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(506) 223-1327         Published Monday, Jan. 21, 2008, in Vol. 8, No. 14             E-mail us
Jo Stuart
Real Estate
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An A.M. Costa Rica editorial
Hotels using private phone link need to reconsider
By Jay Brodell
editor of A.M. Costa Rica

BBG Communications Inc. is a big company with interests all over the world.

The company seems to charge rates that are disproportionate to the services it provides.

Because the company is on the crest of globalization, we cannot tell if what it is doing is illegal. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors at its base in San Diego, California, are reluctant to look into the firm's operations.

The actions that generate complaints, telephone calls using credit cards, take place in foreign countries, and some of the customers only become unhappy when they finally see their bill.

What the company does may not be illegal, but in our opinion it is immoral. We think that officers of a firm that charges $36 for the first minute of a phone call need a refresher course in the 10 Commandments.

Considering the condition of the Costa Rican judicial system, any kind of effort to help 
victimized credit card users is unlikely. There are some honest individuals in branches of the Costa Rican government who are sincerely embarrassed by a six-year-old deal with BBG.

However, we could not find any embarrassed individuals within the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, the telephone company, that entered into such a sweetheart contract with BBG. Poor old ICE, the communications monopoly, just didn't want to be bothered handling credit card calls.

So it lets BBG use its lines and charge outrageous rates. After all, the suckers are just tourists, right?

But there is another group facilitating this process. And that group is the 400 or so hotels and B&Bs who have subscribed to the BBG service. In exchange, they each get $7 for every call that comes from their establishment, according to the news stories by Elise Sonray.

The list provided by ICE reads like a who's who of Costa Rican hotels: Barceló, Tabacon, La Condesa, Best Western, Meliá, Tamarino Diriá.

Do they really need this money that badly?

BBG just continues raking in the tourist cash
By Elise Sonray
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Consumers continue to complain about BBG Communications Inc.. The company has levied what customers consider excessive charges in Costa Rica, México, Germany.

The unhappy customers contacted A.M. Costa Rica because of articles written Jan. 10 and Jan. 11 about the San Diego, California-based firm.
The private international company operates phones in hotels and airports around the world as well as at about 400 Costa Rican establishments, which get $7 for each call, according to documents provided by the Costa Rican government.

Since 1996 over 800 complaints have been filed with the Better Business Bureau of San Diego, for what many call outrageous prices. A hotel operator quoted a reporter $36 for the first minute of a San José-New York call.

Ingrid Hartman said she bought an international phone card so she could check in on her children while on vacation in México. When she tried to use the card, an operator informed her that she could not but must dial another 800-number and use her credit card. Ms. Hartman did as she was told. She attempted to call the United States four times.

“All I got was dead air,” she said. Once she was connected to a voice mail and when she finally got through to her mother she only talked for 7 to 10 minutes, said Ms. Hartman. “I told my mother "Call me back at this number" because I knew the call might be expensive.”

She was staying at Puerto Real Playa del Carmen, a four-star hotel in Mexico. When she got back home, the bill on her credit card was for $251.
 BBG Communications charged her six times: about $42 for each attempted call. Unlike, many clients, Ms. Hartman eventually got her money back. She said she was told by Noemi Olmos, manager of BBG, “infrequently we receive cases like yours.” Ms. Hartman said if she had known the rates, she wouldn't have made the call.

Many others however, did not receive a penny back they say. 

One such customer wrote, “We made two 10-minute phone calls in Costa Rica, $100 each. We have contacted the company that we booked it through Anywhere Costa Rica and the hotels. The booking agency seemed surprised that it cost so much, and they will be contacting the hotel.”

Another wrote, “My wife made three long-distance calls on Dec. 27 from a B&B in Alajuela.  She didn't talk to anyone on the calls, just left messages on answering machines, so each call was less than one-minute each.  The charge to our credit card for three one-minute calls, $125.74.”

