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These stories were published Monday, April 14, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 73
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Reader outlines concerns over debt, taxes
Tico economy moves in a dangerous direction
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Walraven, a San José businessman, has academic training in economics and is an observer of the regional financial scene.

By Christopher Walraven
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

My initial concern after moving to Costa Rica some three years ago was the visible disconnect between true economic indicators and perceived economic stability. The general perception by most Costa Ricans toward their country’s financial condition over the last several years was one of "Pura Vida." "It will fix itself." "Tranquilo."

Being reactive instead of pro-active continues to place extreme burdens on a struggling economy. This reality of economic instability over the last several years and the exacerbated circumstance of Sept. 11, 2001, have contributed to today’s worsening economy here in Costa Rica. I stated numerous times over the last several years, including in the American Chamber Economic Meetings and among friends, about my concerns of an economic meltdown here in Costa Rica. This has started to happen and shows no signs of near-term improvement.

£¢$¢

The resolution is complicated by the government’s large internal debt and its consumer debt load. The high consumer debt is augmented by little available recourse by the banks to collect because of the liberal allocation of credit cards and consumer loans over the last several years. The banking industry also provided loans to the business sector, and many loans are without the proper business plan or collateral to protect the lender. 

The banks also have developed a larger problem by issuing loans in foreign currency despite a devaluation of its own currency. The daily defaults by consumers and businesses holding bank loans are increasing to the point of major concern for the industry. This creates a more negative outlook on resolving the national debt issue. 

The higher rate of inflation also makes Costa Rica a more expensive place to live and work vs. its Central American neighbors. Let’s not forget the closure of several illegal operations here in Costa Rica that contributed large monthly interest payments to local and foreign investors over several decades. The loss of these illegal funds to the local economy has helped exacerbate the already strapped government coffers. 

These illegal operations existed because of the limited ability of the government to enforce its own banking rules, or it just turned a blind eye on the whole illegal sector. It’s refreshing to see Costa Rica make an effort to resolve its illegal lending operations. The coffee and banana sectors continue to struggle due to worldwide over production of coffee (much in Vietnam) and tariff issues. The problems are too long to list here.

£¢$¢

The various business sectors have already began to take steps to streamline operations by eliminating jobs and cutting back hours. This, of course, means increased unemployment and reduced government payroll tax monies and disposable cash. We will see more businesses over the next several months forced to close their doors. 

The real estate market that once thrived is seeing extreme signs of weakness and no signs of quick recovery. The market is oversaturated, and building continues without any visible demand. The current foreign consumer of high-end property appears to be coming largely from South American, and numerous units on the market are still unsold after price reductions and months on the market. The rental market shows continuing signs of weak and negative demand and large rate reductions. The real estate market can expect continued price declines over the next several quarters or longer. 

The automotive market is extremely saturated with more units available than qualified consumers. This market has already started to reduce prices to try and move units. New forms of marketing not seen before in Costa Rica are being implemented. This market is going to experience many quarters of negative sales, and a large portion of used car dealers will go out of business or just sit idle. Other indications of the slowing automotive market is a steep decline in new units entering through the Port of Caldera.

£¢$¢

The government has a tentative tax plan, but political actions has prevented this from being brought to the floor for a vote. The administration has placed temporary tax increase on different sectors to try and provide additional cash flow. The government also has the problem of increased interest rates due to its negative rating on the international market. This simply means the interest will add additional cost to the governments already large debt, causing a need for even larger tax revenues. 

The misallocation of government funds through corruption and mismanagement continues to contribute to this impending disaster. The consumer spending has reached its breaking point, and the consumer hasn’t the means of providing additional monies for products or increased taxes. The problem is complicated since the government relies heavily on taxes collected by customs. The negative economy is showing signs of reduced tax monies collected by customs from areas such as vehicle imports.

The government of Costa Rica isn’t capable at this time of implementing an effective tax 
collection system to meet its existing financial burden. The government has existing tax laws

on the books that most Costa Ricans ignore. The government has limited recourse. The country also loses income from businesses failing to pay the mandatory sales tax. 

The government must streamline its bureaucracy to comply with its statutes that exist on its books. This means that employees only continue working if qualified and showing effective work habits. This simply means streamlining the operations. 

