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(506) 223-1327            Published Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 21             E-mail us    
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Free trade treaty is target
Cuba helps construct alternate view of reality here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A curious phenomenon of the debate over the free trade treaty is the propaganda circle that flows from Costa Rica to Cuba and then back to Costa Rica and the world. Opponents to the treaty here are taking advantage of the Communist nation's propaganda mills to air their complaints.

Sometimes the distributed material appears to be far removed from the truth.

Prensa Latina, the Cuban news service, reported over the weekend that "Costa Rica is applying a strategy of systematic and indiscriminate violence against those who object to CAFTA-DR (the free trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic)" That was attributed to the "Student Alternative Movement."

Earlier, the same news service said "Due to the terrible consequences foreseen from the free trade treaty between Central America, the United States and the Dominican Republic, Costa Rican organizations demanded on Thursday that the government to renegotiate it." Attribution was to something called "The National Front Supporting the Struggle against CAFTA."

Another Prensa Latina article said that Costa Rica's Social Security System and Workers Union denounced the Costa Rican government before the International Organization of Labor for prohibiting expression of their opinions against the Free Trade Treaty. Of course, anyone who has seen any anti-free trade marches knows that expressions of opinion are not prohibited.
The Cuban newspaper Granma has at times slammed President Óscar Arias Sánchez personally.

The most interesting distortion came Jan. 16 when

the Cuban news service said "Costa Rica, the only Central American nation, plus Dominican Republic, that has not yet approved the free trade agreement with the United States is now extremely unlikely to do so with the two major congressional parties adamantly opposed."

The Cuban article claimed that the Partido Liberación Nacional was firmly against the project. That's Arias's party, and the last count of legislators showed a 38-to-19 edge in the Asamblea Legislativa in favor of the trade treaty.

There have been no incidents reported of politicians or police beating up students over their opinions of the free trade agreement. In fact, when Universidad de Costa Rica students and supporters set up roadblocks on a key highway near the San Pedro campus during one recent anti-treaty protest, police left them alone.

Yet there are some who will believe the Prensa Latina weekend report that alleged that because Costa Rican politicians are desperate to legalize the agreement despite opposition from "the majority of Costa Ricans, including religious, civilian, political institutions, an undercover dictatorship was established."

The impetus for the news articles comes from treaty foes in Costa Rica, some of them supporters of the Partido Acción Ciudadana. The Havana-based news service provides the distortion and the propagandistic flourishes prior to worldwide distribution.

Prensa Latina articles can be searched and found HERE!

Lawmakers consider plan to fast-track free trade treaty with U.S.
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Lawmakers Monday began discussion of a reform in Asamblea Legislativa rules that would permit quicker approval of international agreements like the free trade treaty with the United States.

The procedure would eliminate the power of lawmakers to make certain motions of revision to the documents being considered.

In addition to the trade treaty, there are other laws that are complementary to the international accord that will be considered later.

Naturally in a divided legislature the idea of expediting the trade treaty was controversial. Mayi Antillón Guerrero, leader of the Partido Liberación
Nacional, supported the changes, while  Rafael Elías Madrigal Brenes presented an argument against it. He is affiliated with the Partido Acción Ciudadana.

"We have many reasons to oppose a treaty that does not correspond to the best interests of the country," said Madrigal. He argued that the free trade treaty was really a tax measure that should not be considered in a fast-track process. The treaty addresses import duties.

Amid a flurry of 63 motions, mainly from Acción Ciudadana, Francisco Antonio Pacheco, assembly president, adjourned the session to allow a legislative committee to study the proposed changes. Lawmakers will meet again on the topic today.

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Costa Rica
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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 21

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Calderón Guardia suspect
handed over for trial

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The criminal justice system of San José has accepted accusations against a man who now faces trial on allegations that he started the fire that killed 19 persons at the Hospital Calderón Guardia July 12, 2005.

