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(506) 223-1327           Published Tuesday, March 6, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 46            E-mail us    
Jo Stuart
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How country can confront problem of efficiency
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Free trade agreement or no free trade agreement, in order to compete internationally Costa Rica has to become more efficient.

That means institutions and individuals must function better.

But what changes can be made? A.M. Costa Rica staffers got together to consider possibilities not so much to complain but to come up with ideas.

All agreed that the Costa Rica of today is much more efficient than in the last century, but vestiges of tradition slow down the country.

For example, in a global economy a week off at Holy Week and a week or two off at Christmas are real liabilities.

So, too, is a labor law that provides bonuses for night work or early morning shifts. Intel Corp likes a four-day, 10-hour work week, but the company has to pay extra because the current laws are not flexible, and lawmakers won't pass changes.

A serious drawback is that the government and bureaucracy does not recognize the value of a citizen's time. This is no clearer than at public health clinics where individuals start gathering at 4 a.m. in order to obtain an appointment.

There also are resource problems, such as the over-booked ultrasound department that was trying to schedule pregnant women for appointments 10 months in the future.

A lot of busy work could be eliminated with hard looks at processes. Why, for example, does a Costa Rican need a letter from an employer or other depositors to open up a bank account? Does anyone ever really check up on these letters. Could they be forgeries?  There is certainly something to be said for knowing one's customer, but is this necessary for a $50 deposit?

In  other countries disposable cell phones are sold over the counter. Here the process is complex, and someone in the telecommunications bureaucracy may throw out the application if he or she does not like the style of the signature.

After all, every adult Costa Rican is clearly identifiable by a cédula containing a unique number.

Education also is replete with bureaucracy. Before a child can attend school, the parent must bring a birth certificate. Unlike in other countries, these certificates have an expiration date, frequently three months after issuance. So every parent with a child starting school in February must spend hours in line at the Registro Civil during the proceeding months to obtain such a certificate.

This raises the question why birth certificates have an expiration date in the first place?

Teachers also can tell stories about not being paid, about working far from home, about not being backedup by the administration.

Consider the poor taxi driver who must transfer his license plates from an old car to a new car. Sometimes the process takes three weeks, and the driver is out of work while the bureaucratic wheels creak on. The same with new cars.
Why are there not stacks of license plates awaiting customers instead of the reverse?

That is why so many cars are running around without plates, and robbers and other crooks take advantage of this situation to use stolen cars.

Most national and local government offices are closing now at 3 p.m. The Abel Pacheco administration wanted to cut down on fuel consumption so the work day started at 7 a.m. But private enterprise manages to keep its businesses open for much longer periods.

Why not the government where citizens have to wedge appointments in to their own work day.

The U.S. Treasury Department started working with the Costa Rican tax authorities in 2005. The following year, the United States invested $400,000 in technical assistance in tax collecting. The agency said that Tributación Directa brought in more than $24 million in 2006, an amount that is 279 percent grerater than in 2005.

The U.S. agency also reported Monday that local collections were up to $8 million, an improvement of 69 percent.

As repugnant as tax collecting is to some people, the experiment shows that Costa Rican bureaucracy can be streamlined.

The situation with seaside concessions proves the point that complexity leads to corruption.  How many corners are cut and gifts delivered simply to get approvals for development or construction?

Another problem is that one never is done getting approvals. Take the case of a firm building a shopping center in Grecia. After all the approvals had been received, the Sala IV constitutional court acted on an appeal that the construction would damage a nearby water source. The project is on hold.

The Registro Nacional could profit by adopting printed forms. If someone seeks to transfer title on a motor vehicle, a notary must be involved. The notary prepares a typed document, perhaps a page of boilerplate.  Why not forms with blanks where names and other dates could be inserted?

Many employees at the Registro spend their days looking for flaws in documents that have been filed. Consider how much easier their jobs would be if the forms were preprinted. They would just have to check the inserted data. Many also would have more productive labor.

Notaries make a bundle on property transfers. Their fee can be up to 1.5 percent of the sales price. How do they earn this money? They search the title, fill out a few papers and then file the documents. The fee is higher if a mortgage is involved.

This is another professional monopoly that siphons money for ritual and not action. Payment should be based on the hours spent working.

There are many other areas where improvement could be made: customs, immigration, the snail-like court system, municipal business licensing, diverse stamps on every document.

The door is open for readers to comment on this topic.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, March 6, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 46

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Fuel stop at Playas de Coco
was undoing for drug boat

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A drug boat, presumably en route to the United States, pulled into Playas del Coco to refuel Sunday, but the police were in the air.

The result was a chase through the jungle in which two persons were captured and two still are on the loose.

The boat, a 37-foot vessel with three 200-horsepower Yamaha outboards on the stern, first was spotted in the vicinity of Playa Flamingo by someone who notified police.

