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Self-denial and penance does not mean a poor diet
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

As Costa Ricans observe the Catholic period of Lent, the diet turns to something other than red meat.

Lent, called Cuaresma in Spanish, is supposed to be a period of penance, fasting, abstinence and reflection. The period also is a time to take full advantage of seafoods and some of the derivatives of the chiverre squash.

This is why the stores are full of displays promoting various types of canned fish products. Cod has become synonymous with Lent, and there are a number of soups and casseroles that use this fish product.

The traditions in Costa Rica have changed over the years. Now many families head to the beach for Semana Santa instead of sitting home to pray on Good Friday with the stove, radio and other distractions turned off.

Although there are many other religious faiths in Costa Rica, the culinary traditions of Lent seem to be nearly universal. Costa Rican Jews, of course, are preparing for Passover, and that is a time rich in tradition with some shared food specialties. After all, those at the Last Supper were Jews.

An observant Catholic is supposed to forsake red meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. That's where the seafoods enter the picture. Theologians have wracked their brains considering the gray areas of abstinence, but no one can go wrong with sardines, tuna, ceviche or shrimp and rice.

The Museo Nacional reports that at one time Costa Ricans abstained from cooking during the entire Semana Santa, the days leading up to Holy Thursday and Good Friday. That was the time before microwaves. But the culinary tradition lingers on with non-perishable foods like palmito, encurtidos and pastries prepared the previous weekend.

The 40-plus days of Lent also call for alms-giving, fasting on certain days and prayer. Self-denial and good works do not exclude a rich soup of cod, called bacalao in Spanish.

Some markets have specials at this time of year to cater to the religious customers. Others jack up the prices. Many types of fish are pricey all the time. A can of cod that drains to about three ounces sells for about 2,700 colons, more than $5. Jumbo shrimp require a second mortgage.

In San José perhaps the best shopping is at the Mercado Central or at small markets south of Avenida 6. There also are the weekend agricultural ferias. The chiverre squash, Cucurbita ficifolia, found only in Central and South America, requires ample preparation and can be found all over the Central Valley. They are brought from farms by the truckload.

There are three different ways to serve it: chiverre with pink sugar, with black sugar cane or con tapa de dulce de caña and finally by using a trapiche or small mill to create a conserve. Recipes are HERE! Tapas de dulce are those circular blocks of brown sugar made from cane.

During this season, Ticos think automatically of
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The sardines and cod come in many varieties

A.M. Costa Rica file photo
Miel de chiverre becomes a sweet jam that means Semana Santa more than any Costa Rican food.

miel de chiverre, coco ayote and arroz con leche.

These family recipes have been transmitted across time. To be faithful to Grandma’s recipe a certain tapa de azucar or a certain bean must be used or the taste will not be the same.

The freshness of the ingredients is really important, and this is why a feria del agricultor is a place to find the basics to prepare the food. The fairs themselves are full of wonderful colors, beautiful products and low prices. Ceviche is chopped, marinated raw fish credited to the ancient Peruvians. It can be seasoned with peppers and herbs from the feria. Encurtidos are pickled pieces of vegetable that are best purchased in a jar at the market.

The Lenten season leads up to Easter Sunday when self-denial is not required and the table can groan under the beef, pork and lamb dishes that make waiting more than 40 days worthwhile.

Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, was Feb. 22, Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Semana Santa, is April 1 this year. Good Friday is April 6, and Easter is April 8.

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Executive branch bends
slightly to union demands

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The general strike no one wants has been put off for at least 15 days.

Leaders of public employee unions met with representatives of the executive branch Monday and found that officials would not budge on a 5,000-colon across the board pay raise. The union leaders want at least 4.18 percent.

Casa Presidencial released a statement after the meeting. The session was a follow up to one a week ago that resulted in the union rank-and-file rejecting a tentative accord.

The statement showed the central government has given a little ground. The statement said that the executive branch would replace the decree that mandated the 5,000-colon raise that would make some administrative adjustments union leaders wanted. But there was no movement backwards on the raise itself.

The government also said that it would put out for analysis a proposed law on public employees before submitting it to the Asamblea Legislativa.

