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(506) 223-1327           Published Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 17             E-mail us    
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Lack of due process cited in consumer protection case
Appeals court frowns on blank credit card slips
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An appeals court decision has given more protection to tourists and others who sign blank vouchers as security at rental car companies and other service providers.

The decision from the Tribunal Primero Civil de San José came in 2006, but it was announced Tuesday by the court. In it, the appeals court ordered the operator of Alamo car rentals here to refund $11,490 to a U.S. citizen who had an accident while driving one of the firm's vehicles.

As a result of the decision "Anyone with a similar case can file a claim and win," said Allan Garro Navarro, the lawyer who won the case.

The driver, identified in the court decision as Gregory James Bianchi, left a blank credit card slip as security with what is now ANC Car Rental S.A. before he had the accident March 11, 2004, on the Puntarenas-San Ramón highway.

After the accident, the rental car company charged Bianchi's credit card, but he did not become aware of this fact until he had returned to the United States, said Garro.

The lawyer used a  consumer protection law to expedite the process, which could take six to seven years in a regular court proceeding, he said.

Leaving a signed but blank credit card slip is routine at many rental car agencies as well as hotels and other accommodations.

The three-judge panel determined that the unilateral action of the rental car company violated the principle of due process. A rental car employee, identified in the decision as Erika Andrés Cordero Brenes, said that the credit card charge had to be made within 45 days of the accident, but the judges said that Bianchi only was

notified by mail after the charge had been posted to his account and that he had no time or way to dispute it.

The case was complicated by the fact that Bianchi faced an allegation of driving while intoxicated after the accident, an allegation that was thrown out in another court case. Still, the Instituto Nacional de Seguros declined to pay for any damages to the insured vehicle because of the drunk driving allegation, said Garro. The car was a 2002 Daihatsu, according to the decision.

Garro said that the vehicle suffered front end damage and was put back into service by the company after repairs.

On July 1, 1996, the consumer protection law went into effect.  Before that date, any consumer who had a problem with a private or public company that sold products or services had few rights.  The administrative and judicial processes to complain were very complicated. It was this law that outlined a new, faster legal way, called a sumario or a summary proceeding, to sue using the normal court system to protect ones rights.

The Bianchi case had been appealed from a lower court, which also found in his favor but only awarded him $1,490. Garro said the nature of the case means there will be no further appeals, and the decision becomes part of Costa Rican jurisprudence.

German Embassy pitches in to provide kitchen for Santa Ana home
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An old age centre in Santa Ana that houses many without sufficient means and relies heavily on the contribution of volunteers, will be unveiling a new kitchen that was made possible by the efforts of the municipalidad and a contribution by the German Embassy.

The Centro Integral Joaquín y Ana was founded in 2005 and houses approximately 35 elderly citizens.  The German Embassy donated 3.7 million colones (more than $7,000) and will be represented by Ambassador Volker Fink at an
unveiling of the new kitchen today at 10 a.m.  Also present at the opening will be Santa Ana Alcalde Ronald Taraña and Dr. Michael Adenauer, who oversaw the building of the project and ensured that it met with sanitation standards.

With the addition of the kitchen to provide for the home, organizers hope that occupants will feel better physically, morally and psychologically, said a report from the German Embassy. 

The embassy said that the goal of this kind of project is to protect the rights of the elderly and those in need of social assitance.

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Costa Rica
Second newspage

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 17

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Plan for national development
will get a public airing tonight

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The government will be releasing the document today that is meant to coordinate the national development plans.

A pledge to support the Costa Rican Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, or national development plan, will be signed by President Oscar Arias and other members of the government this morning. A public presentation is in the Teatro Nacional at 7 p.m.

The plan is meant to organize the intended actions of the state and to assign the responsibilities of separate sectors such as social, environmental, political, energy, telecommunications, institutional reform and international politics, said a government presentation.  The 135 strategic actions of the plan are set in a four-year time and categorized by eight main development goals, said the government.

The eight main development goals are:

• Combat corruption.

• Strenghten the economy and employment levels.