The country must have a mainframe computer capable of communicating with each governmental office within its organization. This currently is not the case. For example, the main customs office is not connected to various points of entry.

The infrastructure is to the point of imploding, and there is no way of improving it for sometime. The country lacks a basic sewer system to serve both residential and the business arena. The country only connects approximately 5 to 7 percent to a basic sewer system. The rest contaminates streams and rivers. The roads, bridges, railroad, underground utilities, ports, buildings, and etc. are to the point of collapse in some sectors. 

The process of government spending to provide growth via construction or other infrastructure projects isn’t an option since the government lacks the funds. One option is the use of concessionary agreements to meet infrastructure needs and, thus, provide the badly needed improvements. This approach has been used by the government but has had negative results due to political intervention. The bid process is followed, and all terms are met, but after the awarding of the project, the government begins to change its terms under the original bid package. Thus, Costa Rica has a negative reputation which has caused limited interest in obtaining bid packages for badly needed projects.

The solution for positive change and growth for the economy is complicated by many factors. The global economy, of course, plays a part in current condition here in Costa Rica, but internal problems exacerbated by political motives places a large burden on today’s people of Costa Rica. 

£¢$¢

This current condition exists largely from mismanagement of funds and the large, ineffective placement of government employees, the failure to privatize government-owned assets and the failure to make needed improvements to meet its growing multi-national business community needs. Other neighboring countries are willing to make changes to attract multi-national business, including privatizing their government-owned utilities and making the needed improvements to provide First World technology.

The tourism sector, which is a major component of today’s Costa Rican economy, is plagued by numerous external and internal factors. The global economy and the fear of terrorism has placed additional burdens on attracting tourists during these trying times. The other major issue concerning tourism is the efforts of our neighboring countries and their current push for tourism dollars. 

The efforts of Nicaragua and Panamá appears to be paying off even during this flux that exist around the world. They are seeing increased interest in their countries while Costa Rica appears to be losing its hold on the market. The main reason for this decline is higher prices vs. other Central America destinations. Marketing from our neighboring countries appears more focused, and recent travel magazines have strongly promoted Nicaragua and spoke somewhat negative about Costa Rica.

The hope at this point is to promote Costa Rica to the European market as an eco-erotic vacation destination. The Europeans would provide that needed growth to help move the economy forward. Because of the length of their vacations they would spend more while visiting Costa Rica. This is based on attracting consumers with higher levels of disposable income and not necessarily the backpackers. We are seeing the efforts of the tourism minister convincing European air carries to start direct flights to Costa Rica and the potential the market offers. We recently had a group from Costa Rica attend a tourism trade show in Europe, and they believe that tangible results will come from this effort.

I truly believe Costa Rica still has opportunity to recapture the No. 1 position in Central America, but it must stop living in the past and grasp the future. The free trade agreement is one avenue for Costa Rica to move forward and excel. 

The Costa Rican export sector showed positive growth in most areas for the first two months of this year. The hopes are for continuing positive growth in exports to the United States (Costa Rica’s largest trading partner) and new markets. This is only possible if the U.S. economy continues making strides forward and businesses have an incentive to make necessary capital expenditures. 

£¢$¢

The business outlook is still very foggy and a recently issued negative financial rating leaves questions on the health of the economy. The current market conditions aren’t promising for any major up-tick in the market, and some sectors are still slightly over-valuated. 

Costa Rica needs at least 18 to 24 months to work through these economic issues and beyond. The banks must begin to address the consumer debit issue and find ways to better allocate risk. The politicians must put aside personal interest and serve the interest of Costa Rica in order to resolve these very pressing issues.

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Semana Santa always generates a toll of mishaps
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Semana Santa is a time when deaths are counted and reported.

Last year during the eight-day period there were 50 deaths, according to the Fuerza Pública. Of these, 21 were accidents, 22 were killings and seven were suicides.

But this year, with a longer vacation period, deaths should be more. The vacation informally began Thursday evening on the eve of the April 11 national holiday. The vacation period runs through April 20, Easter Sunday.

So far, three persons died in a car wreck near Turrialba Friday and two persons died under the wheels of buses.