When the spotter plane overflew Playas del Coco Sunday morning, the boat was motionless in the water and appeared to be taking on fuel. Refueling drug boats is a profitable sideline for some fishermen on the Pacific coast.

When the four occupants saw the plane from the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, they took off. Once they realized the was futile, they directed their boat to Playas Coloradas, at Punta Respingue near Santa Elena, Guanacaste.

The plane from the ministry's Sección de Vigilancia Aérea kept in contact with the boat and later provided spotter service so officers on the ground could find the occupants who fled on foot.

The two men detained were identified by the last name, ages and hometowns of Tello Portocarrero, 32, of Bocas del Caimán, Colombia, and Portocarrero Obando, 26, of Buenaventura del Valle, Colombia.

On the boat police found  1,643 one-kilo packages of suspected cocaine.

Agricultural experts here
will consider leadership

By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some 200 agricultural scientists and administrators from 50 countries began their meeting in San José Monday with a call from President Óscar Arias Sánchez to keep human values within their educational programs.

The organization is the Global Consortium of Higher Education and Research in Agriculture, and the host is José A. Zaglul, rector of the private university EARTH. This is the fifth world conference.

"Education is the most fertile seed to cultivate in the human beings of the future, the values, the aptitudes and the perceptions that permit them to reach their maximum realization in liberty dignity and prosperity," said Arias.

The conference is centered on the theme of innovation and leadership to promote relevant changes in agriculture. Many participants are from under developed countries where much of the agricultural products are for home consumption.

Zaglul, in his welcome talk, noted that the Teatro Nacional, where the session was held, is itself a product of agriculture. The structure went up more than a 100 years ago as a monument to the coffee trade.

Suspect held in fatal bus shooting

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigators have detained an 18-year-old in the death of a public bus passenger who was gunned down in an abortive robbery.

A second individual is in flight, according to the Judicial Investigating Organization. He may have gone to Nicaragua.

The arrest Monday of the suspect, Cristian Vargas Gutiérrez, is the first in the death of Multiplaza, Escazú, employee, Evelyn Alfaro Alegría, 20. She died when two bandits held up a Piedades-bound bus Dec. 19. She worked at Carrion in the mall.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, March 6, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 46

Claim of blackmail try shakes up Oswaldo Villalobos trial
By Dennis Rogers
A.M. Costa Rica special correspondent

Charges of attempted blackmail shook the somnolent atmosphere of the Oswaldo Villalobos trial Monday, as a new player appeared on the scene. The prosecution reported that it had been given new information by an Austrian who had been in prison.

The defense responded that an anonymous caller had threatened to turn over documents if he was not given a financial settlement.

Defense lawyer Alexander Ruíz reported he had a phone call at his home Thursday night, in which the caller said “I have information of interest to Oswaldo. I want Oswaldo to sit down and talk with me.”

Ruíz said when he asked the man to identify himself, the man said “My name doesn’t matter. What matters is this document,” and then gave a deadline of noon Friday. Ruíz said that the defense was not interested and the deadline passed.

Prosecutor Ilem Meléndez had details from her interview of her informant, who may or may not be the same individual as the caller. He hadn’t come forward because the Villalobos brothers were working with him on a settlement over the money he had invested (reported as more than a million dollars), and Luis Enrique Villalobos had even visited him in jail, she said. The man had received a partial payment of $275,000 deposited in European banks, she said.

Judges Isabel Porras, Carlos Pérez, and Manuel Rojas met Monday afternoon to consider the new evidence and will announce this morning whether to let the Austrian testify.
Earlier witnesses continued the pattern firmly established at this point in the trial. Italian Pierro Alterio, and Costa Ricans Fabio Trecovich, Aura Pérez, and Jeanette Campos all had invested relatively modest sums, but had suffered seriously from the loss, they said. Ms. Campos related that she had put in $11,000 of her own money, but at the time was caring for a North American who was suffering from emphysema, and who had in excess of $380,000 invested.  The man died in 2003 after the investment operation shut down, she said. “I think that’s what killed him,” stated Ms. Campos.

A full hour in the afternoon was dedicated to testimony through an interpreter by the family of French-Canadian Gonzague Chatigny. He did not take the stand himself, but his daughter Katia, his wife, Monique, and his brother Pierre testified. Katia Chatigny was questioned little more than five minutes with neither defense nor prosecution interested.

Monique Chatigny gave more detail, and spent time at a whiteboard to describe the layout of the Mall San Pedro offices in detail. Pierre reported he had sent bank transfers and a check to Enrique Villalobos as early as 1996, and did withdraw $7,000 on one occasion.

As Prosecutor Meléndez’ questions drifted towards the offices again, the judges exchanged exasperated looks and both sides quickly concluded.