President Laura Chinchilla was not at the meeting. The summary of the meeting was signed by Ricardo Carlos Benavides, the minister of the Presidencia, and Sandra Piszk, the minister of Trabajo. However, the statement said that the government had agreed to two more points. The union representatives had asked to meet with the president, and that request was granted. In addition, the government agreed not to dock the salaries of union members who participated in two protests last month.

No date was specified for a meeting with the president. Union leaders will use the 15 days to consult further with their members.

The executive branch is in a corner because there is no money for raises. In fact, the money to pay the 5,000 colons to each public employee will have to be borrowed. A prolonged general strike could wreck the economy because exports would be stopped as well as schooling.

Union leaders may have trouble selling a prolonged strike to their members. If teachers walk out, they will face the anger of parents. Police officers from the various forces would cause a spike in crime if they struck, based on experiences in other countries. The result would be a public relations disaster for the unions.

Find out what the papers
said today in Spanish

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Here is the section where you can scan short summaries from the Spanish-language press. If you want to know more, just click on a link and you will see and longer summary and have the opportunity to read the entire news story on the page of the Spanish-language newspaper but translated into English.

Translations may be a bit rough, but software is improving every day.

When you see the Summary in English of news stories not covered today by A.M. Costa Rica, you will have a chance to comment.

This is a new service of A.M. Costa Rica called Costa Rica Report. Editor is Daniel Woodall, and you can contact him HERE!
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New Sigma office center begins deep in the earth. The insert is a rendering of the final project.
New office center in San Pedro will have 538,200 square feet
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A gigantic hole west of the Mall San Pedro is the site for a gigantic office center.

The project is Centro de Negocios Sigma and not an extension of the mall as many believe.

Daniel Solano, manager of the development project, said that the structure is supposed to be 50,000 square meters. That's about 538,200 square feet. In addition, the completed structure will have 700 underground parking spaces.
The completion date is April 2013, he said. Work began last month. The general contractor is Van der Laat y Jiménez S.A.

So far the site is marked by a procession of dump trucks carrying away soil that was removed to provide a foundation. Some footers are in and workmen are beginning to put up rebar for concrete pilars.

The building is supposed to be environmentally friendly, said Solano.  There will be 20,000 square meters of rental space. That's about 215,300 square feet. The location is on the Bulevar Barrio Dent.

Email campaign seeks money from former Villalobos investors
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The United Concerned Citizens & Residents has disavowed any connection with an email solicitation that is making the rounds. The email, identified as the Villalobos Report, seems to be seeking money from former investors of the failed Villalobos investment scheme.

United Concerned Citizens is a group that is now seeking some kind of reimbursement from the Costa Rican government via the courts because law enforcement closed down the Villalobos high-interest operation. This is the same organization that pressured investors to drop their case against Oswaldo Villalobos, one of the brothers, who was eventually convicted of aggravated fraud.

Those who did not drop their case received a proportional payment.

In a Web posted, the organization said that there has been no word from Luis Enrique Villalobos since 2009. However, they appear to fully expect the fugitive to return when the statute of limitation expires and to pay off the faithful.

The Villalobos operation collapsed in 2002 after an investigatory raid. That was July 4 that year. In November, Luis Enrique announced in a Fax to A.M. Costa Rica that he was closing down. The newspaper received one additional message from him, an email, but his supporters believe they have received many.
United and Concerned Citizens said that sightings of Oswaldo Villalobos on the streets of the Central Valley probably are true because the convicted man has received two days of freedom per week.

The villalobosreports email seeks a non-refundable payment to “provide the necessary working capital to pursue our interests,” although future actions are not specified. There is a defunct Web site of the same name, but there is no indiction that there is a relationship. was run by an expat supporter of the brothers who encouraged investors to drop their legal cases.

The aftermath of the Villalobos collapse saw several schemes to recover money. One promoter claimed to have trapped Luis Enrique in a box and was transporting him to the Central Valley. A more straightforward effort was an attempt to bring the Costa Rican government into international arbitration to compensate some investors for having closed down the high-interest operation. Three persons on a panel at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington, a World Bank agency, decided they did not have jurisdiction.

The collapse of the Villalobos high interest operation cost investors up to $2 billion. Luis Enrique paid nearly 3 percent a month to investors who deposited at least $10,000.

The Costa Rican courts decided the business was a ponzi scheme because investigators never could determine how the firm made money.