Another customer said he used a phone in the Munich, Germany, airport. “They charged me $50 for a five- minute conversation but the actual conversation was less than one minute long. When I spoke with their representative, he said that five minutes duration is their minimum. There were no announcements about rates and minimum duration before the actual connection.”

The contract between BBG and the Costa Rican phone company says that the service “permits foreign tourists to make calls to any part of the world, charging the cost to the credit card given by the foreigner.” The contract also says that any customer charged for a call “not located in hotels or tourist sites for foreigners,” will immediately be reimbursed.

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Jacó businesses dig deep
to finance school needs

By Dylan Ferguson
Dylsey News Service

Education may be free, but crisp white shirts and new dictionaries with stiff spines can cost a pretty penny. That’s why last week the Central Pacific Chamber of Commerce hosted a fundraiser in Jacó to help defray the costs of education for underprivileged Garabito children in the school system.

The fundraiser was held at the new Bahia Encantada condominium complex, where Pacific coast businesses showed up en masse to donate towards “school packs” –  consisting of pens, dictionaries and, most importantly, uniforms – to be distributed to children in need throughout the regional school system. This was the second annual education fundraiser hosted by the Jaco-based Chamber of Commerce.

As the Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Comercio reported Thursday, parents looking to outfit their children for school, which begins in February, can face a price jungle for the necessary books, supplies, and uniforms. For some items in the San José metropolitan area, a survey by the ministry found, the prices for the same or similar school items varied by as much as 2,433 per cent. This can create an uncertain and threatening price wall for families who wish to ensure their children the free education promised by the state.

While Jacó, central to the Pacific coast boom, is undergoing a great economic expansion, Enid Valverde, a Chamber of Commerce Education Committee member, explained that this may work to the disadvantage of community children.

“It’s more difficult, because the houses are more expensive, the rent is more expensive,” Valverde said, adding that the prostitution and drug problems which have accompanied Jaco’s economic rise create further obstacles.

In some ways, holding the fundraiser at the Bahia Encantada, the first of developer Day Star’s many condominium projects to be completed in Jacó, is symbolic, as well as strategic. Many of the Pacific coast’s developers showed up to outdo one another in support of a cause for which they otherwise may be more problem than solution.

Valverde points out that in Jacó, “not everybody pays taxes . . .  the schools are very much affected by this.”

There are approximately 2,500 children in the school system in the Canton de Garabito. The Education Committee estimates that 15 per cent of them require assistance purchasing school supplies and uniforms, and that 300 or so more children in the area do not attend school at all, primarily for financial reasons. Costa Rica provides free education, but according to the Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Comercio, the average price for a single child’s school supplies and uniform is 39,000 colons ($78).

The “school packs,” which cost $35 in donations apiece, will be distributed to the students most in need of assistance, selected school by school. As Valverde says, “We try the shoes on. We touch their feet and feel how it is.”

Fight over traffic mishap
end in death of motorist

By A.M. Costa Rica staff

A fist fight over a traffic accident led to the death of one of the drivers, Saturday night, said police.

The victim, Randall Rodríguez Rivera, was the driver of a vehicle that was in a collision with a taxi around midnight in Gaudalupe, said police. Witnesses said a fight broke out between the taxi drivers, with the last names of Ramon, and Rodríguez.

During the fight, a third man appeared at the scene, punched Rodríguez, caused him to fall on his back. The fall knocked him unconscious, said officials. This was a major factor in his death, said Fuerza Pública officials. When Cruz Roja arrived Rodríguez was already dead, according to the report.

The suspect, last name of Aguilar was detained by Fuerza Pública officers. The Judicial Investigating Organization will look into the case, said officials.

Paquera ferry operator
gets surprise restrictions

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

In a surprise move, the transport ministry has restricted the Ferry Peninsular to just two daily round trips between Paquera and Puntarenas.

