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These stories were published Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 29
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Nation will look for deep pockets for projects
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

If you ever wanted to operate a bridge or a marina or maybe an airport, has Costa Rica got a deal for you.

In an effort to "break the bottleneck" of the budget, the minister of Obras Públicas y Transporte made known a plan to increase the number of public-private concessions in Costa Rica.

The idea is that private investors would provide the funds and build valid public works. 

The minister, Javier Chaves Bolaños, described the proposal at a press conference in Casa Presidencial Tuesday. The laws already exist for the public-private concessions, and some already exist in Costa Rica. But what Chaves was seeking is 

executive branch support for regulations that would eliminate obstacles for such contracts.

Juan Santamaría international Airport and some highways are concessions, although the airport deal has been a troubled one.

The idea of this private initiative is to design, plan, finance, construct, repair, enlarge or conserve public works, said the Ministry. More than 20 countries use this approach, said Chaves, as he suggested that marinas in the Pacific, small-town airports or other projects could use the creativity of private business.

Although developers now have many options, the plan outlined by Chaves would allow the use of public lands or facilities. Chaves and others freely admit that the government just does not have the money to finance all the possible and needed projects.

Controversial commentator slain in Nicaragua
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

MANAGUA, Nicaragua —  An assassin gunned down controversial radio and television commentator Carlos José Guadamuz Portillo Tuesday afternoon in front of a television station where he was going to broadcast.

The lone gunman put five 38-caliber revolver bullets in the chest of Guadamuz. The 12:50 p.m. shooting took place just minutes before the daily television program "Dardos al Centro" (Darts to the center).

Guadamuz was declared dead at 1:20 p.m. at a local hospital 30 minutes after the shooting. 

Employees of the station and the victim’s son captured the gunman, who was later identified as William Augusto Hurtado Garcia. Evidence of premeditated murder includes the fact that the assailant was wearing two sets of clothing when captured and had disposed of the murder weapon.

The capture and transport of the body and tape of the assassin were televised live on Nicaraguan channels. The video shows the son crying for help at the side of his dying father. 

Guadamuz was perhaps the most controversial journalist in modern Nicaraguan history. He was a former confidant of Daniel Ortega, the former president and supreme leader of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional. Guadamuz was removed from the Frente due

to a dispute over the ownership of Radio Ya, the unofficial voice of the Sandinistas. 

Guadamuz ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for mayor of Managua as an independent in 2001 and was a severe critic of both Ortega and then-president Arnoldo Alemán.

He was involved in litigation attempting to recover Radio Ya and was a strong supporter of judicial reform in his television and radio programs. He had been receiving death threats since at least last February, according to news reports.

The shooting took place outside the studios of Canal de Noticias Nicaragüense, Channel 23, located in downtown Managua.

Enrique Bolaños, president of Nicaragua, said the country was dismayed by the killing. He noted in a statement that no journalist had been killed in the country for 26 years and one month.  "This assassination not only damages his family but all of Nicaragua," said Bolaños.

Although he did not give details, the president was referring to the Jan. 10, 1978, murder of pro-democracy publisher Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, whose wife, Violeta Chamorro, later became president.

Guadamuz served eight years in prison under the dictator Anastasio Somoza and later was a Sandinista supporter.

 
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Crimes against kids
would mean exile

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Foreigners who commit a serious crime against a minor will be expelled from Costa Rica for 25 years, according to a change in a proposed immigration law approved in committee Tuesday.

The exile also will cover those who commit serious crimes against women, as in domestic violence, and crimes against the handicapped, according to the law.

The change was authored by Carlos Avendaño of the Partido Renovación Costarricense and María de los Angeles Víquez of the Partido Liberación Nacional. The two negotiated an agreement with other members of the Comisión Permanente de Gobierno y Administración, which is studying the immigration measure.

The amendment is a change to the section of the law that stipulates reasons for deportation.

This forms part of our total fight to protect Costa Rican children in this law," said Avendaño. "This is a way to say that there exists zero tolerance for these crimes against our boys and girls.

Doggie decree met
with some skepticism

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A presidential decree that requires citizens to take care of their pets was met with some skepticism in the legislature Tuesday.

President Abel Pacheco signed the decree, as did Eduardo López, vice minister of Salud. However, its existence was not known until it was published in the Gaceta, the official newspaper, this week.

