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(506) 2223-1327           Published Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, in Vol. 12, No. 2     Email us
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What will the administration do to stem red ink?
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The year opens with President Laura Chinchilla in México with her husband and son and with lawmakers on vacation until Friday.

Meanwhile, the national deficit continues to increase.

The executive branch was counting on some quick taxes to offset the unbalanced national budget.

One got legislative approval last week. Expats and others who own corporations will have to pay either $354.50 for an active entity or half that for an inactive one. President Chinchilla signed the tax into law a week ago, and it takes effect in three months.
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The amount increased automatically from about $313 even before the ink was dry.

There is a catch. Like many Costa Rican taxes this one is dedicated. That is it is specifically directed to certain uses. In this case, the beneficiary is the Ministerio de Gobernación. Policía y Seguridad Pública. Not a single colon goes to offset directly the national deficit. Of course, the executive branch may drastically reduce security funding in future budgets now that the corporate tax is paying some of the bills.

The security ministry will be going on a buying spree that includes 17,000 pairs of boots, 127 pickups, 562 police radios and 140 computers. Still lacking is a comprehensive anti-crime strategy that
Ms. Chinchilla promised in her campaign.

Lawmaker Luis Fishman, a former vice president, frustrated the plans of the executive branch when he challenged in the Sala IV constitutional court the use of the legislative fast track for the value-added tax proposal. Consideration of that tax probably will be longer now because the executive branch tried to make the bill move quicker. Court officials think that magistrates may take from a year to 18 months to resolve the constitutional question.
That means the Chinchilla administration probably will not see a colón from the proposed tax even if it is passed eventually. Ms. Chinchilla has just two more years in office.

The constitutional question is can legislative rules stifle debate, which is the aim of the fast-track procedure. Meanwhile magistrates have ordered lawmakers not to take a final vote on the tax proposal until the constitutional question is resolved.

They can discuss the proposal under the limited debate of the fast track proposal, and they can take an initial vote. But if magistrates find in favor of Fishman, lawmakers will have to do it all over again.

Meanwhile, some of the legislative support for the measure is eroding despite a coalition between the partidos Liberación Nacional and Acción Ciudadana. Public sentiment is beginning to be heard although there are hardly any serious alternatives.

The Chinchilla administration has come under heavy criticism for not having a backup plan in case the tax proposal fails. This so-called Plan B does not exist, according to the president. Union leaders are afraid that it does. They see salary cuts and layoffs in the future.

The executive branch sees the possibility of higher international interest rates that will cause more red ink. Nearly half of this year's national budget is borrowed money.

Despite the government's financial predicament, the colon is holding its value against the U.S. dollar, and Costa Rican bonds still are marketable outside the country.

The proposed value-added tax is estimated to raise some $500 million each year in new taxes because it covers activities not now taxed, like professional services, tourism guides and private education. Critics point out that the Ministerio de Hacienda has been playing let's make a deal with various commercial sectors. Tourism operators were promised a phased-in tax. Private school tuition was knocked down from a 14 percent tax to 2 percent. The critics say the tax would raise more like $400 million, if that.

Ms. Chinchilla would need more like $1 billion to balance the budget and even more to reduce the national debt.

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Escazú restaurant worker
suffers burns in gas blast

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Leaking gas at an Avenida Escazú restaurant ignited Monday and burned a woman employee.

A spokesperson for the Cuerpo de Bomberos said the emergency took place about 9 a.m. at the Restaurante Saga. Firemen were there 10 minutes later and found that the woman had burns on her knees and hands.

The gas came from a 500-gallon liquid petroleum tank. The fire agency reported that there were 2,106 similar emergencies in 2011 with 17 fires caused by leakage from liquid petroleum tanks. One explosion a week ago killed the operator of a small eating place alongside the Mercado Municipal in Paraíso, Cartago.

An hour and a half later firefighters were called to Llorente, Tibás, where an open fire ignited structures. By the time the blaze was ruled under control at 11:20 a.m. eight small homes had been damaged or destroyed. Some 17 adults and 19 children were evicted by the blaze. Fire fighters reported they were able to save many more small homes in the low-income Triángulo de Solidaridad.

