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These stories were published Monday, March 29, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 62
Jo Stuart
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It's official: We are now in the rainy season
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A surprise thunderstorm growled its way through the Central Valley Sunday afternoon, marking the official start of the rainy season.

The storm swept down the north side of the valley east to west and dumped enough rain to cause problems for cable television companies. 

The Instituto Meteorológico Nacional blamed the change in the weather on a buildup of rain clouds on the Caribbean slope. 

Meteorologist Norman Vega officially described the weather as signaling the beginning of what is called here la época lluviosa, or rainy season.

The Costa Rican dry season was shorter than normal this year. Rains did not stop until nearly Christmas, perhaps three weeks later than normal. And the season itself was marked by several stormy periods, including several downpours that caused damage near San Carlos and in Limón.

Saturday saw some rain, too, although not in the Central Valley. Fire fighters near Buenos Aires in southern Costa Rica welcomed a sharp shower

that helped put out a week-old blaze there in rugged terrain.

The handful of fires was on the slopes of Cerro Dúrika and reached within less than a kilometer (a little more than half a mile) from the border of the Parque International La Amistad.

The United States was quick to respond for a request for aid by the Ministerio del Ambiente y Energía. U.S. Embassy officials reported that some $20,000 in firefighting gear had been delivered.

The weather today is exactly what one would expect at the beginning of the rainy season: showers predicted in the afternoon and evening in all sectors of the country except the northern Pacific coast of Guanacaste, which is Costa Rica’s driest area.

The end of the dry season also marks the end of the high tourist season. 

Next week is Holy Week, a time when Costa Ricans typically go on vacation. That will provide a big rush for beach resorts, and, psychologically, the rainy season will not begin until April 12, the Monday after Easter.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Rinocerontes coming to town

Assistant Patricio Golcher and Joaquin Rodríguez, better known as "Quincho," prepare masks for the production of "Rinocerontes."  Rodríguez is a well-known theater designer, manager and producer of television shows and movies. The masks will be used in the next production by the Costa Rican National Theater.

U.S. will begin free trade negotiations with Panamá April 26
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The United States and Panama announced Friday that they will begin free-trade negotiations in Panama City, Panama, during the week of April 26, according to a press release issued by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

"Panama is a key partner in our effort to deepen economic integration throughout the Western Hemisphere. So, we are very pleased to be launching free-trade agreement negotiations with Panama," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said. "The time is right, following completion of the [free-trade] agreement with our five Central American and Dominican neighbors. These free-trade negotiations represent a vote of confidence in Panama's future."

A free-trade agreement between the United States and Panama is compatible with another top U.S. goal: establishing the proposed Free 

Trade Area of the Americas, which is currently being negotiated.

In his Nov. 18 letter notifying Congress of the administration's intent to negotiate a U.S.-Panama free-trade agreement, Zoellick emphasized the United States' long-standing, strong economic ties to Panama, the mutual commitment to deepening the trade relationship through a free-trade agreement, and Panama's importance as a link in the administration's strategy of opening markets in the hemisphere through competitive liberalization.

In 2003, trade between the United States and Panama totaled $2.1 billion, with U.S. exports accounting for $1.8 billion of that amount. Between 2002 and 2003, U.S. exports to Panama grew over 30 percent. Nearly half of Panama's total imports come from the United States. U.S. foreign direct investment in Panama already totals roughly $25 billion, in sectors including finance, maritime and energy. 

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Confronted with the spiraling cost of living in the United States and Canada, people from all walks of life and all ages, including baby boomers and seniors, are searching for an affordable place to live or retire without sacrificing their current lifestyles. 

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the only such author who is a full time resident in Central America.

Howard is bullish on Panamá: "Located only two and one-half hours by air from Florida, Panama has everything for potential retirees and residents," he said.

Among the attractions he lists are year-round spring-like weather in the mountains and tropical weather in the rest of the country; political stability with no army, friendly people, the U.S. dollar as currency, a low cost of living and the most generous discounts in Latin America for foreign retirees.

The country also has a first-world modern banking system, a first-world capital city; inexpensive medical care; excellent transportation and communication systems, affordable housing opportunities, excellent U.S.- style shopping and goods, the best incentive-filled retirement program in Latin America plus a government that makes relocating as easy as possible for foreigners, Howard said. 

All this combines to make Panama one of the world's most desirable expatriate havens, according to Howard, who notes that the American Association of retired Persons Boquete, Panama, the fourth best retirement place in the world.

The 2004-2006 first edition of "Living and Investing in Panama." offers invaluable assistance to anyone looking for a safe, affordable place to live outside of the United States, Howard said. 

"This useful book contains all the ins and outs and dos and don'ts and much more indispensable secret insider information about all areas of living in Panama," he said, adding, "It guides you step-by-step and shows how to live on a budget, 100s of sure-fire tips, valuable contacts, business resources; how to stay busy and happy, the best places to live in Panama, how to acquire residency, time proven shortcuts for learning Spanish, how to take advantage of the many tax savings for foreign residents, how to make the break from the rat race and start a new exciting life; and even how and where to find quality people for companionship." 