The operators of the ferry, the Asociación de Desarrollo Integral de Paquera, got a signature campaign going Sunday among what it said were some 300 people waiting for the ferry. The organization also said it would appeal to Karla González, the minister of Obras Públicas y Transportes.

The organization also said it would go to the Sala IV constitutional court to try to overturn the restriction.

The restrictions came Friday, said the association, which is involved in a long-running dispute with Naviera Tambor, which operates two other ferries on the Gulf of Nicoya.

Wednesday the association managed to avoid being shut down by a judge in a related court case.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday,  Jan. 21, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 14

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Talk about quirks: The state banks are chock full of them
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

High government officials want to merge at least some services of the state banks in the face of competition by private banking giants.

The hope is that the banks will take the good ideas and procedures and leave behind the practices that have caused customers for years to roll their eyes.

But the banks have a long way to go, and some customers fear that the banks will enshrine the bad practices at the expense of the good.

Don't ask the Santa Ana expat who was found dragging himself through the customer service section of the downtown offices of Banco Nacional Friday. He wanted to convert his debit card into an international credit card so he could make purchases online. So he ordered one at his Santa Ana branch.

Simple enough, unless the account is with Banco Nacional.

The expat spent all day, first at the Santa Ana branch where he usually banks. Then he was shuffled off to La Sabana because bank employees said that is where he opened the account originally. At least he did not have to go to Liberia.

Finally he ended up at the main offices closely approaching a rage. It turns out the credit card he ordered was in the La Sabana office all the time, but no one there knew that. A
clerk at the main office got a special order through, and the man got his credit card finally.

On another front, Banco Nacional all of a sudden has stopped accepting deposits of U.S. dollar checks worth more than $1,000, Cashiers say that customers must put the checks up for collection. Efforts by a reporter to verify this failed all last week when bank officials declined to respond.

Consider some of the other interesting practices by local banks, according to information provided by readers:

BAC, the former Banco San José, charges for excessive deposits, defined as being more than 20 in a month.

And Banco de Costa Rica charges if more than a handful of checks are written on an account in any given month.

Banco Popular does not issue checkbooks. Customers have to withdraw money via the ATM.

Banco Popular also will not write checks for those few customers who need them for more than $50,000. It does not matter how much the customer has in the bank.

And Banco Nacional continues its iron-clad policy to prevent any illegal transfers from customer accounts. The bank continues to prohibit online transfers to anyone who is not on the customer's favorite list, even though it said before Christmas that the freeze was just temporary. No one would comment on this either.

Arias decrees a sanctuary for whales and dolphin off Osa
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Óscar Arias Sánchez has created a dolphin and whale sanctuary in the country's Exclusive Economic Zone off the Costa Rican coasts. The president signed a decree to that effect Friday.

The decree states that whales and dolphins are protected from capture, injury and commercialization in the interior waters of the country, as well as 200 nautical miles (230 miles, 370 kms.) out to sea. The creation of the marine sanctuary comes after the 2006 initiative “Iniciativa Paz con la Naturaleza,” an effort by the administration to conserve biodiversity and natural resources in Costa Rica.

The action is considered a step to regulate the whale-watching trips that are designed for tourists.
Arias spoke of the abolition of the Costa Rican army many years ago. “Today, there is another peace accord to sign, and other armed forces that wait for abolition: we must sign for peace with our environment, and we must abolish the forces that destroy, and in this sense, the actions that we take today, are part of the promise we have already made,” said Arias.

A campaign group entitled “Área de Conservación de Osa,” including members from both the public and private sectors, declared an emergency in 2003 aimed at ending illegal hunting in the Osa Penninsula. The campaign has raised a total of $19 million according to a presidential spokesman.

The next goal of the campaign is to hire 67 employees and set up stations to help maintain the environment in the Osa Penninsula.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday,  Jan. 21, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 14

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Fidel Castro, despite health problems, is a candidate in Cuban elections
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Cuba's Fidel Castro was standing for re-election Sunday on a one-party parliamentary ballot despite health problems that have kept him out of public view for more than a year.

