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(506) 2223-1327        Published Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 5       E-mail us
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Country jolted by major quake
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
(Posted at 2:05 p.m. and updated at 3:55 p.m.)
A 6.2 magnitude earthquake hit north of the Central Valley this afternoon at 1:21 p.m. and set streets and buildings in motion. There were injuries, and in the late afternoon two children and an adult woman were reported to have died.

The quake endured for at least 20 seconds and was followed by a number of aftershocks, some of which were felt. The shocks continued past 3 p.m. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of San José. the exact estimated coordinates were 10.22 degrees north and 84.28 degrees west, said the survey. The event was estimated to be 28 kilometers (about 17 miles) deep.

The Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica said the quake happened about 6 kilometers east of Volcán Poás, about four miles, but experts dismissed the idea that the event had any relation to volcanic activity.

The Cruz Roja in Alajuela said there was at least one death and injuries in that province and that some buildings had suffered damage. The epicenter appeared to be in east central part of the province north of the city of the same name. The child died in Poás de Alajuela, according to the Cruz Roja. The cause was a quake-provoked landslide, they said.

There were no details on the second reported child death, although that is believed to have happened in the same general area. The woman died of a heart attack, said the emergency commission.

The quake followed a 4.6 mid-morning quake off the coast of Nicaragua and one Wednesday near the Poás volcano, not far from today's quake.

The afternoon quake was felt all over Costa Rica. The Arenal automatic earthquake showed that the quake lasted an incredible six minutes there. Many other automatic stations were off line when the quake hit.

Both major television stations interrupted regular programming with bulletins, but information was a long time in coming. Stations had internal monitor footage of the quake rattling their facilities. The quake hit in the middle of afternoon news shows.

A reporter said that a street in northeast San José visibly cupped and rocked back and forth for the
display printout
This is the seismographic display from the automatic monitoring station near Volcán Arenal. The initial quake is in red, and the other, smaller marks are aftershocks.

duration of the quake. Elsewhere, occupants poured out of office buildings. There were some reports of falling objects and cracks in buildings, but Fuerza Pública  officers said they had had no calls in the San José area.  The national emergency  commission declared a red alert in the four central provinces of San José, Heredia, Alajeula and Cartago.

Many workers declined to reenter their workplaces for fear of more damage from aftershocks. An attitude of carnival developed in some areas. Several structures, including Hospital México in San José and Centro Colón in the downtown are believed to have suffered damage to the upper floors.

A crack appeared in the exterior walls of an office building downtown occupied by the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad.

A Desamparados resident south of San José said the floor of her home cracked and that the concrete sink used for washing clothes in a neighbor's home collapsed.

The main highway, Ruta 32, between San José and Guápiles was reported closed with motorists stranded between slides. A bus from the Caribbean was trapped, too.

Some English students visiting the Poás volcano were reported safe in the late afternoon after having lost contact for hours. Telephone lines were swamped.


Cloudy real estate market not seen as a fire sale
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Those in the business are quick to say the Costa Rican real estate markets to emphasize that there are no universal truths to the current economy.

Discussions with representative brokers and a lender suggest that Costa Rican real estate has not been hit as hard as some think by the world situation. But the specific location in Costa Rica is a key factor.

There is a steady influx of buyers looking for bargains, but not a lot of fire sale prices have hit the market. The watchword is yet because few think they can make good predictions with the information they now have, particularly since the holiday season has interjected a unique two weeks into the calculations.

Some impressions:

• Sales in the Central Valley and San José area are slow but steady. Prices may have come down slightly.

• The rental market is stronger, perhaps due to the lack of credit to purchase a home or because owners can rent as an option to selling.

• Anyone who does not really have to sell is sitting tight. Some expats choose renting to await clear signs of the direction of the real estate market.

• High end properties with sales prices in the millions of dollars are the least affected by any real estate slowdown. Still there may have been slight reductions even in this premium market.

• Sales in specific beach communities like Tamarindo and Jacó are off from 20 to 30 percent although few development companies are cutting their asking prices.