The decree makes owners responsible for the actions of their animals, principally dogs and cats. But the decree also mandates that owners meet certain conditions, including the way the animal might be tied up.

The owner must see to it that the animals does not suffer psychological damage from fear or tension, stress or anxiety.

Owners also must make sure that any chain or leash used to tie up the animal is at least four times as long as the pet. And owners are obligated to exercise the animal, under terms of the decree.

In addition, the animals have a right to birth control and protection from rain, cold and heat. People who sell animals have to provide instructional material at the same time. Plus they must make sure the purchase is of age.

A big category and the reasons the health official was involved is the treatment of animal waste.

Officials estimate that more than a million dogs and about half that many cats are in Costa Rica.

Lawmaker Juan José Vargas Fallas said Tuesday that the responsibility of an owner for the actions of his or her pet is fundamental. The most important thing is to educate the public, he said, suggesting that a publicity campaign would be more beneficial than a decree. To enforce a decree that requires animal owners to pick up waste generated by their pets would require a policeman every 100 meters, he said.

The decree by itself doesn’t help anything, he said, noting that having a dog is like having a gun in the house.

Missing boy turns up
trying to get a ride

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A search of more than 24 hours for a 13-year-old ended happily Tuesday when the boy turned up trying to hitchhike a ride just 5 kms. (3 miles) from his home.

The boy, Alonso Lascano Romero lives in Río Cuarto de San Carlos. His mother reported him missing Monday and said he had been gone for a few days.

Fuerza Pública officers said they were treating the case as a murder, although there were no strong clues. A motorist recognized the boy Tuesday afternoon from radio and television reports and brought him to the Ciudad Quesada police station, officials said.

Legislative agenda
sent by president

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The executive branch handed lawmakers a laundry list of 47 bills it wants passed during the so-called extraordinary session during which Casa Presidencial can set the agenda of the Asamblea Nacional.

President Abel Pacheco and Ricardo Toledo, minister of the Presidencia, sent a message to the legislators that listed a number of laws, including regulation of casinos, adding a chapter of environmental guarantees to the Constitution, passing a law providing liberty of the press and of expression and the creation of a national commercial fishing commission.

The extraordinary session ends April 30.

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Climate change may be killer, scientists fear
By the Wake Forest University News Service

Many species of plants in the Amazon cloud forest may not survive the dramatic climate changes forecast to occur within the next 100 years, according to a new study published in the Feb. 6 issue of Science by Wake Forest University ecologist Miles Silman.

Silman, along with collaborators Mark Bush and Dunia Urrego of the Florida Institute of Technology, documented climate change and changes in forest composition occurring during the past 48,000 years in one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots. It is the first continuous record of Andean climate change.

They took sediment samples from a remote lake on the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes and analyzed the fossilized pollen in each layer to determine what plants grew in the area and in what abundance from before the peak of the last ice age through modern times.

The data shows that the lower mountain forests of the Andes have a history of profound but not rapid climate change, suggesting that temperature change in these systems was gradual, perhaps averaging less than 1 degree Celsius (approximately 2 degrees Fahrenheit) per 1,000 years, said Silman, assistant professor of biology at Wake Forest. 

"An anticipated warming of 1 to 4 degrees Celsius within the next 100 years raises concerns for the long-term survival of these systems," he said.

A 1-degree increase is the minimum estimate made by the International Panel on Climate Change, and predictions made specifically for the eastern Andes show a 2-  to 4-degree Celsius change is likely.

The minimum rate of predicted change would be 10 times greater than the most rapid temperature change that took place in the past 48,000 years.

"For species with narrow elevation ranges, the predicted rate of climate change may move them completely outside of their climatic niche space within only one or two plant generations," Silman and his co-authors wrote in the study. "Climate change, coupled with habitat destruction, could cause Andean plant communities to experience greatly increased extinction rates."

"The cloud forests in the eastern Andes and the adjacent Amazon basin have the highest biodiversity of any place in the world," Silman said. "When we want to understand the impact of climate and climate change on biodiversity this is a critical area."

Temperature changes with elevation vary predictably, and plants have limited temperature ranges in which they grow well.

"Just think of the planting zones on the back of a garden seed packet," Silman said. "In the Andes, all of these zones are compressed down to a few hundred meters wide. I could throw a rock across the elevational range of an entire species. Andean slopes have large numbers of native species with 

Miles Silman on the job in an Amazon cloud forest.
Wake Forest photo

narrow altitudinal distributions and that makes the Andean system especially sensitive to past and present climate change."