More than eight million Cubans are eligible to cast ballots to select members of Cuba's Communist Party-controlled National Assembly. Castro, 81, is on the ballot. Even though he ceded presidential power to his younger brother, Raúl, 76, in 2006, the elder Castro remains head of Cuba's supreme governing body, the Council of State.

Cuba's ailing "Maximum Leader" is one of more than 600 uncontested candidates for what is regarded as a rubber-stamp legislature. Voters may either endorse the candidates with a check mark in the appropriate box or leave the box blank for any candidate they do not support. After the election, the assembly has 45 days to decide which of their members will form a new Council of State.
Cuban authorities have closely guarded Fidel Castro's health status as a state secret since he underwent emergency gastro-intestinal surgery a year and a half ago. Since then, video clips and photographs have been released of Castro meeting with various foreign leaders — most recently Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

A series of essays and messages to the Cuban people, which have been widely-disseminated by the country's state-owned media, have been attributed to Fidel Castro.

Many Cuba watchers believe Fidel Castro is unlikely to resume control of day-to-day government operations. Already, he has indicated he will not block younger people from taking control. Whether he remains the nominal head of state will likely be known by March.

Since temporarily taking the reins of power, Raúl Castro has sought to engage Cubans on ways to boost the island's economy and raise living standards.

Our readers comment on current issues and our news stories
Our use of national tags
draws Colombian criticism

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I am a Colombian citizen. I have been residing in Costa Rica since my retirement as president for a Fortune 500 company in several Latin American countries, some times based in the U.S.A.
I am also an habitual reader of A.M. Costa Rica, which I find very useful to keep me abreast of developments affecting the life of expatriates in this marvelous country.
I am writing to you because I have noticed that you frequently identify criminal suspects by their nationality, which often happens to be Colombian, according to your reports. The most recent example was Friday ("Neighbor kills well-armed suspected robber in la Uruca").
While accepting that unfortunately there are many criminals of Colombian origin, I invite you to think about the damage that your continuous labeling of criminal suspects as "Colombian" do to ALL Colombians. You should know that the overwhelming majority of Colombians — of all socioeconomic conditions — are law-abiding persons and that your reports only serve to unfairly ostracize them.
I am sure that if A.M. Costa Rica were published in the U.S.A. — or a European country, for that matter — it would have already been taken to the courts and accused of defaming an entire nationality.
Please take this note as a cordial and sincere invitation to right a wrong. This would not only be fair to Colombians but would also prove further that A.M. Costa Rica adheres to the highest journalistic standards.

Fabio Marulanda

EDITOR'S NOTE; A.M. Costa Rica editors and reporters try to use nationalities only when relevant to the news story. We will keep a closer eye on such usage.

billboard shot

Some fake publicity shots
used to illustrate country

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I’m tired of comparing old times with new — pining for those old times.  Change is inevitable; the move is forward — euphemistically called "progress" because it is a projection of an image of betterment. However it depends on who you talk to as to whether it is beneficial.

An obvious indication of ‘progress’ is the existence of many real estate companies — national, North American, international, and regional.  Those that can, hawk their sales through images.

The forest of billboards on the road to the Liberia airport is a result of this "progress."  I am reminded of a poem:

      I think that I shall never see
     A billboard lovely as a tree.
     And, if the billboards never fall,
     I’ll never see a tree at all.

Some images of white sand beaches lined with coconut palms are reminiscent of Caribbean rather than northern Pacific Costa Rican coastlines.

In one weekly the image touting lots stays with me — backed by a fiery sunset the flawless face of a model looks catatonic rather than enthralled by nature’s display.

I left one office in Coco with three pounds of hype.  Brochures on heavy stock paper were coffee table art book size.  And the images? One beach looked familiar: Sunset on Oahu’s North Shore.  Colorful indigenous clothing pictured was Mexican.  A waterfall surrounded by lush, verdant vegetation. Could that be a part of Coco I’ve never seen in my 34 years here? 