• Some individual sellers who must sell or a few cash-poor investors who hold highly leveraged properties, particularly in beach areas, are offering fire sale prices just to move their properties.

• The real estate market is tied closely to the tourism market, and tourism income seems to be much lower than tourism numbers because of mass travel marketers driving down the prices.

• Everyone in business worries about possible terrorist activities that might cause dislocation of tourism or buyers.

• The southern zone is a separate market with few properties for sale. Promise of an international airport and improvements on the Costanera Sur fuel a warmer real estate market.

Marc Schweitzer, president of Costa Rica Mortgage S.A. in Escazú said he thinks Florida has become a competitor to Costa Rica. "Bourgeois U.S. buyers looking for a place in the sun can buy two units in Florida for the price of one in Guanacaste these days," he said. 

For Bruce Wood of Costa Rica Realty One in San José the carrying cost of real estate here is lower, and the financial pressure on owners is not as great.

"It seems the average seller, most who paid cash or made large down payments on loans, are willing and able to wait for a buyer as their holding costs are so low as compared to the U.S. (i.e. property taxes, etc.) There are some exceptions to this, mainly in the beach areas  where many buyers were speculators who took some larger risks."

For a long time Costa Rican real estate suffered from the effects of stagnant property sales in the
turtle time for real estate
A.M. Costa Rica graphic

United States.  The theory was that individuals who make big profits on property sales there would invest in Costa Rica.  That's why some real estate brokers are terrified at the wave of defaults and foreclosures in the United States.

Some brokers here, like Roma Vargas of Casa Bruno Real Estate in Guadalupe, have increased their activities in rentals.

"We have been experiencing a considerable growth in clients looking for rentals, maybe as a result of the lack of credit from the national banking system which is not available yet," Broker Vargas said Wednesday. "Today we consulted several private banks, and most of them informed that they probably will start offering credit again . . .  next month. Others prefer to rent now and wait to buy later."

For Wood, the lack of development credit has an up side: "With the problems in the U.S. and, even more, the lack of lending by Costa Rican banks, a lot of projects have been put on hold or canceled, so I think we will not have the excessive inventory problems seen in the U.S. in the Central Valley and Central Pacific. As to Guanacaste, I understand prices are dropping and there is a large inventory, so they probably will take a while to recover."

The Óscar Arias Sánchez administration in December directed $117 million to three national banks to increase their flexibility in making loans, but a lot of the money went to commercial borrowers.

Costa Rica Mortgage's Schweitzer, following on the thinking of vice president-elect Joe Biden, said that a U.S. terrorist attack might actually help Costa Rica. Biden has suggested that Mideast terrorists might seek to test Barack Obama during the early days of his presidential term.

"If he and I are correct and Hamas/Al Qaeda wreak some havoc in the Northeast, the C.R. market will boom like never before," said Schweitzer.
 
The free trade treaty with the United States and an aggressive U.S. campaign by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo also are positive events, according to the Casa Bruno owner, Ms. Vargas.
"They are mainly tourists of high educational level, retired people, interested in country estates and ecological places to enjoy life," she added.

Many cautious middle income Costa Ricans have dropped out of the real estate market, according to the agencies that provide government loans for this segment of the market. Many Ticos are seeking information about loans, but few are making a financial commitment, the agencies said.

Those who are about to build are lucky, because the prices of construction products, like rebar and cinderblocks, have come down 20 to 30 percent over what was charged during the construction boom.




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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 5

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4815-5/24/09
High court rips practices
of two local banking entities


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two banks got a legal spanking by the Sala IV constitutional court in decisions released Wednesday.

Magistrates criticized BAC San José for an abuse of power in arbitrarily closing a commercial customer's checking accounts.

Banco Popular was blamed for reporting a loan customer as being in default even though he had paid off the debt.

In the BAC case the bank sent letters to a firm saying that it would be closing the checking accounts. The administration of the firm sent a reply asking why, but the bank never replied, said the summary of the case issued by the Poder Judicial.

The court said that the firm was not allowed to exercise its power of self defense and was not given due process. The bank was ordered to pay costs and damages.

