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(506) 223-1327         Published  Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008, in Vol. 8, No. 7             E-mail us
Jo Stuart
Real Estate
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It's $36 for the first minute of a New York call
Pact with ICE allows U.S. phone firm to skin callers

By Elise Sonray
and the A.M. Costa Rica staff

When a tourist uses a credit card to make an international call at one of those funny looking telephones at about 400 hotels here, everybody wins. Except the tourist.

The hotel gets $7.

The Costa Rican phone company gets paid, too.

And the owner of the phone, BBG Communications of San Diego, California, gets a payday that may run into the hundreds of dollars.

Another big winner is the Galicot family, said to be one of the richest in Tijuana, México. Family members appear to own and manage the company as well as a more conventional phone service in México, G-Tel. Most company officials would not respond to questions.

BBG Communications has managed to accrue at least 800 complaints since 1996 at the San Diego Better Business Bureau. Not all are from Costa Rica. The company places its funny looking phones all over the world where tourists travel as well as in hotels rooms around the country.

“BBG Communications is a company of extraordinary concern for the better business bureau,” said Sheryl Bilbrey, president of the bureau in San Diego. "BBG seriously overcharges customers and they are reluctant to do anything about complaints," said Ms. Bilbrey. Bilbrey said customers at times are forced to use the services of BBG, and some say they never even used the services at all. Most complaints are international, but the bureau has received some complaints from within the United States as well.

Ms. Bilbrey said one of the major concerns the bureau has had with BBG is their untimely and static responses to customers' complaints.

“We take every complaint seriously,” said Christina Rodríguez, corporate counsel for BBG Communications.  She said, “once in a while” customers are not satisfied with the services, and BBG handles these complaints in a timely manner. Ms. Rodríguez said that over the years “we have improved a lot,” and that BBG is now working with the better business bureau and is able to respond quickly to complaints because of their "automated voice system."

She declined to say who owned the private company.

The company says on its telephones that it will give rate information to callers, but sometimes operators require a credit card number before doing so. A company employee eventually yielded the information Wednesday that a call to either New York City or Anchorage, Alaska, would be $36 for the first minute.

The service works closely with the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, the phone company known as ICE, via a contract signed in 2001. The company maintains the telephones and service personnel here, but one employee said that the firm pays no taxes in Costa Rica.

In fact, the man with the BBG e-mail address bragged on a complaints Internet board that the
bbg telephone
A.M. Costa Rica/Anne Clark
BBG telephone stands ready to charge $36 for the first minute of a call to New York.

company had the help of highly placed government officials to set up the operations.

What does BBG do? It appears that the company's sole function is to handle credit card calls to international locations. ICE abdicated that responsibility in the original contract.

The contract does not identify BBG Communications as being registered as a foreign corporation in Costa Rica, something many firms do to have a legal presence here. The contract was negotiated during the presidency of Miguel Ángel Rodríguez who is already facing corruption charges for unrelated deals made by the phone company.

Dunn & Bradstreet, the U.S. credit agency, estimates that BBG Communications takes in more than $3 million a year.

San Diego newspapers only now are beginning to look into the question of why the firm has so many complaints.

Costa Rican officials have been reluctant to provide information on the contract. Only recently ICE provided a copy of the contract. The contract was made without competitive bidding, said an ICE spokesperson.

In Costa Rica, what BBG is doing is legal said an engineer from the Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Publicos in Costa Rica. ICE has full capability to provide these services, he said, but they don't want to deal with the hassle of the credit cards and complaints. ICE gets the money from each call and each minute no matter what, so they prefer to work with BBG rather than handle it themselves, he said. The authority only sets rates between the local telephones and ICE, he said.

José Pablo Ramírez Vindas contributed to this report.

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Government officials to meet
to consider wave of crimes

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Government officials are holding another high-level meeting on how to fight crime.

Casa Presidencial said that President Óscar Arias Sánchez has called the meeting for 3 p.m. today.

Laura Chinchilla, the minister of Justicia as well as the country's vice president, has been invited. So has Fernando Berrocal, the security minister.

Arias also has invited Luis Paulino Mora, president of the Corte Suprema de la Justicia, and Francisco Dall´Anese, the nation's chief prosecutor.