This signifies that the evidence put forth by the Ministerio Publico was sufficient for a trial in the opinion of a judge and is equivalent to an indictment in U.S. courts.  The accused, identified by the last name Ledezma, will be tried for arson as well as 19 counts of homicide in the Tribunal de Juicio de San José.

Ledezma, a nurse's aid, was seen by four persons near the place where the fire started —  a hospital storage room near the surgery recovery ward, said officials. The 25-year-old tried to help fireman and rescue some of the patients the day of the fire.

Three nurses who died trying to assist victims out of the building were awarded national recognition for their efforts Monday.  The national merit of honor, named the Premio Nacional al Mérito Civil Antonio Obando Chan 2005-2006, was awarded to María Elena Díaz Garita, Patricia Vargas Portilla and Mayra Mercado González. The three died trying to get bedridden patients out of the various wards that were consumed by the blaze.

Later officials said that the hospital did not have a sufficient alarm system or a sprinkler system.

Man suffered head injury
in Playa Hermosa robbery

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A U.S. citizen was the target of a violent robbery inside a gated community in Playa Hermosa south of Jacó Sunday.

The victim, Garry Feldman, suffered a head injury that required 19 stiches after being attacked while he was riding his bike near his home in Hermosa Palms, a private area that is reportedly protected by armed guards. 

Feldman, 56, said he is currently awaiting test results to determine whether he suffered any brain damage.  He was checked into the Hospital CIMA and expects to be released in the next few day, he said.

Robbers made off with some cash that was in his pockets and a companion was not hurt.  Feldman says that this is not the first time he has been robbed in Costa Rica. 

Driver in fuel spill called drunk

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The driver of a tractor-trailer that struck a fuel transport line Sunday about 5 p.m. near Batán was drunk, officials have reported.

The impact broke the above-ground line and allowed some 8,000 liters of diesel fuel to flow into the ground before safety valves cut off the flow. Traffic was blocked for a time.

The pipeline carries petroleum products from the port of Limón to a refinery at Ochomogo.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 21

Johana Romero sells 21 de la Suerte on commission

Guillermo Bustos is a fixture at the central park in Tibas
They've got your number in the Costa Rican lotteries
By Dennis Rogers
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

One would think Costa Ricans were obsessed with math given the number of people standing on street corners shouting out numbers. This is the national lottery. Small-time gambling is a regular part of many persons' lives. Some play a favorite number, even leading to scuffles for the most popular when the big Christmas lottery comes around. Others go for the Gallo Tapado and let the vendor chose a number at random.

Costa Ricans have available a wide range of small-time gambling options. The main player is the Junta de Protección Social de San Jose, the government lottery agency. It runs the national games and also San Jose’s cemeteries. Its Sunday afternoon drawing is a television event of its own right.

The Junta spreads its profits among a bewildering variety of non-profit entities, mostly the government health system, medical research institutes, and programs for children and the elderly. All lottery operators are required to turn over their profits to a charity. None, including the Junta, seems to feel obliged to make available figures for their costs and overhead.

The national lottery is the traditional format, with a few large payouts but little reward at the 1-in-a-100 level. Each series of ten tickets costs 3,500 colons, with one piece available for 350 colons. First, second, and third prizes are 60 million colons, about $116,000, 5.4 million colons ($10,425), and 2 million colons ($3,861) if you have all 10 of that series.

The final two-digit number pays 34,000 colons ($65.60) by itself, with second and third 7,000 colons ($13.50) and 3,500 colons ($6.75), i.e. your money back. Not counting the large prizes, it returns only about 13 percent. There are secondary prizes such as for one series off with the correct number. The prize table published in newspapers and now on the Internet is so complicated that unclaimed prizes must be a major savings for the Junta.

The Christmas gordo pays off more than $1 million and is a common topic of discussion that time of year.