In the Banco Popular case, the summary said that the borrower came into some money after taking out a 5 million-colon mortgage and paid off the loan. Nevertheless, the next time he sought another loan, the bank said he was in serious default and that he had been reported to the  Superintendencia de Entidades Financieras. Although he tried to have his problem resolved at the bank, no one there was able to do it, said the decision.

Earthquake rattles homes
in vicinity of Volcán Poás

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A 4.0 magnitude earthquake struck at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the vicinity of Volcán Poás and was felt in varying degrees in much of the country.

The epicenter was about 6 kilometers east of the volcano, some four miles. A local fault got the blame from the Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica.

The proximity to the volcano caused some concern among neighbors who thought that the volcano might be becoming more active. Some pictures and dishes were thrown to the floor in the area.

Friendly robbers worked
near driver testing site


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A band of robbers has been befriending victims at the driver's examination center in Paso Ancho and then taking their belongings.

Investigators attributed up to four robberies a day to the band. Two men, 17 and 26, were detained Tuesday, said investigators. One man was detained Wednesday. Agents expect more arrests.

The facility operated by the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes is where individuals go to take a written and a practical driving test. The offices are several hundred feet from the main highway, and the robbers used to contact their victims in that area and offer to help them with paperwork.

After winning the victim's confidence, the robbers would accompany them to the highway and then rob them, said investigators. The two persons detained Tuesday face at least five complaints, agents said. They would be put in a lineup so that victims could make identifications, agents said.

Two men found dead
 in Cartago apartment


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two men presumed involved in the drug trade died of gunshot wounds in an apartment in downtown Cartago Wednesday.

One had the last name of Marín and was 24 years old. The second man had the name of Arias and was 41, said the Judicial Investigating Organization. Investigators found marijuana and cocaine packaged for sale in the apartment and in a vehicle parked outside the building.

Arias suffered a bullet wound to the back of his neck. Marín died from a bullet over the right eye, agents said.

Investigators are considering the possibilities of a murder-suicide or a double murder. A .25-caliber pistol was found at the scene.

Headset battery recalled
because of possible short


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The consumer section of the economics ministry has issued a warning about dangerous batteries in certain wireless headsets. These are the headsets frequently used in office settings and in call centers.

The suspect batteries are of the lithium-ion type from ATL (ATL P/N 603028) used in GN9120 wireless headsets and sold from January 2005 through September 2008, said the ministry.

These lithium-ion polymer batteries can overheat due to an internal short circuit in the batteries, which can pose a fire hazard, said the manufacturer, Jabra.

A Web page has been set up to specify the recalled batteries and to show consumers how to make a replacement.

The local recall notice came from the Dirección de Apoyo al Consumidor of the Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Comercio.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 5


The ornate Correos building is from another time with its intricate decorations and creative architecture. The building houses 15,000 postal boxes, a commemorative stamp sales office, postal windows, package pickup and a postal museum as well as administrative offices.
post office building
A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas


Downtown Correos landmark about to get a makeover
By José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

When you are pushing 100 years, a few cracks and weaknesses are expected, especially if you are the main post office building downtown.

The symbol of a slow life in pre-World War I 20th century will need 100 million colons, about $180,000, in repairs just for the exterior. The money will come from the Salvemos nuestro patrimonio arquetectonico program of the Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes.

Sergio Arguedas of the firm Consultécnica is the architect in charge of the design and the execution of the restoration of the building's facade. No big changes are expected.

Arguedas said that the job mostly will be in fixing the many cracks, reconstructing damaged sections and painting the facade with a color different than the current institutional green.

At the same time the postal service, the Correos de Costa Rica, has plans to refurbish the interior of the building, which was built between 1914 and 1917. That job will cost about 300 million colons, said Arguedas. That's about $540,000.

The architect said that the starting date still has not been
Post Office boxes and damage
A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
Some of the postal boxes and a damaged column

determined because the job still is being advertised for bids. But he estimated that the work would take about four to six months.

The building gets at least 1,000 visitors a day, and it hosts 15,000 postal boxes. It is immediately east of the main Banco Nacional de Costa Rica skyscraper and faces a small park and the Club Union building between Avenida Central and Avenida 1. A spokesperson for Correos, Ileana Sandí Corrales, said that the building probably would be closed during some of the work.