The prosecution is trying to show that Oswaldo Villalobos's Ofinter S.A. money exchange operation was linked to the high-interest investment operation run by Luis Enrique Villalobos, who is a fugitive.

The defense has reduced its list of witnesses from 57 to 11 and may finish this week.

Cuban American involved in an $11 million fraud case captured in Atenas

Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía
y Seguridad Pública photo
Gianni Vazquez Suarez in custody Monday morning
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigators caught up with a Cuban American Monday. The man had been living at least part time in Costa Rica since at least 2004.

He is sought in an $11 million medical scam in the Miami area, according to arresting officers. The man was identified as Gianni Vazquez Suarez. He was detained at a mechanic's shop in Barrio San José in Atenas. The man has lived in Atenas, Escazú, San Pedro and Sabanilla. The arrest was made by the Fuerza Pública and agents of the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad/INTERPOL.

Vazquez was carrying a .38 pistol at the time of his arrest, but there was no violence, officials said. He is facing specific charges of money laundering and fraud that have been lodged by the U.S. F.B.I.

The detention order was issued by a San José court, but information from the United States said that in 2003 and 2004 Vazquez used different identities to obtain reimbursements for medical services supposedly provided by his companies that provided medical supplies.

The man was very cautious with his movement here, officials said, and only used possessions like cell phones and vehicles that were in the name of others.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, March 6, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 46

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Bush prefaces trip with aid and cash for Latin America
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services
and special reports

U.S. President George Bush is expanding U.S. aid for education, health care, housing and other programs for Latin America. The announcement came just three days before the president is scheduled to make a five-nation tour of the region.

The president's message is simple: the United States has not forgotten its neighbors to the south. He said, "The working poor of Latin America need change and the United States of America is committed to that change."

Administration officials say they are well aware U.S. efforts in the region have been overshadowed by developments elsewhere in the world. They say they understand why some in Latin America feel they have been ignored and strenuously argue that is not the case.

In a Washington speech to a group of Hispanic business leaders, Bush said he remains committed to bolstering democracies in the region, and helping them serve the poor. He said despite economic gains throughout the hemisphere, too many people remain mired in poverty.

"Nearly one out of four people in Latin America live on less than two dollars a day," he said. "Many children never finish grade school. Many mothers never see a doctor. In an age of growing prosperity and abundance, this is a scandal and a challenge."

Bush said the United States will provide tens of millions of dollars in additional aid in three key areas: education, health care and housing. He said new programs will be set up to help disadvantaged students, promote home ownership, and get health services to those most in need.

The initiatives announced by the president include:

• The deployment of the Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, to Belize, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname, where its staff will provide health care services for up to 100,000 patients.  Military medical teams also will partner with governments in 14 Latin American countries to deliver medical services as part of 62 scheduled medical readiness training exercises.

• A new U.S.-sponsored training center will be established in Panama to increase the number of health care workers across Central America.

• An additional $75 million will be allocated over the next three years to help more Latin American students study in the United States. 

White House photo by Paul Morse
George Bush acknowledges the applause of his audience after delivering a major policy address Monday on Latin America.

• The State and Treasury departments will collaborate on an initiative to extend small business loans to qualified business owners, creating new jobs across the region. 

• A $385 million expansion of mortgage underwriting through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation will help make affordable housing available to families in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and other countries in the region.

• A White House conference in 2007 will gather experts from businesses and private voluntary organizations to consider new ways to address poverty in the Western Hemisphere.

"It is going to be busy," Bush said of the hospital ship. "Altogether the Comfort's doctors, nurses and health care professionals expect to treat 85,000 patients and conduct up to 1,500 surgeries," he added.

The president delivered the speech just three days before he is set to leave Washington on a week-long journey to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and México.

Aides say he has wanted to make the trip for some time to highlight his commitment to the region, and they note that his schedule includes numerous visits to facilities that are trying to make a difference in the lives of the poor and the disenfranchised.

This is Bush's most extensive trip to Latin America since taking office in January 2001. And it comes at a time when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is trying to galvanize anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.

European Union diplomats wrestle with their decision on carbon emissions
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso says the cost of combating global warming is far less than the cost of doing nothing.

Barroso spoke in Brussels Monday, where European Union diplomats are debating sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, which many scientists believe are causing the Earth's climate to get warmer.

Barroso said he understands the cost to economies of
capping emissions, but, he adds, not tackling the problem will cost economies more in the future. Barroso said that other countries, including the United States, are watching to see what Europe does on this issue.

European Union environmental ministers agreed in principle last month to cut carbon emissions from cars and factories by as much as 20 percent by 2020.

EU leaders will vote on the plan at a summit later this week. Some believe the plan is too expensive and are seeking a compromise

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