclub fire that claimed at least 182 lives.

Officials say more than 700 other people were injured in the Thursday night blaze. Investigators say the fire may have been started when someone set off a flare, igniting the club's foam-covered ceiling. 

More than 2,000 people, mostly teenagers, tried to 

escape the blaze, but city officials say four of the exit doors were locked. 

Investigators say they have identified three people believed to have launched the flare, but did not say if they were among the casualties. Officials added that they are looking into witness accounts that there was a makeshift nursery in one of the club's bathrooms. 

Saturday, hundreds of people marched near the club demanding that Buenos Aires officials toughen safety codes for concert halls and nightclubs.


 
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