Saturday Víctor Rojas Villalobos, 65, died in the sea at Palo Seco in Parrita.

Early Sunday police found the body of Cristian García García, 26, in Santa Teresita, Escazú, the victim of two knife wounds to the neck.

A hit-and-run driver killed Eugenio Artavia, 50, early Friday in San Ramon.

In Upala, Ramiro Madrigal Solano, 58, appeared to have slipped and fallen Friday and fatally injured 

himself in the neck with a piece of fencing.

Walter Navarro, commander of the Fuerza Pública, said that about 10,000 of his officers, including reserves, would be in the field to protect citizens during the holiday. Officials said that due to the war in Iraq fewer Costa Ricans would leave the country for holidays, going instead to the beaches and countryside. His forces include the coast guard and the air patrol.

Similar shows of force will be carried out by the transit police, firemen and the Cruz Roja paramedics.

Drug investigators are not on holiday. Saturday police confiscated a kilo (2.2 pounds) of cocaine at a house in Urbanización Rió Nuevo in Ciudad Neily. Police arrested a woman with the last names of Herrara Castro. That operator was carried out by the Policía de Control de Drogas of the Minsterio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

Vacations can be a field day for burglars when city dwellers go to the beach or mountains. A security guard shot an alleged burglar at Avenida 1 and Calle 20 after the holiday started Thursday night. The man, who was hospitalized, tried to get into a cycle shop. 

Police said they are paying extra attention to the beach communities where tourists stay.


 
 
United gets OK
from holdout union

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

CHICAGO, Ill. —  UAL Corp., the parent company of United Airlines, says it has reached tentative, six-year wage and work rule agreements with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The airline has routes to Costa Rica, and has been flirting with economic collapse.

The union represents United employees who provide maintenance, maintenance instructor and ground school instructor services to the company. The company has now reached tentative or union-ratified long-term agreements with all of its labor groups.

These agreements include the significant labor-cost improvements and changes in productivity and operational flexibility that United needs to become a more competitive, stronger company for the long term, the company said

The agreements are subject to approval by the union as well as UAL’s Board of Directors and any appropriate board committee. 
 

Cuba executes hijackers
after whirlwind trial

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

HAVANA, Cuba — Authorities here have executed three men charged with terrorism in connection with the recent hijacking of a passenger ferry. 

The country’s legal system worked at lightning speed, executing the men within three days of their conviction, and just nine days after the hijacking was committed.

State-run television said the prisoners had been found guilty of what it termed "grave acts of terrorism." It said the death sentences had been upheld by both the Supreme Tribunal and the Council of State, which is headed by President Fidel Castro. It added that the sentences were just and in accordance with Cuban law.

The men were executed by a firing squad early Friday.

The prisoners were described as leaders of a gun and knife-wielding gang that seized control of a passenger ferry in Havana Bay and ordered its captain to head for the United States. 

The coast guard intercepted the vessel in the Florida Straits, where it had run out of fuel, and eventually towed the ferry to the port of Mariel. Commando units subsequently brought the standoff to an end, rescuing several dozen passengers and the crew, and arresting the hijackers.

The ferry incident was the latest in a series of high-profile attempts to escape the island. In the last month, two Cuban planes have been hijacked and forced to fly to Florida.

Cuban authorities say the hijackings endanger innocent lives and constitute a threat to national security.

Oil workers block 
major road in Venezuela

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Former employees of the state-run oil company have blocked a major highway to protest the deaths of 19 people in an anti-government rally a year ago. 

The protesters shut down traffic early Friday on the Francisco Fajardo highway here. 

The marches come on the anniversary of massive protests against President Hugo Chavez outside the Miraflores presidential palace. Chavez supporters and other unidentified shooters allegedly opened fire on the protesters. 

The marchers have criticized Chavez for failing to investigate the incident and punish the people responsible for the shootings. 

Meanwhile, Reporters without Borders has issued a report condemning Venezuela for violations against press freedoms. 

The group said Friday that Chavez and his government are chiefly responsible for the decline in press freedom since he took office in 1999. 

The report condemns government supporters for attacks on journalists working for private news organizations. 

The group also criticized privately-owned news media for openly siding with anti-government groups and urged them to show more respect for professional ethics.