It is fascinating to see the image that sells property here.  People don’t know that tropical climates have different terrains.  Much of Guanacaste is tropical DRY forest that turns brown and dusty and windy in the summer.  I’ve heard people say they would never return to Costa Rica on one of those sandblasting days at the beach, and I laughed thinking they had the wrong image and didn’t like the reality.

I love the photos of models in lounge chairs on completely deserted white sand beaches.  Where could that be?  Years ago I went to Avellanas where a scantily thatched, flat-roofed bar served drinks from ice chests and the music came from a transistor radio.  Now you compete with 20 surfers per break and see cranes on the point announcing more "progress."  The beach isn’t crowded, but it isn’t deserted as before. 

So what does image mongering do?  It taps into people’s dreams.  They think, "I, too, can sit in a lounge chair on a deserted beach."  They don’t realize that the pictured beach is hours away over rough roads from the property of the ad or it may be in another country.  The images help ad and real estate companies make money.  I hope that they are respecting the environment either on moral or legal grounds and do not (although some probably do) have the get-in-get-rich-get-out attitude which does not bode well for those who stay. 

I’ve come to accept the "progress" here.  I like the variety at the supermarket.  After that, I miss the tranquility that I came for and that is presented in the ads for the companies that are paving paradise.

Leslie B. Zelinsky Epling
Playas del Coco

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Attitude about garbage
has to be changed

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

The other day, I was coming back to San Jose from Cartago.  Although the traffic was light, there were several big SUVs zooming, and passing me.  At one point, a brand new black Mercedes SUV passed me.  Right after it passed me, I noticed that a hand is coming out of the driver’s side window.  Immediately, an empty cigarette pack flew out from the window to the autopista. 

I decided to follow this driver a bit longer.  A few minutes later, I saw another hand coming out of the rear window.  This time it was a used tissue paper with some kind of cookie box or a wrapper.  Yet after another few hundred meters, I noticed the driver threw a burning cigarette butt out of the window.  Shortly thereafter, the front passenger side window opened, and sure enough, you guessed it, another cigarette butt came out flying!

At this point, my curiosity peaked.  I sped up to see who these litterbugs are.  I passed them on the right lane, and discovered them to be a young affluent Tico family with at least two children in the rear seats.  I couldn’t help but wonder why do these people, who could afford to drive a $125,000 Mercedes, do not care about their environment.

Since then I noticed that Ticos in general consider the autopista their basuero.  They throw out anything that they consider basura on to the autopista, or for that matter to anywhere they please.  I decided that I will do a little survey in my neighborhood.  I started making notes of what I have found on the side of the roads on my daily walk.  You would not believe if I told you that I have seen anything from used condoms to trashed televisions and refrigerators, and everything in between!

Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful countries on this planet.  The people in Costa Rica, in general, are also peace loving, and friendly (except when they are behind the wheels).  Most Ticos I have talked to are proud of their heritage, the flora and fauna of their country, and above all their concept of “pura vida.”  Yet, they do not care about their environment, and intentionally trash it every day. 

Why do they do this?  I asked this question to many of my Tico friends from all walks of lives.  Interestingly, the people in the lower strata of the society, most of them without cars, told me that they never throw trash out to the roads.  The upper-class Ticos, on the other hand, told me that most of them don’t even know that they are doing this.  Some of them shrugged their shoulders and simply smiled.  One of them even reminded me that there is trash on the side of the roads even in Miami!

Another friend, a Tica psychologist, told me that the reason behind the basura habit is that Ticos expect someone else to cleanup their garbage.  To test this theory I went to the San Pedro and the Multi Plaza Este malls.  I visited the food courts at both malls.  I noticed that almost ALL Ticos left their table after their meal without clearing their trash.  Even if they were sitting three feet away from the trash can, once they ate their meal they simply left the trash on their table after they finished the meal.  Sure enough there were many attendants cleaning up after the customers.  I must add that I found some tourists cleaning their tables and depositing their trash in the garbage receptacles.