The people’s lottery or Chances is the other established Junta product. The entero costs 1,500 colons ($2.90). It has three large prizes with the best 15 million colons ($28,957), but then each two-digit number pays 40,000 colons ($77.22), 14,000 colons ($27) , or 8,000 colons ($15.44) for first, second, and third place, for a total payout of 64 times the amount wagered.

Scratch cards give an instant reward or lack thereof, with match prizes from 400 (77 U.S. cents) to 5 million colons ($9,652.50). Six losing tickets can be dropped in an envelope at the Junta building for a drawing to be on a “Wheel of Fortune” type game on television.

A new simplified Junta product called Tiempos aims to compete with illegal lotteries by paying 75 times the amount wagered on a single number. It is available in 100-, 200-, and 500-colon denominations. One U.S. dollar is about 518 colons.

“I’d have to go change it at the Junta,” says Jorge Zamora, who buys various lottery games regularly around Tibás. “It’s easier to just get [the runner] to pay off even if it’s not as much.” Basically this product has all the disadvantages of the Junta and a payout only slightly better than the numbers games. It has met with practically no interest from the public, according to vendors.

The vendors are on commission from the Junta and can return unsold inventory from their regular quota of tickets. The handicapped have priority for the jobs. In San Isidro de Heredia, Luis Vargas has his electric wheelchair set up as a mobile sales table with inventory on display. Luis is Isidireño by birth. He’s sold the second and third prizes in the Sunday lottery, but never the big one.

The new 21 de la Suerte is a glitzy operation giving away cars and cash along with the usual white goods. Comercializadora Paschoal S.A, apparently of Brazilian capital, runs the lottery itself. Its chosen charity is the Casa Hogar Crea, an organization dedicated to drug rehab for young people. Despite the yellow shirts like those worn by the Hogar youths who sell pens or calendars at the same intersections, the young women (mostly) selling the tickets

A.M. Costa Rica photos/Dennis Rogers
Luis Vargas of San Isidro sells from a wheelchair

are employees and not otherwise associated with the
charity. They make minimum wage and a 13 percent commission, and presumably are properly insured.

Johana Romero was selling 21 de la Suerte tickets at the main intersection in Tibas. Sales are slow in January. She claimed sales of 3 or 4 per hour of the 2,000-colon tickets, though it didn’t look like that many were moving. “In December we could sell 20 to 25 per hour, but nobody has any money now,” she complained. She also had a headache, unsurprising given the amount of carbon monoxide she was breathing.

Like a dark shadow in the background flourishes that favorite of organized crime everywhere, the illegal numbers racket. Its allure is convenience, paying 70 to 72 times the amount wagered to a single number, with no big prizes. The number of the Junta’s Sunday drawing provides an undisputed winner. Most of the poorer neighborhoods in the country have someone running numbers, ranging from housewives picking up extra money to more dubious types.

Some official vendors even sell numbers on the side. Bets can be placed for as little as 100 colons, with any given number capped to avoid the hassle of big payouts. Generally a “banker” gets 10 percent for backing the undertaking and covering larger payouts, according to sources in the business who unsurprisingly didn’t wish to be named. The rest of the profits after paying winnings are commissions divided up depending on the number of middlemen.

Small-scale raffles to raise money for a school trip or such are also common and in theory illegal since the money doesn’t go to a registered charity. Usually the prize is a rice cooker or clothes iron rather than money. Neighborhood raffles of televisions or other big-ticket items smuggled from Panamá take place in December when everyone has a Christmas bonus to squander. These are illegal but mostly above-board as they’ll want to do it again next year. Around Christmas time the Cruz Roja springs into action with its own fundraiser, a bingo game.

Raffles using 900 numbers appeared briefly associated with the lead-up to last summer’s football World Cup. The 900 numbers are pay-per-minute lines normally used for horoscopes and phone sex. At first, a brief ad would say “send a text message to register” with tiny print “cost of the call ¢450.” On the line with the lucky caller, a question like, “Who won the 2003 apertura championship, Saprissa, La Liga, or Olimpia?” made it supposedly a game of skill and not chance. The Junta eventually cracked down on these. (Yes, we know Olimpia is not a Costa Rican team.) The profits were to be distributed to an unnamed charity, doubtless after a substantial overhead.