Species in the cloud forest do not have to make large migrations to stay in the climate range that would allow them to survive.

From the data collected, Silman and his fellow researchers determined the cloud forest existed at or near the site consistently for the past 48,000 years. The forests were more stable for longer periods of time than they expected, he said.

Because plant communities form the basis for all other biodiversity in these systems, stability is important.

"When we lose plant species and substantially alter the plant communities in other systems, we get cascading changes in the animal communities, and, importantly, changes in plant communities that can, in turn, cause further changes in climate," Silman explained.

The area experienced an ice-age cooling of 5 to 9 degrees Celsius (about 9 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit) and then a gradual warming beginning about 19,000 years ago. The warming progressed steadily with no sudden accelerations.

The cloud forest maintained high diversity even after significant climate change, Silman said, but the unprecedented change in climate predicted in the next century could prove too challenging for the plants there.

Maintaining high diversity is important because "a lot of our technology — medicine, agriculture, even cleaning oil spills, is driven by genetic engineering," Silman said. "We prospect for genes in the environment for all of these things. The Andean biodiversity hot spot is the largest single repository of genetic information on the planet, and we are in danger of what is tantamount to burning the library at Alexandria."

The university is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

.
 
Two Republican lawmakers expect Cuban initiative after elections
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Two Republican U.S. lawmakers, just back from a trade mission to Cuba, believe the United States will drop its ban on Americans traveling to the Caribbean island next year.

Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Butch Otter, both Idaho Republicans, just returned from a four-day trip to Cuba, where they led a trade delegation and signed agricultural agreements with Cuban officials. 

The two lawmakers are seeking to lift the ban against travel to Cuba by Americans, arguing it is the best way to bring about democratic change to the communist-ruled island nation. 

Craig said "letting the light shine into Cuba will be the single greatest force against Castro and anything he might do against the Cuban people." 

Most lawmakers agree. The House of Representatives and Senate last year both approved legislation to lift the travel ban. But the measure was never sent to President George Bush, who had vowed to veto it. 

The politically-influential Cuban-American community in Florida, a state crucial to Bush's re-election prospects this year, vehemently opposes any relaxation in the four-decades-old embargo on Cuba. 

Bowing to political reality, Craig says the opportunity for lifting the travel ban will come next year, after this November's election. At a Capitol Hill news conference, Craig said he told his Cuban hosts as much. "What I told Cuban officials is that I felt 2005 could become a very productive year for a progressive way of beginning to adjust and change our relationship with Cuba from a legal standpoint," he said. 

Craig and Otter signed an agreement Saturday with

Cuban officials under which Cuba's food import company will buy $10 million worth of Idaho agricultural products, including thousands of tons of potatoes and beans. 

The United States in 2000 authorized the sale of food and medicine to Cuba. A year later Cuba began purchasing such items. Cuba has now signed more than $700 million in food-purchase agreements with U.S. firms. 

But many U.S. lawmakers, including Otter, would like to see U.S. law changed to allow trade in other products. "It is too bad that we have a policy that continues to stop the economic activity that I think we would really be able to engage in with Cuba, because we are limited to food and pharmaceuticals. There are a lot of things we make in Idaho that would help their farming program that would certainly help their education program in terms of high-technology, communications that they could use," he said. 

Otter and Craig are considering legislation to expand U.S. trade with Cuba, and discussed such prospects and other issues with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in a three-hour meeting in Havana on Monday. 

Craig offered his observations of the Cuban leader. "It was a fascinating meeting in the sense that he fully engaged us in a very open discussion. He appeared in all aspects to be very robust. He certainly knew his facts and details about every element of the program. He talked about the number of calories in a food lunch program served in their schools. He talked about the extended educational program in Cuba with great detail. I think all of us, never having met the gentleman, were impressed to the extent that he knew so many details of individual programs," he said. 

Craig and Otter plan a return visit to Cuba in April to take part in a trade exhibition. 


 
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Police in Haiti regain control of three key cities
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Police here say they have regained control in three of 11 towns seized by armed gangs over the past few days. Widespread violence is reported in several towns in western and northern Haiti as police and government supporters battle opposition gangs. 

More than 40 people have died since the violence began last week. The United Nations is warning of a humanitarian crisis if the violence does not end soon.