Two inmates murdered
in La Reforma melee

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two inmates died and at least seven more suffered knife wounds about 9 a.m. Monday when a riot broke out at the La Reforma prison in San Rafael de Alajuela.

Investigators suspect that the disorder was a cover for the assassination of two inmates, identified by the names of  William Friny and Alberto Lowe.

The Judicial Investigating Organization said that there were about 800 inmates taking the sun in the patio of the 1B wing of the prison when the disorder took place.

The riot appears to have been sparked by an argument that grew to include many others.

The two murdered men were elsewhere in their cell, and it appears that murderers sought them out. They were dead on arrival at the Hospital San Rafael de Alajuela. Two other inmates were hospitalized. Others were treated at the prison.

The Policía Penitenciaria was able to control the situation with the help of the Fuerza Pública, but two men had been stabbed multiple times by then.

Jo Stuart to be speaker

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Jo Stuart, the A.M. Costa Rica columnist and author, will be the speaker at 9:30 a.m. today at the January meeting of the Newcomers women's group.

The meeting will be held at the Centro Cultural Costarricense-Norteamericano in Los Yoses.  Directions are available at 

Find out what the papers
said today in Spanish

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Here is the section where you can scan short summaries from the Spanish-language press. If you want to know more, just click on a link and you will see and longer summary and have the opportunity to read the entire news story on the page of the Spanish-language newspaper but translated into English.

Translations may be a bit rough, but software is improving every day.

When you see the Summary in English of news stories not covered today by A.M. Costa Rica, you will have a chance to comment.

This is a new service of A.M. Costa Rica called Costa Rica Report. Editor is Daniel Woodall, and you can contact him HERE!
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Canadian woman suffers a grim death in Guanacaste
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A Canadian man left on an errand for an hour Wednesday morning only to return to find his wife's burned body on a terrace near their house in the Garita Vieja sector of Santa Cruz in Guanacaste.

The Judicial Investigating Organization reports that when the husband, a Costa Rican resident, returned at 7 a.m. he could not locate his 65-year-old wife in the house so he went looking around the property. Eventually he located her charred corpse approximately 50 meters from the home in a spot used by the couple as a scenic lookout.  She was identified as Hazel Garda,  also a Canadian.
The cause of death and circumstances surrounding the incident are still under investigation,

Judicial police said a gallon of gasoline and matches were found near where the woman died.  She reportedly had burns on her legs and head, they said. Her body is currently undergoing a full autopsy, officials said.

Thus far investigators have not detained any suspects nor are they accusing anyone of foul play. They also reported that it does not appear to be a robbery as nothing was missing from the house.

They have not ruled out an accident or suicide.

Two U.S. citizens face allegations of growing marijuana
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two U.S. citizens have been jailed for three months preventative detention each on suspicion that they were involved in a Pérez Zeledón marijuana cultivation operation.

Judicial agents detained the two men, one 30 and the other 39, in San Luis del Ceibo de Pérez Zeledón Friday. Agents said they confiscated 142 marijuana plants.

The growing operation was in a finca or farm where the plants were cultivated through a hydroponic system, said agents.

The agents confiscated an additional six sacks of marijuana, electric generators, florescent lamps, an electric motor and a quadracycle. The name of the men were not available immediately, but the Poder Judicial probably will release this information today.
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Judicial Investigating Organization photo
Roof sheltered plants from heavy rains.

Light plane mishap causes delays at Juan Santamaría airport
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some operations at Juan Santamaría International airport in San José were delayed temporarily Monday when the wheel of a small plane collapsed shortly after it set down on the runway.

A spokesperson for the Cuerpo de Bomberos reported firefighters at the airport's fire station responded to the alert on the runaway and reach the scene at 10:02 a.m., two minutes after the call for assistance was made.

The compromised wheel threw off the equilibrium of the plane
as it was completing the landing but no fire took place and none of the passengers was injured, the fire agency spokesperson said. Nevertheless the firefighters arrived at the scene prepared with oxygen masks and tanks of a special foam used to extinguish fires that may be caused by combustibles such as jet fuel when water is inadequate.

The runway was cleared again for use by 11:26. It was reported that the closed runaway caused problems or delays for other flights at the airport. The private plane was carrying six passengers, five adults and one child, traveling from Playa Tambor.