Rights group rebuts academics over critical report on Chávez
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

More than 100 scholars and experts on Latin America, including Noam Chomsky of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have sent a critical letter to Human Rights Watch on that organization’s highly critical report on the human rights situation in Venezuela and the conduct of its president, Hugo Chávez.

In reply, the New York-based Human Rights Watch has issued a point-by-point rebuttal.

Human Rights Watch and the initial report's lead author José Miguel Vivanco published a grossly flawed report and acknowledged a political motivation in doing so, and Mr. Vivanco has undermined the credibility of an important human rights organization,” the Dec. 16 letter from the academics said.

Human Rights Watch published  "A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela." Vivanco, a Chilean and Latin American director of the organization, and a colleague were expelled from Venezuela Sept. 18 after they tried to give a press conference outlining the major points of the report.

The letter from the academics said that the report makes sweeping allegations that are not backed up by supporting facts or in some cases even logical arguments.

The academics said that the report relied on opposition sources like the newspapers El Universal and El Nacional or Súmate, and that "these sources have engaged in enough fabrications as to make them unreliable sources for factual material." Súmate is a Venezuelan non-governmental volunteer organization.

The academics asked that the report be withdrawn and
revised. Gregory Wilpert, adjunct professor of political science at Brooklyn College, was one of three authors of the academics' letter. He publishes  Venezuelanalysis.com.

Chávez has been characterized elsewhere as an authoritarian figure who is using his country's oil wealth to hold his political position and to counter the United States influence in the region.

The Human Rights Watch rebuttal, which became available Wednesday, if true, raises serious questions about the scholarship of those who signed the original letter.  It also shows significant pro-Chávez sentiment on U.S. campuses and elsewhere. Said Human Rights Watch:

"After a careful review, we have found that the allegations in your letter do not stand up to scrutiny. The issues covered in our report have been thoroughly researched and the substantive findings are based on a wide range of diverse and credible sources. In seeking to prove otherwise, you have misrepresented both the substance and the source material of the report. You have criticized us for making arguments that we have not made. You have taken our words out of context . . .  and distorted their meanings in order to make your points."

The letter was signed by Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch executive director. He noted that the report had 754 footnotes.

Chavez is trying to institute a socialist revolution in Venezuela and he has forged a loose alliance with Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador. He also is a disciple of Fidel Castro and friendly with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, All, of course, are hostile to the United States.

Chávez also is the darling of the U.S. left because of his opposition to President George Bush.


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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 5


Press groups condemn grenade attack on México TV station
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Press freedom groups are condemning an attack on a television station in northern Mexico and demanding a quick and thorough investigation of the incident.

Tuesday, masked gunmen in two pickup trucks threw a grenade and opened fire on the studio of the Televisa network in Monterrey. No one was injured, but the attackers left behind a note warning the station about its coverage of drug gangs.

The Inter American Press Association issued a statement Wednesday, saying it is clear that organized crime keeps sending such messages to generate fear and force the news media and individual journalists to resort to self-censorship.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the attack shows organized crime is targeting Mexico's local media.
The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Mexico one of the world's deadliest nations for journalists, with 21 killed since 2000. It says drug traffickers are thought to be behind most of the slayings.

Drug-related violence in Mexico claimed more than 5,000 lives in 2008.

In a report last year, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said there is mounting evidence that local officials have punished journalists who report on the alleged links between government officials and drug gangs.

The report said seven journalists have disappeared in Mexico since 2005 and many of them were in the process of investigating relationships between the government and organized crime. It said relatives and colleagues of several missing journalists said they believed local public officials played a role in the disappearances.


Colombian terror group says it plans to release six hostages
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The Colombian leftist terrorist group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, said it is willing to hand over six hostages but that it will only do so in the presence of an international representative.

In a statement made public Wednesday, the Fuerzas Armadas said it wants someone from either a "brother country" or the international community to be present when it frees the hostages.