During their Zapote fiesta, I noticed the same behavior by Ticos.  In fact, I noticed that the garbage cans placed by the municipality were not properly used and appeared empty.  I guess during their alcohol induced state of euphoria, Ticos could care less about keeping their environment clean or what they throw out of their windows.

Costa Rica must have an educational program teaching their children to keep their environment free of trash, and plastic.  If Costa Rica teaches her children to clean up their garbage, pick up the garbage that they find, and throw it in a receptacle, even if it is not theirs, the children will learn to protect their environment.  Additionally, it would not be a bad idea for the Arias administration to ban plastic bottles and bags, replace it with biodegradable bags, and recyclable bottles. 

As far as the adults, while it might be difficult to change their ingrown habits, if they are caught throwing trash on to the public roads they should be fined.  They should pay a substantial fine; let’s say $250 for each offense.  If they do not have money to pay the fine, let them do community service — 40 hours of cleaning the garbage on public streets!  As each Tico has to carry the cédula at all times, it would be very easy to cite the guilty and collect the fine.

In the absence of severe enforcement of the anti garbage policy, Costa Rica is likely to enter a garbage state in paradise.  Let us hope that “Pura Vida” will not become “Pura Basura.”

Steven G. Nair
San José and San Diego, California

Police let robbers go free
because loot was too small

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Not long ago we had an armed robbery of our plant in Limón.  The not-so-well-educated team didn’t know we don’t pay the employees in cash at the plant, so it was a fumbled robbery.  However, they had guns, put the employees in a small room and roughed up the plant manager.

They stupidly put the manager in the guard shack while they searched the plant for things to steal.  We keep guns in the guard shack, so the 50-something plant manager broke out a window and started shooting at the robbers, who of course fled rapidly.

Since there was no money, all they took was the plant manager’s cell phone and an electric saw.  Both totaled less than 250,000 colons ($500).

The police caught the robbers in about an hour.  But they had to release them because, as they said, the items they stole were less than 250,000 colons

The point is, it didn’t seem to matter that it was an armed robbery and they assaulted the plant manager, they simply applied this 250,000-colon rule.

Is it true that 250,000 colons is the amount that gets robbers released?  And is it true that there is no distinction between armed robbery and just a regular, un armed theft?

Also, is this actually a law on the books or is it just a commonly observed judicial or police guideline to lower their workload?

Edward Bridges

EDITOR'S NOTE: Francisco Dall'Anese, the nation's chief prosecutor claims that there is no lower financial limit on prosecutions, but his employees do not seem to pursue cases where the value take is less than $500.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Jan. 21, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 14

National games for 18 high school sports opened in Heredia
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica's national games opened Sunday and are running for a week.  The games are run by the Instituto Costarricense del Deporte and headquartered in Heredia. 

The general mission of the games is to promote competition for the young people of Costa Rica, allowing them physical and technical development, based in educational, moral,
ethical, social and cultural values. The best high school athletes in the country are participating at a number of locations around the Central Valley.

There are 18 different sports for the participants.

President Óscar Arias Sánchez inaugurated the games Sunday night before some 4,000 young participants. He called the youngsters the heroes of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica Open begins today at Tennis Club with U.S. player as top seed
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Costa Rica Open commences today at 10 a.m. at the Costa Rica Tennis Club in La Sabana.  It is the only professional, international tennis match in the country, according to organizers.
Competitors include 2008 Copa del Café finalist Henrique Cunha, 2002 Copa del Café champion Marcel Felder from Uruguay and American Nike Monroe who won the Costa Rica Open in 2006. He is the No. 1 seed.  The 10 a.m. opening is expected to draw Johnny Araya, San José mayor.

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