Other promotional raffles are often fraudulent. A typical one gives the buyer, say, a ticket for a rice cooker/refrigerator/trip to San Andres for every 5,000 colons of gasoline purchased. Once the ticket is stuffed in the box, no one knows if the prize is ever awarded. Even if the winner is announced in the press as promised, it’s extremely unlikely they will see it. One Heredia gas station recently had glossy color tickets with an invitation to visit its web site for the rules. No mention of the contest was to be found there.

Vendors were asked if they tell their customers that according to elementary statistics it doesn’t matter remotely what number to play. They said no.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 21

Spanish paper expresses concern about Iranian influence
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The leading Costa Rican newspaper has expressed concern over recent meetings between the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, and other Latin American leaders.

The editorial in the authoritative La Nación Sunday said that Iran's presence in Latin America should be a source of great attention because of its defiant nuclear politics and traditional support of terrorist groups, especially Hezbollah.

While in Latin America, Ahmadinejad met with President Danielle Ortega of Nicaragua, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and, of course, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

The editorial said that because of its atomic energy program, which the article suggested has clear military colors, the country has been converted, along with North Korea, into an international risk.  Its refusal to cease the enrichment of uranium caused the International Atomic Energy Association to elevate the case to the U.N. Security Council, which imposed a series of sanctions against the country in December.

The editorial said that Iran's presence here is due to its growing international marginalization, especially from the United States.  Because of Venezuela's similar situation, the two countries are natural allies, the article said.  The editorial also said that Chávez has been trying to create a world alliance against Washington, but that the movement was hindered after failing to gain a spot on the U.N. Security Council.  It also said that Brazil and Argentina have been distancing their politics from Venezuela.

Ahmadinejad's visit to Caracas is his second in six months, the two countries have 120 various agreements, and Chávez has also made a visit to Tehran, said the article.  
The editorial said that Chávez has been using his influence in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia in an attempt to align the politics of those countries with Venezuela. 

What is unknown, the article said, is how far the three countries will arrange their politics with Iran, knowing full well that allying itself with the Middle Eastern country is a hostile message to all the international community.  Nicaraguan newspapers already reported the possibility of  the country exchanging embassies with Iran.

Ecuador suffered a direct consequence of dealing with the Iranian president because President Néstor Kirchner of Argentina turned down the opportunity to attend the meeting in Quito.  The reason for Kirchner's absence was that Iran has refused to extradite an ex-government worker to Argentina.  The worker was reportedly involved in the 1994 bombing that destroyed the Asociación Mutual Israel Argentina in Buenos Aires and killed 85 persons.  Lula Da Silva, the Brazilian president, also refused the invitation to Quito. 

The editorial, titled "Iran in our Patio" ended by saying that because of Venezuela's petroleum wealth, it may be able to afford to associate with one of the most censured countries in the world.  But Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua cannot remain insensitive to the negative diplomatic and commercial effects that their relationship with Iran could generate.

As for the rest of the Latin American countries, the article suggests that they must carefully follow the evolution of this new alliance.

Missing from the article was mention of the blossoming relationship between Venezuela and Cuba.  The two countries have signed 16 new cooperation agreements, including accords on telecommunications, tourism and the economy.

Venezuela will seek help, perhaps from Iran, to build pilotless aircraft
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Venezuela's defense minister says his country is considering building unmanned planes and may look to allied countries — such as Iran — for help.

The defense minister, Gen. Raúl Baduel said Monday in Caracas that Venezuela has made progress in the
development of pilotless planes.

He also said that Venezuela will look to other countries for help in maintaining its aging U.S.-made F-5 fighter jets.

Venezuela has had trouble maintaining the planes since the United States began blocking arms sales to the South American country.

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