• Expand and improve the quality of the education system.

• Reduce poverty and inequality.

• Stem the increase of crime, drug trafficking, drug addiction and reverse the growing feelings of public insecurity that are a result of those problems.

• Fortify public institutions and organize the priorities of the state.

• Recover and expand the public transportation system.

• Recover Costa Rica's position of international respect and to create an internationally renowned foreign policy.  

The document is created by the Ministerio de Planificación Nacional y Política Económica. Along with the Ministerio de Hacienda, the treasury department, the government said that a detailed budget has been calculated which takes into consideration all departments. 

Having these calculations completed before the signing of the document should quicken the process of putting it into action, said the government.  The pre-document report did not, however, release how much money the government was planning to commit, or where the money was coming from.

New minister takes post

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Silvia Víquez Ramírez is a new vice minister of education. She was introduced at a press conference that Lenardo Garnier, the minister of Educación Pública, and Rodrigo Arias, minister of the Presidencia, attended

The vacancy was made available because José Lino Rodriguez, a former vice minister of education, quit after the government's ethics board ruled he had violated the administration's code.  This was as a result of promoting his wife and hiring his brother without due process.  He was also accused of giving his wife underserved raises. 

Ms. Viquez was recommended by Garnier for the position because of her experience in educational administration and other positions within the Ministero de Educación Pública.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 17

History of problem is convoluted
Roadside clutter may be cleared up with new sign project

By Dennis Rogers
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Unauthorized signs along the public highways of Costa Rica have overwhelmed authorities and bombarded the traveler with commercial messages. The effect ranges from unsightly clutter to sensory overload at important intersections, which could put a driver at risk.

Costa Rica’s famous unsigned roads and lost tourists have been replaced with visual anarchy on the roadside.

In an attempt to put some order to the situation, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo this week made available $580,000 for official tourism-oriented signs, with a new coffee-colored series of signs for local attractions. This won’t remove the incentives for those who put up signs now.

The present situation is a battle between the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes and dozens of businesses selling publicity. Some argue that their signs help guide the visitor, while others do not bother to justify their use of public property and just sink a post into the right-of-way. Some signs even lie — one in the Fortuna area says it’s 9 kilometers to a hotel when the distance actually is 14.

The problem of commercial signage on highway right-of-ways took hold six years ago when the tourist institute was searching for a solution to the lost tourist problem and decided to involve the private sector in putting up signs.

A convenio, an extra-legal agreement, started an experimental pilot project to try to improve navigation for the visitor. Some permits were issued. Also, in 2001, the first spectacular example of usurpation of the roadside was taken by a condominium development at Tárcoles on the Pacific coast. The developer put a large number of signs, starting in Santa Ana, around the airport, and through Atenas and Orotina. Each sign helpfully noted the remaining distance. When the construction project changed hands shortly thereafter, the signs were removed.

The tourist board agreement was not properly reviewed within Obras Públicas and has never been accepted as valid by the inspection and demolition unit. The law is quite clear as per the question of “usurpation.” This traditionally has involved crops, fences, or buildings creeping into the right-of-way, usually not as blatant as signs on the roadside.

The right-of-way on high-speed highways extends for 25 meters from the center line in both directions. In theory, this is for future expansion, but also allows control of the immediate roadside. It is the exclusive property of the state, expropriated when necessary.

The Central American Guide for Standardized Traffic Signs was produced in 2000 by the Central American Economic Integration Forum, to put the five countries in question in line with international norms. It was based on a previous Costa Rican law, itself following U.S., Chilean, and Mexican standards.

In this guide, green with white letters is reserved for destination/distance information on roads with a speed limit above 60 kph. On lower-speed roads, those signs are normally white with black letters. The color blue is restricted to informational signs, with one series indicating general services including familiar symbols for gas stations, public phones, etc.

A second standardized series covering tourism includes the usual signs for hotels (a person in a bed under a roof) and restaurants (a fork and a knife). It includes quite a variety of other signs to guide visitors to a shoeshine, movie theater, serpentarium, and what appears to be a horse show-jumping grounds, should that be needed somewhere in Central America. All these signs are square or rectangular and less than a square meter.