U.S. citizen who killed would-be car thief released from custody
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The La Fortuna restaurant operator who killed a man who was trying to steal a vehicle is out of jail.

Law officers released the man, John Markus Pennisi, a U.S. citizen, sometime Monday. A lawyer from the Defensa Publica said Pennisi was given certain rules to follow. These are called medidas cautelares, and a judge usually orders them when he or she believes a defendant has roots in the community and will show up at future hearings.

Pennisi operates a restaurant in La Fortuna. The business, New York Grill, was closed Monday.
The lawyer said Pennisi cannot leave the country, has to surrender his passport and has to check in with prosecutors every week.

In Costa Rica subjecting a victim to a criminal process when they kill or badly injure a suspect is not unusual. In this case, the would-be vehicle thief, identified by the last names of Mendoza Esquivel, confronted Pennisi when the businessman spotted him trying to take his pickup. That was about 10 a.m. Sunday.

Mendoza died from knife wounds in the chest and back.

Police said they were familiar with Mendoza.

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Chirripo fire
Servicio de Vigilancia Aérea photo
This was the scene over the rugged national park when security ministry pilots did an overflight Sunday.
Persons with skyrockets were seeking to help bring rain on fire
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some unidentified people wanted to help, so they approached the fire zone in Parque Nacional Chirripó and set up exploding skyrockets.

The Cuerpo de Bomberos said this is in response to a popular legend that such explosions can bring rain. Fire fighters on the scene said they heard such explosions Monday morning. That made them nervous because such exploding devices can cause more fires.

They said that they asked the Fuerza Pública to patrol to prevent such activities.
At the fire zone emergency workers were managing to contain the blaze to some 150 hectares, thanks to a three-meter fire break surrounding the fire. Officials hoped to douse the blaze with water today, but 30 to 40-knot winds kept Costa Rican and a Guatemalan helicopter on the ground. The winds were from 70 to 80 kph or up to 50 mph.  The area is about 370 acres.

The winds also help the fire challenge the fire break. Fire fighters characterized the situation as risky because of the wind and the potential for the blaze to jump the fire break.

If the wind subsides, helicopter pilots said they expect to make some flights this morning to bring water on the stubborn blaze.

Rice grower's chief dismisses report of free market for product
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A representative of rice growers said Monday that they oppose a free market for their product.

The growers, in the person of the president of the Asamblea Nacional de Productores and of the Asamblea General de Conarroz, was responding to press reports that negotiations were underway to free the price of rice, which is now controlled by the government.
The president is Oscar Campos.

Rice is highly controlled, and the price is not competitive with the same product from other countries.

The president of the organizations said that instead of letting the market determine the price, he expected the government to seek an exception from the World Trade Organization to reduce the amount of rice coming into the country.

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Search for Zoellick's job
said to focus on merit

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

As World Bank officials continue their search to replace outgoing President Robert Zoellick, an executive director at the global lender is promising that the selection process will be transparent and merit-based.

The executive director, Hekinus Manao, acknowledged that many are frustrated at the bank's custom of always picking an American as its president. But he said in an interview that the bank is committed to choosing the most qualified candidate.

“I agree to some extent that we could be skeptical, but we could also be optimistic. … If the shareholders are using these opportunities … to identify those with capabilities to be nominated, this is a good opportunity. So this is not all dependent on how the board and executive directors will decide by itself, but will depend on the global community and how it participates in this open process.”

Some experts, analysts, and developing nations say changing global and economic realities mean a more open process should be used to give talented officials from a variety of nations a chance at the bank's top spot.

Current president Zoellick is not seeking renomination when his term ends at the end of June, and must be replaced. World Bank officials are taking nominations for the post until March 23, and hope to name a new president by April.

U.S. officials have said they will put forward a strong candidate, and many view Harvard economist and former presidential adviser Larry Summers as a likely nominee. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, once thought of as a possibility for the position, has said she is not interested in the job.

Some have said that Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Indian entrepreneur and government minister Nandan Nilekani could make the bank's short list of candidates.

Under an informal agreement since the bank's founding 68 years ago, its president has always been an American, while the head of the International Monetary Fund has been a European.

'John Carter' is an old story
that's now an action film

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A century ago, "Tarzan," creator Edgar Rice Burroughs also wrote a series of popular novels about an earthman's adventures on the planet Mars. A new action film, "John Carter," is based on those sci-fi books.

