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(506) 2223-1327       Published Thursday, March 20, 2008, in Vol. 8, No. 57            E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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Iran's interest in Latin America raising U.S. concerns
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Iranian efforts to solidify ties with Venezuela, Bolivia and other leftist governments in Latin America have sparked increasing concern in the United States.  The growing Iranian ties reflect shared political and economic goals and anti-American sentiment, according to observers.

At first glance, Iran seems to have little in common with Latin America. Trade and economic relations are rare, and the two regions have different cultural and religious traditions.

But Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has found common ground with leftist leaders critical of the United States and its policy goals around the world.

To help build alliances, Iran has signed a series of economic deals with Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. This week, Bolivia and Iran agreed on joint projects worth $1 billion, including the installation of three Iranian-backed television channels in Bolivia.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the agreements are driven by Iran's political interests, and not economic ones.

"That is why we see all these economic cooperation deals signed, which make no economic sense whatsoever," he said.  "But both sides deeply believe in them, and both sides deeply believe in the spread of world revolution."

Clawson says projects like the construction of a new seaport in Nicaragua will have little economic benefit for Iran, but he says Iranian support may help generate political support across the region.

Clawson and Latin America experts spoke at a conference at the University of Miami about Iran's growing influence in Latin America.

University of Miami Professor Jaime Suchlicki said Iran and its allies are seeking to nurture other like-minded politicians across Latin America. He

Ortega and Iranian president
Iran Daily photo
Ahmadinejad and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega
Iranian president
Photo courtesy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

says recent Iranian support for candidates in Latin American elections has raised concern about the impact on democracy.

"They are taking advantage of democracy in Latin America," he said.  "They support candidates and friends at all levels and try to bring them to power. So the main challenge in Latin America is how to deal with growing Iranian influence within a democratic framework."

Iran's key partner in the region has been Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a fierce critic of the United States. Experts say the Iranian and Venezuelan leaders have used their nations' oil wealth to finance international projects and build new relationships around the world.

Chavez has backed Iranian plans to begin issuing oil contracts in euros, not U.S. dollars, because of the falling price of the dollar against the euro. Financial experts say the move could weaken the value of the dollar and hurt the U.S. economy.

José Azel is a senior research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

"That is a very sophisticated and dangerous position that Iran and now Venezuela seems to be backing," he said.

Azel says Iran's growing involvement in Latin America is complicating U.S. ties to the region, which have been strained by the war in Iraq and other policy differences.  He says Washington recently has been seeking to engage Latin America in an effort to counter the leftist influence.

"The administration has negotiated a number of trade deals with Latin America," he noted.  "And Bush has actually visited Latin America more than any other president in U.S. history."

President George Bush is currently backing a free trade agreement with Colombia, which administration officials say will help counter leftist influence in the region. The pending trade deal with Washington's close ally may not, however, be enough to ease concerns over Iranian influence in Latin America.  Experts say Washington will face a diplomatic struggle as long as Iran continues to offer economic aid and political support to potential allies.

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Jennifer bear

This bear is worth $500
to tourists from New York

By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A New York family that lost thousands of dollars worth of goods in a theft in Liberia is offering a cash reward for the return of just one item — their daughter's teddy bear.

Joseph Hylas was shopping in downtown Liberia Monday afternoon with his wife, Kristina, and daughter, Alexandra, when their rented Mitsubishi Montero was broken into.

Thieves took ipods, cameras, cell phones and jewelery, but the two losses that hurt the family most were that of Kristina's Bible and the bear, “Jennifer,” which belongs to 19-year-old Alexandra.

A reward of $500 is offered to anyone who returns the bear unharmed. Staff at the hotel La Plazuela, where the family spent their one-week holiday, helped to put posters displaying Jennifer's photo up around Liberia.

“My daughter has loved that bear since the day she was born,” said Hylas, who operates a business trading rare coins. “It was given to her by her godmother. Alexandra is our only child and she treated Jennifer like a little sister. We feel as if we have lost a member of the family. Alexandra has not stopped crying for two days.”

Miss Hylas, who is in her second year at the University of Vermont studying international business, changes the toy's clothes regularly. At the time of the theft the bear was wearing a pink dress.  The small blue travelling Bible was sent to Mrs. Hylas as a gift 30 years ago, and bears the inscription “To Kristina (Tina) Dahl from Woody Jackson.”

Hylas said that he maintains high hopes that the bear will be turned in, as the thieves probably threw away items without monetary value. The family spent Monday afternoon rifling through trash cans and open lots all around Liberia, making sure the bear had not already been cast adrift.

“If someone recognizes how important this is to us, I think there is a pretty good chance they'll return the bear and Bible,” said Hylas. “I'll never give up hope that Jennifer will be returned.”