Large billboards on private property are also regulated by Obras Públicas with an elaborate permitting process. The basic regulations state billboards shall have “a maximum area of 85 square meters with a separation of 100 meters between one another in each direction, with a minimum distance from roundabouts, vehicle and pedestrian bridges, tunnels, dangerous curves, intersections, and entrance/exit ramps…of at least 100 meters.”  100 meters is 328 feet.

Violations of these rules in various combinations are easily found. Language about detrimental effects to the “panoramic scenery” is supposed to be taken into consideration in the permitting process, but in Costa Rica’s appeal processes, this would be almost impossible for the government to defend. Additional rules state that a sign shouldn’t have more than 10 words regardless of its size.

The signs found in all their myriad forms commonly violate the law in several ways. The most obvious is that virtually all are in the exclusive highway right-of-way. Law 5060, which dates from 1972, states that “It is absolutely prohibited that the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes or the municipalities should grant permits or rights to occupy, use, or possess the right-of-way…” A 1997 presidential decree does contemplate permits to allow third parties to put up informational signs, with language that apparently left 

A.M. Costa Rica photos/Dennis Rogers
A sign with slightly more words than 10. Can anyone read this?

Visual clutter at the sometimes dangerous Sarapiqui intersection.

the door open for the present legal problems: “…as well as the indication of existing infrastructure providing services.”

Many of the signs combining official destination info with advertising use blue for the latter which is reserved for the standardized informational series. Some even put the commercial message in green, which is strictly prohibited. Theoretically, any single support should not have more than three signs on it, although some signs placed by the transport ministry also include four panels.

The Ministry first struck back in February of 2003 and took down signs on the Cartago and Santa Ana freeways and around the Hotel Marriott. This resulted in the first court case because a company called Infovial Ltd. had put up some of the signs and was a permit holder in the tourism ministry scheme.

The Sala IV constitutional court ruled that the government had violated due process requiring 15 days notice of a demolition, (though few of Infovial’s signs had any indication of ownership), and had ignored Infovial petitions for permits. The court upheld the right of the ministry to remove the offending signs and denied compensation, but invited Infovial to pursue litigation elsewhere as the question of the signs’ locations and adherence to official standards was outside its jurisdiction. All in all, the ministry removed about 5,000 signs in 2003.

Infovial insists that its signs are “informative” and not
commercial in nature. “Some of our competitors put commercial logos on their signs, we only provide orientation,” said Ronald Mesen of the company’s sales department. Infovial restricts its customers to tourism-oriented businesses. “We are respectful of the [transport ministry], asking for a permit before placing each sign, but sometimes they wait two years without answering, and we can’t wait that long.” (Requests for permits from government agencies unanswered in 30 days are considered granted.)

Mesen said the company will probably use the new brown signs as well. He wouldn’t comment on continuing litigation with the transport ministry.

Since the court case, a running battle has developed with the right-of-way usurpers generally ahead of the authorities. A large number were removed last week on highways to the Pacific coast, but they’ll be back. The real estate boom there has meant a boom in highway advertising, too.

The only remedy is to fine the business listed on the sign, not the one that illegally placed it on public property, said transport officials.

From hand-made to slick, all of these signs appear to be in the public right-of-way

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 17

After Cuban visit, House members seek big policy change
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

U.S. lawmakers who just returned from a trip to Havana are calling for engagement with Cuba in place of the trade and travel embargo the United States has imposed on Cuba for years. The 10 House members say six months after ailing President Fidel Castro gave governing power to his brother Raúl, it is apparent that little in Communist Cuba will change unless U.S. policy does.

Members of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group have proposed legislation to lift economic restrictions on Cuba. They have been explaining to Washington audiences why they back the normalization of relations with the poor island nation.

Democrat William Delahunt of Massachusetts told the InterAmerican Dialogue research center the trip itself showed that many in Congress disagree with existing U.S. policy on Cuba.