Police consolidated their control Tuesday over the town of St. Marc, which is some 70 kms. (42 miles) north of here and also the nearby town of Grand Goave.

In the northern port city of Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, supporters of Haiti's government and police attacked suspected government opponents on Tuesday. 

So far police have not said when they will move against armed gangs who seized the western port city of Gonaives, last Thursday. Speaking at a news conference in this capital Tuesday, Haiti's secretary of state for Defense, Jean Gerard Dubreuil, said when authorities do move against the rioters they will move with efficiency.

Dubreuil says police are facing small groups of demonstrators who are using civilians as shields when they attack the authorities.

The violence over the past week is the worst to strike Haiti in a decade. Much of the violence is the work of gangs in Gonaives, and surrounding areas, who were once considered staunch supporters of Haiti's President Jean Bertrand Aristide.

Over the past six months, a growing coalition of anti-Aristide business leaders, politicians and members of civil society groups, have been protesting against Aristide's government, saying it is guilty of human rights abuses, mismanagement and corruption. 

The charges are disputed by Aristide and his supporters. The protesters have called on Aristide to step down two years before his term officially expires, something he says he has no intention of doing. Opposition groups in this city have condemned the violence now under way in large parts of the Haitian countryside.

Meanwhile U.N. officials are warning that vital food delivery supplies are being disrupted to the point where Haiti will soon face a humanitarian crisis if the violence is not brought under control soon.

Also Tuesday, the United States renewed its call for an end to violence and a political solution to the crisis in Haiti. The State Department said a settlement would involve thorough reform of the way Haiti is governed, though it did not call for the early departure from office of Aristide.

The unrest in Haiti is being followed with concern by senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who discussed the situation by phone with Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham and at a meeting with Haiti's incoming ambassador to Washington, Raymond Valcin.

At a Washington, D.C., news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell used what was nominally a "courtesy call" by the Haitian diplomat to press the Aristide government to accept peace-making efforts of Caribbean nations and seek a political solution.

Caribbean leaders have been pressing a peace plan that would include a commitment by Aristide not to seek re-election in 2006. In the meantime, a new prime minister would be appointed and a broad-based government advisory council named to help lead the country to new elections. Haiti has been at a political impasse since disputed legislative elections in 2000.

In his remarks here, spokesman Boucher drew a distinction between Haiti's mainstream opposition parties, who he said have advocated peaceful change and protests, and the armed gangs who seized control of major towns in recent days.


 
French Assembly acts to ban conspicuous religious items in class 
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

PARIS, France — The National Assembly has overwhelmingly approved a plan to ban Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols from French public schools. The Senate must now decide on the issue, but final approval is expected. 

The late afternoon vote offered few surprises. Of the National Assembly's 577 deputies, 494 voted in favor of the legislation to ban Muslim headscarves, Jewish skull caps, Christian crosses, and other so-called conspicuous religious symbols from French public schools. 

Only members of France's small Communist and Republican parties voted against the measure. A rebellious group within the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party abstained from the vote. 

The landslide majority was achieved after a last-minute agreement by the opposition Socialist Party to vote in favor of the bill. 

The Socialists had wanted the text to be hardened to ban all visible religious symbols, rather than only those judged to be conspicuous. That tougher wording would also forbid students to wear small crosses, Muslim hands of Fatma and other less obvious signs of their faiths. But the Socialists won a smaller concession, with an agreement to review the legislation next year to see whether it is effective.  The French Senate is expected to vote on a similar bill next month. 

The religious symbols ban has the broad backing of French President Jacques Chirac and his center-right government. And since the Senate, like the National Assembly, is dominated by Chirac's UMP party, a vote in favor of the legislation is virtually assured. 

That means French public school students will likely face such a ban when the next school year begins, in September. The measure would not apply to university students or to those going to private schools. 

Despite strong support in the French parliament, the proposed religious symbols ban has stirred fierce criticism. Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders have protested the measure as violating freedom of religion and expression. So have members of France's tiny Sikh community, who argue wearing a turban is a mandatory part of their identity. And several foreign governments, including the United States, have expressed concern about such a ban. 

But other critics argue a school symbols ban merely papers over larger problems of discrimination and marginalization facing France's sizable immigrant and minority populations. 

Supporters argue that secularism is an integral part of the French national identity, and that forcing students to leave religious symbols outside their schools will help immigrant and minority groups integrate into the French mainstream.

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