The family returned to New York Tuesday, leaving the search in the hands of the hotel's owner, Jim Gessling, who is also a family friend. He will hand over the cash if anyone brings the Bible and bear to the hotel.

If returned the bear will then be packaged up and sent back to its rightful owners in the United States.  Anyone with information should contact Randy Angulo at the La Plazuela hotel at 2667-8556.

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Cabo Caletas: Planned is the construction of a hotel and 800 condos, a golf course, two lakes and various luxury homes on 180 hectares or 445 acres. The project is under investigation.
Cabo Caletas one
Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía photos

Environmental inspectors close three Pacific projects
By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three luxury condominium projects in Jacó and Parrita that would have added another 350 properties to the market were shut down by the government because the developers were destroying the environment to build them, according to officials.

The government is cracking down on notorious illegal construction in Costa Rica that has seen the appearance of many buildings that lack permits and fail to meet environmental requirements.

Destroyed forests, diverted rivers, excavated mountainsides and massive trash piles greeted the Tribunal Ambiental, a sector of the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía, as it carried out an investigation into suspect projects.

Two more projects remain under investigation by the tribunal, and a sixth is in the process of being closed down.

Costa Montaña was the first development to face the tribunal's criticisms, despite having obtained the proper permits and environmental viability studies. Set in the hills of Garabito, Puntarenas, the 160 lots for luxury homes gave prospective buyers a sweeping view of the Pacific seashore below.

To obtain Secretaria Tecnica National Ambiental approval of the environmental viability of the project, the developers had reported that they would build on an area of savannah. The tribunal said it found that the area is actually mountainous with secondary forests, remnants of primary forests and important water sources.

Houses were also being built on steep slopes of an angle greater than 60 degrees, a practice that is not acceptable by law, officials said. In one case the slope was 80 degress or nearly straight down.

The project was shut down on March 11, but its legal representatives have already submitted a mitigation plan to the tribunal. It is expected that the environment ministry will sanction the developers for the damage they have comitted, and ask them to contribute to repairing the area.

Inspectors then moved on to a project called “Hermosa Vista,” located 15 minutes away from Jacó, where the mountain was being destroyed by the creation of terraces on which to locate 100 condos.

In order to live up to its name, the developers cut down trees to allow their customers a better view, officials reported.

Earth moved by the project was washed down the hill during the rainy season, burying two rivers and killing off the vegetation around them, they said.

“The real view is of a desert in the mountains, where not one tree remains standing,” said a press release from the tribunal.

The project, owned by Route General Services, also was suspended on March 11, and the Municipalidad de Garabito started court proceedings against the developer.

A third project, “Hills of Esterillos,” had already constructed 36 of the 100 condos it intended to build, despite only having permits to build six houses on its land near Parrita. Developers also lacked an environmental viability permit, and had begun to damage the environment by moving earth and cutting trees, said the tribunal.

The Municipalidad de Parrita ordered it to close last year, but the order was ignored. The project is owned by Costa Rica Limited, and represented by an American called Jeffrey MacMullen, a resident of Playa Bejuco, the tribunal said.

A nearby project called “Costa Sol” is also on its way to being closed down. The development was blatantly ignoring the maritime law, constructing houses 150 metres away from an area of mangroves, the tribunal said. Trash from the construction process was deposited in a massive open-air dump, and workers were preparing to spread sand and stones across wetlands, despite this being denounced by the municipality, said the tribunal.

Investigations are continuing into “Residencial Turistico y Comercial Cabo Caletas,” in Esterillos Oeste de Parrita, and “Celestial Mountain Resort” in Viento Fresco de Garabito half an hour away from Jacó.

The first of these is the biggest project that the tribunal has looked into, with 800 condos to be built on a 180-hectare plot, accompanied by a hotel, golf course and artificial lakes. 

The tribunal found reason for concern in the fact that the golf course's construction is blocking a river that may be supplying a wetland environment. Experts will be called in to determine if it should indeed be classified as a wetland.

American owner Aaron Dowd has agreed to comply with whatever measures the tribunal demands and to install a water system that uses rainwater, instead of the region's existing water sources, to supply the hotel and irrigate the golf course, said the tribunal.

The Celestial Mountain Resort has been frozen by the tribunal awaiting investigation because it also indulged in massive earth movements that have resulted in a river being half-buried.

A release by the tribunal concluded that the investigations show that Costa Rica was not ready to monitor the
Costa Montaña slope
Costa Montaña: The construction of a dwelling on an 80-degree slope in the middle of a forest was one of the principal reasons the project was closed down, said the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía.

Costa Sol trash dump
Costa Sol: Inspectors  discovered this heap of trash that they said was illegal.