"I would submit that our paramount motive in going to Cuba was to demonstrate just simply by our physical presence, given the size of our delegation, that many in this country, particularly in the U.S. Congress, want dialogue," he said. "And that obviously is not the position of the administration."

Washington forbids U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba or spend money on Cuban products. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations

Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona said U.S. policy of shutting Cuba out has not worked to oust the island's Communist government or end human rights abuses. He
said Washington should instead try focusing on engaging Havana with trade and dialogue. "We're losing influence," he said. "We could have influence in Havana, but we are very much on the sidelines while this transition is taking place."

A few blocks away, Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts expressed a similar opinion to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said better relations with Cuba would help some political dissidents.

"My own view is that if you could normalize relations, lift the travel restrictions, have better relations with the country, you'd remove an excuse the Cuban government uses to justify the arrest of these political dissidents," he said.

But groups supporting the embargoes on Cuba insist the restrictions can still help push the island toward democracy. Camilla Ruiz of the Cuban American National Foundation says the travel and trade bans should be loosened gradually in exchange for positive changes in Cuba, such as holding national elections or supporting freedom of press and religion. She says completely eliminating the embargoes would send the wrong message to Cuban officials.

"If they're not willing to move now, when they're not getting our economic and diplomatic support, why would opening up the floodgates and allowing tourists to pour money in there, and allowing companies to extend economic assistance and credits and financing, why would that be an incentive for change," she said.

She says such a move would only serve to legitimize the existing style of Cuban government.

Anti-Cuban bombing suspect pleads innocent to U.S. immigration charge
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

An anti-Castro Cuban militant accused of bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976 has pleaded innocent to charges of lying to U.S. immigration authorities in his bid to become a U.S. citizen.

Luis Posada Carriles is being held in a Texas jail in the western U.S., as he faces possible deportation. He has been behind bars since 2005 for illegally entering the U.S.
Immigration authorities say Posada Carriles lied to them about how he snuck into the United States from Mexico.

Posada Carriles is a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency operative. It is not clear where he will wind up if he is deported. A federal judge has ruled Posada Carriles cannot be sent back to Cuba or Venezuela, saying he could be tortured or killed. The Cuban-born, naturalized Venezuelan is wanted in both countries on charges of bombing the Cuban jet. The attack left 73 people dead.

World Court decides not to take action in dispute over pulp mills in Uruguay
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services
and special reports

The World Court has rejected a request by Uruguay to force Argentina to end blockades of key roads and bridges between the two countries.

Argentina had erected the blockades to protest Uruguay's plan to build two pulp mills on the Uruguay River, which forms the countries' border.

By a 14-1 vote, the court said it did not believe the blockades risked harming the rights claimed by Uruguay. The World Court is still considering the legality of the pulp mills, but Uruguay had asked for an interim ruling to lift the blockades.

The World Court, formally known as the International Court of Justice, is the highest court of the United Nations. Set up in 1946 to resolve disputes between states, the court's rulings are final and not subject to appeal.

Sitting in The Hague, the court ruled that the current circumstances do not “require the exercise of its power” under the 1975 treaty between Argentina and Uruguay — which is at the center of the dispute — because it is not
convinced that Uruguay’s rights are at imminent, irreparable risk from the blockades.

Uruguay sought an interim order Nov. 29 asking the court to require Argentina to take “all reasonable and appropriate steps” to end or prevent the interruption of transit between the two nations, including blocking bridges and roads.

Nine days earlier, groups of Argentines began blockading a bridge over the river.  Argentina has said pollution from the mills will cause serious environmental damage and that they are being built without the consultation and notification required under the 1975 treaty.

In a press statement accompanying the court’s decision, the majority of judges noted that, despite the bridge blockade, construction of one of the pulp mills was continuing and had “progressed significantly since the summer of 2006.”

They added that the court’s power to intervene and order provisional measures is designed only to ensure there is no irreparable prejudice to either side’s respective rights pending the final decision in the broader case.

In July, the court also turned down an Argentine request to order an immediate halt to construction.

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