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Scuba swimmer with elkhorn coral
University of Georgia/James W. Porter
Researcher collects samples from a stand of elkhorn coral
Human sewage linked to white pox disease in elkhorn coral
By the University of Georgia news service

A research team from Rollins College in Florida and the University of Georgia has identified human sewage as the source of the coral-killing pathogen that causes white pox disease of Caribbean elkhorn coral. Once the most common coral in the Caribbean, elkhorn coral was listed for protection under the U. S. Endangered Species Act in 2006, largely due to white pox disease. The team's findings have just been published in the peer-reviewed open access journal PLoS ONE.

Kathryn P. Sutherland, associate professor of biology at Rollins College, and her research collaborators, Erin K. Lipp and James W. Porter of the University of Georgia, have known since 2002 that the bacterium that killed coral was the same species as found in humans. "When we identified Serratia marcescens as the cause of white pox, we could only speculate that human waste was the source of the pathogen because the bacterium is also found in the waste of other animals," Sutherland said.

In order to determine a source for the pathogen, the research team collected and analyzed human samples from the wastewater treatment facility in Key West and samples from several other animals, such as Key deer and seagulls. While Serratia marcescens was found in these other animals, genetic analyses showed that only the strain from human sewage matched the strain found in white pox diseased corals on the reef. The final piece of the investigative puzzle was to show that this unique strain was pathogenic to corals.

With funding from Florida's Mote Marine Laboratory "Protect Our Reefs" grant program, Ms. Sutherland, Ms. Lipp and Porter conducted experiments by inoculating fragments of coral with the strain found in both humans and corals to see if it would cause disease. The experiments were carried out in a laboratory in closed seawater tanks to eliminate any risk of infection to wild populations of corals.

"The strain caused disease in elkhorn coral in five days, so we now have definitive evidence that humans are a source of the pathogen that causes this devastating disease of corals," Ms. Sutherland said.
"These bacteria do not come from the ocean, they come from us," said Porter. Water-related activities in the Florida Keys generate more than $3 billion a year for Florida and the local economy. "We are killing the goose that lays the golden egg, and we've got the smoking gun to prove it," Porter said.

Serratia marcescens is also a pathogen of humans, causing  respiratory, wound and urinary tract infections, meningitis, and pneumonia. Human diseases caused by this bacterium are most often associated with hospital-acquired infections of newborn infants and immune-compromised adults. This research reveals a new disease pathway, from humans to wildlife, which is the opposite of the traditional wildlife-to-human disease transmission model. The movement of pathogens from wildlife to humans is well documented — for example, bird flu or HIV — but the movement of disease-causing microbes from humans to marine invertebrates has never been shown before. This is the first time that a human disease has been shown to cause population declines of a marine invertebrate.

"Bacteria from humans kill corals. That's the bad news," said Porter. "But the good news is that we can solve this problem with advanced wastewater treatment facilities," like one recently completed in Key West. "This problem is not like hurricanes, which we can't control. We can do something about this one," he said. The entire Florida Keys is in the process of upgrading local wastewater treatment plants, and these measures will eliminate this source of the bacterium.

The Rollins College and University of Georgia collaborative research group is currently funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate the ecology of white pox disease in the Florida Keys. The five-year study will focus on mechanisms of transmission of the coral pathogen and the factors that drive the emergence and maintenance of white pox outbreaks, including water quality, climate variability and patterns of human population density.

"We are concerned that disease incidence or severity may increase with rising temperatures," Ms. Lipp said, "reinforcing the importance of protecting near-shore water quality in a changing climate."

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Medical vacations in Costa Rica

U.S. support for alcohol fuel
expires due to high costs

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The end of 2011 saw the end of billions of dollars in U.S. government support for companies that turn corn into alcohol for motor fuel. That decision marks a big change in U.S. politics.

The tax credit was about half a dollar for every 3.8 liters of ethanol, and cost $6 billion in 2011 at a time when politicians were fighting over the cost of government.

The financial support and a tariff on ethanol imports were intended to bolster the alternative fuel industry more than 30 years ago. Supporters said U.S.-produced ethanol helped reduce dependance on imported oil, and cut air pollution from cars and trucks.