Celestial Mountain
Celestial Mountain: Silt generated by the heavy construction above and subsequent runoff has damaged the Río Agujas, said the tribunal.

Hills of Esterillos
Hills of Esterillos: Heavy dirt movement resulted in the removal of a large quantity of soil. The original surface can be seen at the base of the utility pole.

Costa Montaña condo
Costa Montaña: Some 180 condos like these were planned for construction. The Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía. said it would assess the cost of environmental damage against the developers who already have paid for the land and building.

massive  influx of tourist development that it has experienced in recent years.

“In January alone, the Municipalidad de Garabito delivered 90 permits for diverse projects, and a similar trend is beginning to develop in Parrita,” said José Lino Chaves, president of the tribunal. “These municipalities require support to face this boom and protect the environment in an effective manner.”

The secretary of the tribunal, Jorge Bonilla, added: “The tribunal does not oppose development. We only require that this is done within the boundaries of the country's environmental legislation.”

A three-part plan to bolster the sagging American economy
My goodness, Easter is almost here again.  Many people instead of finding Easter eggs will find that their Nest eggs have disappeared.  (Maybe the little kids running around the White House Lawn will find them.)

Different TV newscasters are asking their audiences how the falling dollar and rising prices are affecting them.  I have not written in to tell them my situation, but prices are rising and the dollar is falling even in Costa Rica.  Someone with a modest $1,000 a month retirement income is going to find themselves with $54 less each month compared to last year. That is enough to pay the electricity bill. 

Do you think we are headed for a recession, the newscasters keep asking?  This makes me laugh.  Their job is supposedly to report the news, that is, what is happening right now, today. But usually they are interviewing someone and asking them to predict what they think is going to happen in the future.  Now they cannot even see what is happening today.  Yes, boys and girls, there is a recession and it, like everything else in this day and age, is going global.

When I first came to Costa Rica there was a rental law (still on the books, I believe), that gave landlords the right to raise the rent 15 percent per year if the tenant was paying in colons.  If you paid your rent with U.S. dollars, your rent would not go up for three years.  The rationale was the inflation rate and the falling colon against the solid U.S. dollar.  Things have now turned around.

One of the reasons I left my apartment was that I was paying in colons and my rent after two years was more than I could happily afford, and I had more space than I needed.

When I moved into the Residencia, my monthly upkeep cost me $1,000 in U.S. dollars or a similar amount in colons based upon an exchange of 520/ to the dollar.  The month before I left, I was given a letter saying my 
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

monthly cost was going up 16,000 colones and would change each month depending upon the falling dollar.
In my present apartment I pay my rent in dollars and am hoping the old law stays on the books for a while.  My heart goes out to those pensionados who are living on the interest on their savings.

In the States, the administration with the help of Congress has come up with the same solution they had to win the war in Iraq — send the people shopping.  But this time they are helping them by giving them money to do it.  They have given one big investment bank billions of dollars to buy out another one.  Individuals and families will be getting a bit less – between $600 for a single person and $1,800 for a family with two kids.  These gifts will be a little late, but there are high hopes everyone will head for the malls and put the economy back on its feet. 

There is a problem, however.  Even if people could afford to buy anything but the basics, like food and energy, according to my sister, who lives in the States, their money would be going abroad anyway. (Even if they spend it only on food and energy.)  So, to shop (as per the president’s instructions) and still help out the U.S. economy, you need to buy beer, gamble your money in a Native American casino, and buy the services of a prostitute,  Then your money will stay in the U.S. – AND, by planning ahead, you can probably accomplish all of these purchases  in one day and with one-stop shopping.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, March 20, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 57

Twin festivals to highlight stone spheres and Atenas station
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two major heritage sites will be holding post-Easter festivals during the last weekend of March.

The enigmatic stone spheres at the Parque de las Esferas near Palmar Sur will be the backdrop for creative activities. Attendees will also have a chance to learn more about the archaeological site, which lies in the Delta de Diquis and is shrowded in the mystery of why an ancient culture made so many stone spheres.

The Museo Nacional is organizing the third Festival de Las Esferas. The start of the festival, at 7 p.m. March 28, will involve the presentation of the book “La Ruta de las Esferas,” written by Dorelia Barahona. Saturday's activities start at 8 a.m. with a children's workshop in the Escuela de Palmar Sur, and continue until 7 p.m. Other events March 29 include a parade from the airport hanger of Palmar Sur to the park at 10 a.m., an afternoon full of dancing, including a 4.30 p.m. show by the national prize winning group Metamorfosis, and one by the Compañía de Cámara Danza UNA at 7 p.m.