Howard, is a paid consultant for National Geographic in Costa Rica, columnist for several publications. He is considered an expert on all areas of living and investing in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. 

The book, "Living and Investing in Panama," ISBN 1-881233-12-x, is available for $26.95 plus $4 shipping from  Amazon.com. The book also will be carried by local stores in Costa Rica.

Drug busts continue 

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Anti-drug police found yet another tractor-trailor tansporting cocaine in the direction of Nicaragua.

The Policía de Control de Drogas reported that the 159 kilos of drugs were hidden in a secret compartment. They detained the driver, a Guatemalan with the last names Martínez Meza. He is 24, they said. The amount is about 350 pounds.

Meanwhile, at Juan Santamaría Airport, police there detained a Dominican with the name of Pardo who was traveling on a Dutch passport.  He is 30, they said. Police said they found 100 packets of cocaine in his stomach.

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Protection of the Caribbean seen as regional goal
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MIAMI, Fla. — Representatives from 31 countries have ended talks here aimed at fostering cooperation on ways to protect the Caribbean environment. The Caribbean basin is under severe environmental stress, and experts say countries in the region need to cooperate more on a regional level to protect one of the world's most pristine environments.

It was called the White Water to Blue Water Partnership Conference and for the first time since the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, hundreds of experts met in Miami to discuss how to better protect the Caribbean. 

Franklin MacDonald, the chief executive officer of Jamaica's National Environment and Planning Agency said the countries in the Caribbean Basin are under a great deal of environmental stress.

"The small Caribbean islands have problems with watershed management. We have quite dense populations on limited land space, so people do use the upper watersheds for farming," he said. "We have problems to do with the coastal zone, because we have expanding tourism facilities. There is real competition for land space and land use because the population of some of our towns is up to 50 percent of some of our islands, so you also have in relatively small spaces quite large urban numbers."

Conference participants looked at the issues of watershed management, dying coral reefs, declining fish stocks and rising pollution levels in a series of meetings designed to bring together technical experts, government representatives and business leaders. 

Mercedes Silva of the Caribbean Tourism Organization says managers in the tourism industry in the Caribbean are just as concerned about the environment as those in government and non-governmental organizations.

"I think tourism has been seen as an enemy because of the lack of information about the 

possibilities that tourism can bring to the table," she said. "I have to recognize that working in the tourism industry we have a very bad reputation. Our participation in sessions like this one will really help us to portray the tourism industry in a different way. We recognize our mistakes but we are also here to put on the table the possibilities that we offer."

Ms. Silva says those possibilities include new initiatives by hotels in the region to foster beach conservation and cleanup efforts as well as improve water quality management systems. She says most hotel operators in the region know their survival depends on a clean environment.

MacDonald of Jamaica's planning agency says it is not only hotel operators who depend on a clean Caribbean. He says millions of people living in the region depend on the Caribbean Sea.

"It is absolutely critical," he said. "We depend on it for our food production, for catching fish, for the tourism industry. We are absolutely dependent on the Caribbean for all our livelihoods. We, in fact, market the Caribbean environment and culture in a significant way so we need to make sure that we are looking after it."

The White Water to Blue Water Partnership Conference was organized by the U.S. State and Commerce Departments, who pledged several million dollars in funds for projects aimed at fostering environmental cooperation among countries in the region. 

U.S. officials say a major goal of theirs was to introduce conference participants to key technical experts in the U.S. government.

Every country in the region except Cuba was represented at the conference. Cuban officials say their attendance was blocked by the United States. U.S. officials cited visa restrictions for the Cuban's absence. U.N. officials participating say Cuba, the Caribbean's largest and most populous island, will participate in programs aimed at fostering environmental cooperation though Cuba's participation in U.N. environmental programs.

Fox seeks details on curious cave-diving affair
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Mexican President Vicente Fox has demanded clarification from Britain regarding the activities of six British nationals rescued from a cave in Mexico. 

Fox said Friday at a news conference in Nicaragua that Britain's answers so far have been unsatisfactory. Fox demanded more clarity about what the divers were doing.

British and Mexican divers rescued the six explorers from a partly flooded cave on Thursday. The group, members of a 12-man expedition team, was trapped for nearly a week deep inside a cavern, Alpazat in the Cuetzalan region in Puebla state. 

The team was given medical examinations before being questioned by immigration authorities Friday. 

A Mexican immigration official says the government wants to determine if the men violated the terms of their visas. Officials say exploration trips by foreigners require special permission from the Mexican government — not the tourist visas used by the British nationals. 

At least four of the divers were military personnel. The Mexican government says the men may have been conducting military training in the cave.

British officials say the explorers were trying to map portions of the world-famous cave system and insist the mission was purely scientific.