OAS says Venezuela
reaches an agreement

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON D.C. — The Organization of American States says the Venezuelan government and opposition have agreed to work toward a referendum on President Hugo Chavez's rule.

However, Chavez said if the opposition wants to have a referendum it would still have to collect the 2.5 million voter signatures required by the constitution, after he passes the mid-point of his six-year term Aug. 19.

The organization said the government and the opposition agreed Friday during talks in Caracas that any referendum will take place after Aug. 19.

Friday's announcement coincides with the one-year anniversary of the military coup that led to the president's brief removal from office. Troops loyal to Chavez restored him to power after 48 hours. 

Venezuela's opposition has been pushing for the president's removal. They say he is leading Venezuela toward economic ruin and is trying to model the country after Cuba. 

In December, the opposition began a failed nationwide general strike aimed at forcing the president to resign and call early elections. The two-month labor action was felt most severely in Venezuela's key oil industry.

Guatemalan leader asks
for appointee to inquiry

Special to A.M. Costa Rica 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo today formally asked the Organization of American States to appoint a representative to a commission of inquiry that will look into illegal and underground armed groups and syndicates operating in the country. 

Speaking at the organization headquarters here, Portillo explained that his government was committed to addressing the challenges posed by illegal groups "that are preventing effective enforcement of the rule of law in Guatemala." 

Noting the commission would be established within 90 days, Portillo said: "This is not an easy decision.  But it is a necessary and right decision if we intend to consolidate peace, democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala."

He said his term in office ends this year, with elections set for November, and his government has asked the organization to send a team of observers to monitor the entire process, which begins with the announcement by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal next month. 

"We want the [organization] to monitor the entire electoral process because although Latin America has almost entirely overcome the specter of fraud, we must still ensure that governments are transparent and fair and that people can vote in an atmosphere of absolute freedom and without fear," he said.
 
 
Do you have AOL?

If you have American Online Internet service you may not be getting the daily news digest.

AOL repeatedly has branded us as spam and refuses to distribute our digest to its customers. They are next to impossible to contact.

We would encourage you to get another Internet provider.

— the editor

Paints fuel fire
that darkens sky

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Thick, black smoke covered the western part of the Metropolitan Area Friday morning because of a blaze at the Uruca facility of Fábrica de Pinturas Sur.

Damage in the blaze may reach more than $2 million but employees at the location suffered only minor injuries.

Investigators think that some paint ingredients spilled and were ignited by a spark about 7 a.m. at the storage facility.  The warehouse was leveled.

U.S. Embassy official
kidnapped in Guyana

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

GEORGETOWN, Guyana — Police say two armed men have kidnapped the security chief of the U.S. Embassy here. 

Authorities Saturday launched a massive search for Stephen Lesniak, after he was taken at a golf course outside the capital. 

International news sources report police as saying the kidnappers have asked for a ransom of $300,000. 

Police said the kidnappers may have taken the 35-year-old embassy official to the nearby village of Buxton, which is known as a haven for criminal gangs.

Undocumented pair
held in Jacó

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police in Jacó early Saturday arrested two men in their 30s, who probably are Chinese.

One man carried a forged Costa Rican driver’s license, and that was the extent of their identification papers, according to a report from the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

Police said that they were alerted to the presence of the men by an anonymous telephone caller. They pulled the two men over in front of the Super "Las Olas" in the downtown area. The men were in a car.

Police said that they found two checks and some $1,000 in counterfeit U.S. currency.

Rights group says trio
died for being whistleblowers

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three Colombians have lost their lives so far in 2003 because they were whistleblowers, according to Propidad, a regional civic organization which fights against corruption and for the right to free press.

The organization says many more people have received threats on their lives or have been victims of aggression. What all the victims have in common, says the organization, is they filed complaints on matters of corruption.

The alleged corruption seems to be related to various municipal offices across Colombia.

Propidad is calling on the Colombian authorities to investigate the murders of the three men.
 
 
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A.M. Costa Rica's professional directory is where business people who wish to reach the English-speaking community may invite responses. If you are interested in being represented here, please contact the editor.


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Congressional contacts big reason for Pacheco visit
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  A major reason that the presidents of five Central American states came here last week was to build support in the U.S. Congress for a free trade agreement.