Prospecting in the Arizona desert, John Carter, a veteran of the American Civil War, finds a mysterious gold amulet which transports him to another planet.

There he meets green-skinned, four-armed warriors called tharks and city-states populated by humans battling for control of the planet, a battle in which Carter becomes a key player.

Beginning with a story first published in 1912, Burroughs wrote 11 novels in the Barsoom series. Those books inspired writers from Ray Bradbury to George Lucas, as well as scientists like the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who hung a map of Barsoom outside his office at Cornell University.

Andrew Stanton, who directed "John Carter," read the books as a boy, but says making the film helped him understand the books are more than just adventure stories.

"I took it as people writing in a time of history where most of the Earth had been conquered and discovered," he says. "So your imagination starts going to another planet, but it's off that same desire to just find another culture, find another continent, find another land. So I didn't take it so much extra-terrestrial as I did just cultural."

Taylor Kitsch, best known for the TV series "Friday Night Lights," stars as the title character. He acknowledges there's a certain hunkiness about the often-bare-chested Carter, but insists there is more to the character.

"Aesthetically, it would be silly if I was overweight and shirtless the whole movie," Kitsch says. "It wouldn't look that good, either. So it goes with the territory, I guess."

The same might be said for Princess Dejah, with whom Carter joins forces on Barsoom. Lily Collins plays the brilliant scientist and skilled warrior who also wears form-fitting costumes.

"I wasn't interested in her just being some sort of sex symbol, and I wasn't interested in her using her sexuality," Collins says. "That meant that we had to focus on her intelligence and her intuition and the rest of it would come. I'd put on the costumes and that's what it is, maintaining always this feminine strength and that being the focus."

Stanton has won Oscars for his animated features including "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E," but "John Carter" is his first live-action film. If the audience responds, he hopes it's the start of a series of pictures based on the Barsoom novels.
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Journalists reporting on rights
vulnerable, U.N. expert says

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Recent global events have highlighted the fact that journalists and media workers reporting on human rights issues are particularly vulnerable to threats and attacks, an independent United Nations expert said Monday as she called for greater protection for those who carry out such vital work.

“Because of the potential impact on society that journalists and media workers can have by disseminating information about human rights through a wide array of media, those individuals are often threatened, wounded and killed in an attempt to silence their voices,” said Margaret Sekaggya, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

“Their work is of extreme importance in holding governments accountable. However, those same governments often crack down on them, including through threats, harassment, arrests, detentions, and in the worst of cases killings,” she added in a report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is currently meeting in Geneva.

Restrictions on media and press freedom, and impunity around violations against journalists and media workers defending human rights can foster a climate of intimidation, stigmatization, violence and self-censorship that can have a chilling effect on their work, according to the expert.

“States should publicly recognize the role of these defenders and ensure prompt and impartial investigations and the prosecution of those responsible for violations against them,” she wrote.

Presenting her report to the 47-member council, Ms. Sekaggya said the Arab Spring helped focus global attention on the extraordinary risks rights defenders face while promoting and protecting human rights in all regions of the world.

She also expressed deep concern that Government officials, state security forces and the judiciary, are reportedly the perpetrators of many of the violations committed against these defenders.

“Journalists, environmental, student and youth rights defenders and those working on land issues are in significant need of protection,” she told the Council. “Most of these risks directly affect their physical integrity and that of their family members, but also involve the abusive use of legal frameworks against them and the criminalization of their work.”

The popular protests in countries across the Middle East and North Africa have also shed light on the situation of defenders of youth and student rights. “History shows us that youth and students have played a key role in the promotion of human rights and in placing new ideas on the human rights agenda. 

“However, members of youth and student movements are in many cases seen as troublemakers rather than serious actors who can fruitfully contribute to public debate,” she said. “Their voices deserve to be heard, and they should not be threatened as a result of their engagement.”

The expert also highlighted the plight of defenders working on land and environmental issues, such as the impact of extractive industries. In her report, she noted that both state and non-state entities are involved in violations against this group of defenders, and underlines the disturbing number of killings and physical attacks reported to her.

“Human rights defenders have the right to protection, and it is the state’s responsibility to ensure this protection, so that defenders can carry out their important and legitimate work in an enabling environment,” she underscored.     

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