The director of the Judicial Investigating Organization, Jorge Rojas, also has been invited. He has been on a campaign to crack down on crooks with longer jail sentences since he announced his retirement. He said his 1,000 judicial agents cannot keep up with the work generated by the massive number of crimes.

Although officials did not say so, one impetus for the meeting is the home invasion at the residence of the parents of the foreign minister over the Christmas holidays. That was in San Antonio de Escazú. Several other ministers have been robbed recently.

Ms. Chinchilla already has announced a program to provide sports equipment to youngsters in the hopes that they would not turn to crime.

Although San José street crime has diminished, thanks to police efforts directed by Berrocal, home invasions take place at a rate of about one a night in the metropolitan area.

Arias will consider study
of merging state banks

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Óscar Arias Sánchez said Wednesday that he would create a high-level commission to study the possible advantages and disadvantages of a merger of the public banks.

That was the outcome of a meeting with heads of the state banks at Casa Presidencial. The banks already are planning to merge some of their services to avoid duplication, particularly in the technological area. Also planned is the creation of a free-standing corporation to do such things as run the fleet of armored cars.

State banks are coming under increased pressure because of the major international private institutions that have entered the country.

Postal services says Jan. 31
is deadline for mailboxes

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Correos de Costa Rica, the postal service, is collecting the annual fee for mailboxes through Jan. 31.

Some 61,000 postal boxes are in use in the country at one of the 121 postal branches, the post office said.

The annual fee in the metropolitan area is 5,400 colons, a bit more than $10. But if this is not paid by Jan. 31, there is a surcharge of 50 percent, the postal service said. Also available are large postal boxes for a higher fee.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 7

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Yale management students use Costa Rica as a classroom
By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A group of America's young intellectual elite have come to Costa Rica to learn about sustainable management strategies for tourism and to formulate ideas about what Ticos and expats could be doing better.

The 20 management students from America's Yale University are halfway through a 10-day tour around the country, visiting beach resorts, eco-lodges, banana plantations, and occasionally attending a lecture or two.

As part of the international experience component of a new curriculum introduced last year, all 180 first-year students on the MBA program of the Yale School of Management have been sent to various corners of the globe to learn about business on a worldwide scale.

Although they admit that their first few days in Guanacaste were more like a holiday, lectures at the Instituto Centroamericano de Administración de Empresas Tuesday gave them a framework to think about issues such as foreign direct investment and the diversity of tourism within Costa Rica.

“This program is relevant because we need to be able to work within a globalized economy and understand how businesses are run outside the U.S.A.,” said Chris Larson, who attended Cornell University and was the executive director of a conservation non-profit in California before deciding to take a graduate program at Yale.

Most of the participants chose Costa Rica instead of one of the other seven destinations on offer because of its unique environmental considerations.

“I was interested to learn about how Costa Rica maintains the local environment while creating business opportunities,” said Erin Wirpsa, who previously attended Notre Dame University and worked for four years at the Boston Children's Museum. “We have already seen many contrasts with business in the U.S.A. It seems to me that in Costa Rica there is more emphasis on business serving society and helping to foster social development.”

A similar tour of Costa Rica took place last year, and the itinerary has been updated according to those experiences.
Tamarindo has been added as an example of developed tourism, providing a sharp contrast in context and clientèle to the Palos Verde field stations.

“The diverse tourism in Costa Rica affects local communities in different ways.” Larson said. “On one hand a cruise ship might drop its passengers for one day, and they might buy a souvenir spoon — they hardly bring any revenue into the country. On the other hand, ecolodges spend a lot of money on local products and staff, and work with the environment in a sustainable way. We have been talking about right and wrong ways to do tourism.”

Other groups of students were sent to countries such as South Africa, Romania, Israel, Japan and China. The countries are at different stages of development and of interest for different reasons, for example as a financial center or as an emerging market.

“Costa Rica can't really be defined by a term like that,” Larson added. “It's difficult to classify because on one hand you have a higher rate of literacy than in some Western countries, then on the other there are huge problems with infrastructure. In what other country can you drive out of a state-of-the-art hospital with an MRI machine and immediately drive over a pothole that's been there for 10 years?”