Rights report faults Venezuelan guardsmen in handling protestors
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — The nation’s top human rights official says national guardsmen used too much force against protesters arrested in recent demonstrations.

In a report to the National Assembly here Thursday, German Mundarain said almost 200 civilians were injured by "cruel treatment" by state authorities. He said there were seven cases of torture and 17 cases of cruel, inhumane or  degrading treatment. The injured had been taking part in protests in late February and early March against President Hugo Chavez. 

Mandarain also reported that troops used a disproportionate number of rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators. But he denied that any of the shooting deaths that occurred during clashes between protesters and Guardsmen could be blamed on the troops. 

He insisted that those arrested during the protests should not be labeled political prisoners, because "they were disrupting the public order." 

President Chavez has said accusations of human rights abuses are being lodged simply to discredit his administration. His opponents are seeking to recall him from office by referendum.

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Uribe emerging as the Iron Man of Colombia
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — During a week when America's attention was riveted on hearings into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Washington hosted a foreign leader whose country has withstood more than 30 years of horrific terrorist violence. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shared his thoughts on the war on terrorism before returning to Bogota Thursday.

Colombia is distinct among South American nations. At a time when other countries in the region — most notably Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina — have distanced themselves from the United States, Colombia continues to press for the closest possible relations with Washington, urging further increases in military cooperation and pressing for a bilateral free trade accord.

Under President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia remains the only South American nation to join the Bush administration's so-called "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. In Uribe, President Bush has found a staunch ally in the war on terrorism. The Colombian leader had this to say at the National Press Club:

"No democratic government in the world can go along with terror," he said. "The greatest enemy of democracy nowadays is terrorism. Terrorism is a new version of dictatorship. It strikes the people. It abolishes freedoms. It disregards the law. It does not matter [care about] the constitution. Terrorism speaks about political ideas, but it is just an excuse to try to explain its activities of terror."

No country in the Americas has more first-hand experience with terrorism than Colombia. For decades, the country has been plagued by leftist guerrillas, right-wing death squads and powerful drug cartels — all of which have resorted to terror tactics in pursuit of their goals. No single attack in Colombia has ever reached the magnitude of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy in the United States, but death toll estimates from 40 years of conflict in Colombia range from 50,000 to 100,000 people.

President Uribe says Colombians understand all 

too well that democracy cannot flourish without security.

"We see a necessary team [coupling] between security and democracy," he said. "Security is a democratic value. Nowadays, it is impossible to foster democracy without providing security to the people."

Over the last two years, Colombia has recorded dramatic decreases in attacks, killings and kidnappings — as well as sharp cuts in coca leaf production. Some observers have credited a multibillion dollar U.S. aid program launched in 2000, called "Plan Colombia," with providing the funds and equipment necessary to boost security in Colombia.

But former U.S. ambassador to Colombia Miles Frechette says it is President Uribe who deserves most of the praise.

"What you see in President Uribe is a man who is faithful to his word," he said. "He came into office and he increased the spraying of [illegal drug] crops. He has steadfastly opposed terrorism. He has refused to negotiate with the guerrillas on the basis of, 'You can continue fighting and we will keep talking.' The predecessors of President Uribe never quite lived up to their promises. This is a man who means what he says and gets results."

Even so, Frechette, who served as U.S. ambassador from 1994 through 1997, says it could take as long as two decades before a lasting peace finally comes to Colombia.

"I have said many times that it will take 15-20 years. What is necessary is a continuity of policy by the presidents of Colombia that follow President Uribe," he said. "That is absolutely essential. If that does not happen, perhaps the period of recovery will take even longer."

An initiative is under way in Colombia to amend the constitution so as to allow President Uribe to run for re-election in 2006. Asked whether he backed the measure, Uribe said it is for the people to decide. 

New government in Haiti becoming an outcast
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Leaders of the 15-nation Caribbean Community have rejected Haiti's interim government. 

CARICOM made the move Saturday in response to interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue's reference last week to Haitian rebels as"freedom fighters." The organization said "no action should be taken to legitimize the rebelforces." 

Caricom also repeated calls for a U.N.investigation into the departure of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. 

Last week, Latortue suspended Haiti's participation in CARICOM and recalled Haiti's ambassador to Jamaica to protest Aristide's arrival in Jamaica.

Nearly a month ago, Aristide resigned and flew to the Central African Republic, where he stayed in 

temporary exile until heading to Jamaica. He says the United States removed him from power in what amounted to a coup d'etat. The United States has strongly denied the charges.

Meanwhile, Haitian police collected a handful of weapons from Aristide loyalists in Port-au-Prince's Saline neighborhood Saturday. Only a few dozen weapons have been turned in by Aristide supporters and opponents, despite urgings from a multinational force sent to keep the peace. 

On Friday, Haiti's justice minister said he would bar 37 members of Aristide's former government from leaving the country to ensure they are available for probes into alleged crimes committed by the government. 

Among the officials barred from leaving Haiti are former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, the ex-police chief and former Central Bank head.

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