The program was seen as politically invulnerable for years, because Iowa, a major corn producer, plays an important role early in presidential campaigns. Many candidates pledged to support ethanol for fear of losing support in this key early phase of the campaign.

But the expensive tax credits and tariff provisions were allowed to expire at the end of 2011 after critics argued that pollution from corn production outweighed ethanol’s impact on automobile emissions.

Pope Benedict will visit
Cuba in March 26 to 28

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Roman Catholic Church officials say Pope Benedict XVI will be in Cuba March 26 to 28 following a visit to Mexico.

Cuban President Raúl Castro and Catholic clergy will greet Benedict when he arrives in the eastern city of Santiago, where he is expected to celebrate Mass.  The pope is also scheduled to travel to the Cuban capital, Havana, and perform mass in Revolution Square, where thousands turned out to see his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in 1998.

Just after John Paul's visit, Castro's brother, then-president Fidel Castro, declared Cuba a secular state, where the government takes no official stance on religious matters. 

This allowed Cubans greater religious expression in what had been a largely atheistic state.

Last month, Raúl Castro said his government would pardon nearly 3,000 prisoners for humanitarian reasons. The Cuban leader cited Benedict's upcoming visit in making his announcement.

U.S. professor says gifts
undermine the economy

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Americans typically spend $70 billion more in December than in the average of November and January (the months around December).

In a recent National Science Foundation-sponsored interview, Joel Waldfogel, the Carlson School's Frederick R. Kappel professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota uses that increase to measure the amount of holiday gift-giving.

This level of spending is lower than in other countries. "We're about the 20th largest in terms of countries in the world," said Waldfogel, referencing how much U.S. December spending increases.

Waldfogel is the author of “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays.” He notes that even though the U.S. economy has grown since the turn of the last century, the amount of U.S. spending in December, relative to November and January, has not kept pace with that growth. The extra spending in December is less as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product than it has been at any time over the last 75 years.

He makes an additional point that the impact of this spending is even smaller if measured by the satisfaction it produces. The reason, he said, is simple: "The problem with gift giving is that somebody is going out and spending $100 on someone else and if the giver does not know exactly what the recipient wants, it is possible for the giver to spend $100 and buy something the recipient would only be willing to pay $50 or perhaps nothing for."

This type of gift giving, said Waldfogel, undermines economically efficient choices. "Whatever amount of spending occurs, it results in less satisfaction than could have occurred if people bought stuff for themselves," which, he claims, results in the loss of billions of dollars in economic value to the overall economy.

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coke in shampoo
Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía
y Seguridad Pública photo
Agent displays white powder inside shampoo bottle.

Two snagged at airport
on drug trafficking charges

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

In the past few months drug smugglers at Juan Santamaría airport have tried to hide illicit goods in suitcases, horse saddles, pockets and body orifices. This time it was shampoo, conditioner and a secret luggage compartment.

The Policía de Control de Drogas detained two foreigners, one Cuban and the other Austrian, in Juan Santamaría airport over the weekend on allegations that they attempted to take cocaine out of the country. Both were headed for Spain.

The Austrian man, identified with the last names of Gartner Franz, 42, was caught with shampoo and conditioner bottles each containing what police said were small bags of white powder officials determined to be cocaine. He had entered the country Dec. 1 and was attempting to leave Thursday.

The Cuban man, identified by officials with the last names of Herrera Cruz, 33, was apprehended when it was discovered that his suitcase had a double compartment, one of which contained what police said were 227 grams of cocaine. He had entered the country Sept. 30.

The latest suspects marked for drug officials at airports and the borders the last arrests of 2011. At Juan Santamaría alone agents reportedly detained 35 persons attempting to transport drugs. Of the detainees, 32 were foreigners and three were Costa Rican.

In the Liberia international airport, Daniel Oduber, two passengers this past year were detained in an attempt to smuggle drugs through checkpoints. Both were males and foreigners.

The most common mode of transportation of those caught attempting to do so in the airport was using some sort of luggage to conceal the drug, but officials report that nine of the detainees used their bodies as a means of transport. International drug transporters can spend years in jail if convicted.

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