Criticisms of Costa Rica's tourism management mainly centered on real estate, such as the “haphazard” construction in beach towns like Tamarindo.

“I would love to see Costa Rica set forth standards for sustainably designed buildings,” said Ms. Wirpsa. “This could include methods of energy saving such as reclaiming gray water, and making everything from carpeting to concrete and steel out of recycled material. The country could also use better methods for conserving water in tourist destinations, such as recycling rainwater.”

The tour is led by Garry Brewer, professor of resource policy and management at the New Haven, Connecticut, institution.

Students will share the knowledge they have gained with the groups who traveled to different destinations in order to gain a more integrated understanding of management, and bridge gaps between the different focuses of the course.

Tourism professionals invite entries into a photo contest with $1,000 cash prizes
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The association of tourism professionals is hosting a photography contest open to the public.  The organization is attempting to gather social, architectural, tourism, landscape and folklore images under the broad heading of “tourism and sustainable development.” 

Submissions are divided into amateur and professional photographers, with the latter required to submit a brief resume, citing past experience.  Each submitted image is required to be printed at 5 by 7 inches.  Participants must also provide a CD holding the images in JPEG format with a minimum resolution of 300 dots per inch, a general information sheet stating artists' name, telephone, e-mail, title of work and category the work is submitted under. 

Participants can submit up to three photographs, with each one accompanied by a description of the image and location
where it was taken.  The images must be original, unpublished, digitally unaltered and taken in Costa Rica.  Photo montages and photos taken outside of Costa Rica will not be accepted and all images of people must be accompanied with a consent form, said the organization, the Asociación Costarricense de Profesionales en Turismo. 

Submission opened last month and is running through Feb. 1.

The best photographs in three different subject groups for the two separate categories will be awarded $1,000.  Photographs can be submitted at the association offices in Los Yoses, San Pedro, end of Avenida 10, Calle 47.  The office is open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Telephone: 280-5375.

Documents must be labeled: Primer Concurso de Fotografía ACOPROT, said the contest rules.

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New attempt being mounted to free hostages held by rebels
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Colombia's government has approved a new attempt by Venezuela to pick up two hostages held by leftist rebels in the Colombian jungle. Venezuela's president says he has received instructions from rebels about the hostages' location.

Colombia's government responded quickly to the Venezuelan request to pick up the two hostages, former Colombian vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas, and former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez. Rebels of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia have held the women in secret jungle camps for more than five years.

Colombia's peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, said officials would provide all necessary guarantees to ensure the mission's success.

Restrepo said there is strong cooperation between the Colombian and Venezuelan governments, and both sides are working on operational details to complete the recovery.
Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross are to oversee the mission which is expected to begin Thursday.

In Caracas, President Hugo Chávez announced the new effort, saying he had finally received information from rebel leaders about the hostages' location. He said he hopes the two women will be freed in coming hours, and he hopes sometime soon all people being held in Colombia will be released.

Last month, Chávez sent aircraft carrying a team of international dignitaries to Colombia to pick up the two women, as well as the son of Rojas, who was born in captivity. The effort fell apart after rebel leaders failed to relay the location of the hostages, saying it was too dangerous because of Colombian military activities.

Colombian officials later confirmed that rebels had not been holding the young boy as they claimed. They said DNA testing proved the boy had been freed more than two years ago and was living in a foster home in Bogota.

Philip Agee, former CIA spy, reported to have died in Cuba
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Cuban state media report that former CIA agent Philip Agee, who caused outrage by naming undercover former colleagues, has died in Cuba at 72.

Agee died Monday following what are described as ulcer surgeries. The Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma described Agee as "a loyal friend of Cuba and fervent defender of the peoples' fight for a better world."
Agee quit the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the late 1960s after 12 years of working mostly in Latin America.

He later wrote the book "Inside the Company: CIA Diary," which included the names of certain undercover agents.

The book infuriated U.S. officials who said it put those agents in danger, and the U.S. government revoked Agee's passport. Agee moved around Europe for several years before settling in Cuba.

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