March 30 the activities will continue in Finca 6, where the park is located, starting at 9 a.m. and carrying on all day with cultural and recreational activities. More information on the festival can be found by e-mailing

The same weekend will see the Turno Feria de la Estación
take place in Rio Grande de Atenas, with events taking place around the Museo Ferroviario, located in the old train station. The activity, organized as part of Museo Nacional's Programa de Museos Regionales y Communitarios, intends to revive the history of the train station and raise funds for the maintanence of the museum.

The museum has been open since 2000 and houses a collection of objects and photos from the history of railworkers and farmers in the local community, including old tools used on the train and the electric locomotive 127, dating from 1928-30.

Festival events start at midday March 28, and the evening will have live music, karaoke, bingo, and a horse exhibition starting from 6 p.m. onwards.

March 29 will see a workshop about community museums at 1 p.m., held by Museo Nacional staff. A karaoke competition will take place at 3 p.m., and the Tren del Atardecer will arrive at the old station from San Jose at 3:30 p.m. A mascarada continues the festivities at 4 p.m., and the evening has dancing, marimba bands, and more bingo.

An early start takes place March 30, with neighbours being awakened at 5 a.m., with similar events to the past days going on until the end of the day.

There will be food, refreshments, games, music and artesanias available to festival participants all weekend.

Gunshots punctuate police chase of microbus carrying coke
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A policeman escaped death Wednesday, as a bullet ripped through his vehicle's headrest and flew through the front windshield, said the security ministry.

Officers from the Policía de Control de Drogas began a high speed chase after the driver of a microbus loaded with 740 kilograms of cocaine (1,631 pounds) refused to stop at a checkpoint, said the security ministry. The driver of the Hyundai microbus fired at the officer's car and hit it 11 times, said a spokesman from the security ministry. Officers returned fire as they chased the vehicle from San Mateo to Esparza, said the security ministry.
Police were put on alert after they received a tip from a caller who said a gray vehicle from Puntarenas was transporting a load of cocaine, said the security spokesman. 

Officers arrested a man with the last names Valverde Araya, 28, after the chase ended in the Parque Industrial in Barranca, Puntarenas.

The cocaine probably was headed to the industrial park to a trailer to be smuggled north, said a security spokesman.

Valverde was injured in the left shoulder after he was grazed by a bullet, said the security spokesman. None of the officers was injured, according to the security ministry.

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Britain's Brown outlines security strategy to Parliament
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has unveiled a broad security strategy of how the government, security and health services would deal with national emergencies,

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including terrorist attacks, outbreaks of disease and natural disasters.

Speaking to parliament, Mr. Brown unveiled a list of measures he said were vital to meet Britain's security needs in a world of changing threats.

"Once when there was instability in far away regions or countries, we had a choice to become involved or not," he said. "Today, no country is in the old sense far away from the consequences of regional instability and terrorism, and then also other risks like climate change, poverty, mass population movements and even organized crime reverberate quickly around the globe."

Brown said international terrorism remains the main threat to Britain, noting the security services are aware of 30 specific plots and are monitoring 200 different networks and 2,000 individuals. The prime minister said strong, modern and flexible military and intelligence services remain a cornerstone of the security strategy. He also outlined plans to help fragile and potentially failing states in world trouble spots.

"Again, a lesson learned from recent conflicts ranging from Rwanda and Bosnia to Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, is to create a standby international civilian capability so that for fragile and failing states we can act quickly and comprehensively by combining humanitarian, peacekeeping, stabilization, reconstruction support that these countries need," he said.

Brown announced the creation of a 1,000-member civilian rapid-reaction force of police, emergency service and humanitarian personnel to deploy quickly to assist failing states and to help rebuild countries emerging from conflict. He urged other countries to join that effort.

The strategy also calls for stronger efforts on nuclear non-proliferation, and Brown said he is planning an international conference to help non-nuclear states meet their energy needs.

The opposition Conservative Party welcomed the announcement of the security strategy, but said it was too long in coming and short on specific details of action.

Car kidnappers demand
ransom from vehicle owners

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Instead of kidnapping people, one thief decided to kidnap cars, said the Judicial Investigation Organization Wednesday.

A band of thieves in Alajuela stole cars and then called the owners to demand a ransom, said a judicial spokesman. Agents from the Judicial Investigation Organization in Alajuela have acted 12 times to disarm the band since January. Wednesday they arrested a suspect “caught red handed,” at the central  bank, they said.

The suspect, Juan Carlos Pérez, 22, was near the Banco Central and had just received $700 (350,000 colons) from the owner of a Nissan Sentra, said officials. The vehicle was stolen Sunday in downtown Alajuela, according to the judicial spokeswoman.

The band tells victims that they have connections with the police and advise them not to file complaints, said the judicial spokesman.

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