Both the Fuerzas Armadas and the Colombian government say they will let someone from the International Committee of the Red Cross be on hand for the hostage release.  But Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has said he does not want any other international participation.
The rebel group has pledged to release two politicians — including Alan Jara, who is a former governor held since 2001 — along with three police officers and a soldier.

The Fuerzas Armadas has said it would deliver the hostages to Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian opposition senator. Cordoba has been involved in previous efforts to secure the release of hostages held in jungle hideouts.

In July, the Fuerzas Armadas was dealt a blow when a military operation freed 15 of its hostages, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans, without a shot being fired.

The hostages were airlifted to safety by Colombian soldiers posing as fellow fighters who were assigned to move the prisoners.


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A.M. Costa Rica

users guide


This is a brief users guide to A.M. Costa Rica.

Old pages

Each day someone complains via e-mail that the newspages are from yesterday or the day before. A.M. Costa Rica staffers check every page and every link when the newspaper is made available at 2 a.m. each week day.

So the problem is with the browser in each reader's computer. Particularly when the connection with the  server is slow, a computer will look to the latest page in its internal memory and serve up that page.

Readers should refresh the page and, if necessary, dump the cache of their computer, if this problem persists. Readers in Costa Rica have this problem frequently because the local Internet provider has continual problems.

Searching

The A.M. Costa Rica search page has a list of all previous editions by date and a space to search for specific words and phrases. The search will return links to archived pages.

Newspages

A typical edition will consist of a front page and four other newspages. Each of these pages can be reached by links near the top and bottom of the pages.

Classifieds

Five classified pages are updated daily. Employment listings are free, as are listings for accommodations wanted, articles for sale and articles wanted. The tourism page and the real estate sales and real estate rentals are updated daily.

Advertising information

A summary of advertising rates and sizes are available for display and classifieds.

Statistics

A.M. Costa Rica makes its monthly statistics available to advertisers and readers. It is HERE! 

Contacting us

Both the main telephone number and the editor's e-mail address are listed on the front page near the date.

Visiting us

Directions to our office and other data, like bank account numbers are on the about us page.


Freedom organization calls
for end of Cuba travel ban


Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The United States should reinvigorate efforts to advance human rights and democracy in Cuba by lifting of U.S. legal restrictions on American citizen travel to the island, the organization Freedom House said Wednesday.

Cuba has consistently received either the lowest or second-lowest ratings on political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House since it first began publishing the global Freedom in the World survey in 1972, the organization noted.  Cuba’s citizens are denied most fundamental rights, including the right to elect their government, participate in political opposition, freely express their views, demonstrate, participate in trade unions, own property, travel, or access information free of government control, freedom House said.  Since Raúl Castro succeeded his brother as leader of Cuba, some nominal reforms have been announced, though their impact on the lives of Cubans remains negligible, it added.

“Cuba remains one of the most repressive countries in the world,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House.  “It is well past time to reassess a policy that impedes the ability of American citizens to freely interact with Cubans on a large scale and thus expose them to unfettered information about the outside world.  We call on the incoming administration of Barack Obama to reexamine the embargo and to immediately lift the restrictions on remittances and travel to and from the island.”

The United States first began introducing economic sanctions against Cuba in 1960 following that government’s seizure without compensation of U.S. assets on the island.  Current U.S. sanctions, which strictly limit trade with Cuba to cash-only sales of U.S. farm products and medical supplies, are unique to all other U.S. sanction policies in that they also prohibit U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba unless they obtain a U.S. government waiver. 

“While the Bush administration expanded American support for democracy activists in Cuba, U.S. policy would be even more effective if Americans were allowed to engage more freely with Cuban counterparts,” Ms. Windsor continued.  “Those countries that have moved from dictatorship to democracy in recent decades have done so in large part because of the movement of people and ideas across borders.”

The United States does not impose similarly restrictive travel sanctions on Americans to other regimes that receive Freedom House’s lowest freedom ratings, including Burma, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, Freedom House added.

In fact, many U.S. citizens do travel to Cuba via México and even Costa Rica. But a visible few suffer sanctions when they return home.

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