That was the word from Robert Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative, as he reflected on the meetings that included President Abel Pacheco, Foreign Minister Roberto Tovar Faja and Alberto Trejos, minister of Comerico Exterior.

The trio and their counterparts in four other Central American states held a quick series of meetings Thursday here. The highpoint of the visit was a session with the U.S. president.

President Bush reiterated the United States' strong interest in crafting a Central American Free Trade Agreement and reaffirmed the U.S. goal of concluding negotiations this year, said Zoellick.

"President Bush and the United States are strongly committed to Central America and the Central American Free Trade Agreement," Zoellick said. The other countries are El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

These working meetings provided an opportunity to review progress in trade treaty talks and focus on the key challenges ahead, Zoellick said. He added that the meetings also demonstrate that, even in the midst of a war, President Bush and congressional leaders recognize the importance of trade and development in Central America.

More broadly, Zoellick noted that the Central American trade talks reflect the Bush administration's continued commitment to the hemisphere. 

The trade talks were launched in January 2003, with subsequent negotiating sessions in Costa Rica, Cincinnati, Ohio, and El Salvador. Zoellick said the talks were going well and according to schedule.

 "We feel all the signs are positive, we are making excellent progress on the issues," he said. "We 

believe we are on track to finish the free trade agreement this year."

Zoellick said that the presidents were able to take part in a breakfast meeting with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (a Republican of Tennessee), Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (a Democrat of South Dakota) and other congressional leaders from the House of Representatives and Senate.

Economic issues including agriculture, intellectual property right protection and transparency, as well as other issues such as human rights and democracy, were among the key topics discussed at the breakfast meeting, he said.

Following their meetings on Capitol Hill, at the White House and with other senior administration officials, the Central American leaders concluded their day in Washington by taking part in a reception at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
 

Hemisphere-wide treaty
said to be advancing

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Negotiations to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas by the target date of January 2005 are moving ahead, and an updated version should be ready by July, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Peter Allgeier said.

He spoke to reporters Friday via teleconference from Puebla, Mexico, where deputy trade ministers who make up the Trade Negotiations Committee met to review progress of the negotiations as these enter their final phase.

Allgeier told reporters that officials would be looking at the "overall architecture" of an agreement that aims to create the world's largest free trade zone among the 34 Western Hemisphere democracies. He acknowledged that "there will be many disagreements" but indicated that the United States is fully committed to moving the process forward.


 
Our reward offer is still $500

Louis Milanes

Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

This newspaper seeks the prompt return of two men who ran high-interest investment operations that have gone out of business.

Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, 62, was associated with Ofinter S.A., a money exchange house, and with his own private investment business that had about $1 billion in other people’s money on the books.

Villalobos closed his business Oct. 14 and vanished.

Louis Milanes operated Savings Unlimited and several casinos in San José. He left the country with other members of his firm the weekend of Nov. 23. He may have as much as $260 million in his possession. Both operations catered to North Americans.

Villalobos had about 6,300 customers. Milanes had about 2,400.

Villalobos and Milanes are the subjects of international arrest warrants.  Associates of both men have been jailed.

A.M. Costa Rica has posted a $500 reward for information leading to the detention of either man with the hopes that others will make similar pledges. The newspaper believes that investors only will see some of their money when the two men are in custody.

Milanes has few supporters in San José. On the other hand, as the letters frequently on this page show, Villalobos still has supporters who believe that he will reappear and settle his debts. They believe he is in hiding because of a predatory Costa Rican government.


 
An invitation to enter our photo contest
The first A.M. Costa Rica photo contest welcomes your submissions and will award a prize of $100 in each of five categories.

The deadline for submission is April 15. The contest was announced in November.

Five categories have been established:

1. DEADLINE NEWS: A news photo that shows a breaking news event, such as, but not only, crime, accidents, fires, arrests.

2. SCENIC: Landscape scenes which may or may not include people as a secondary emphasis.

3. WILDLIFE: Photos that have as their principal subject one or more animals, plants or insects.

4. SPORTS: A photo related to one of the major or minor sports, team or individual.

5. PEOPLE:  A photo that has as its principal emphasis one or more persons, including individual portraits. 


Deadline is April 15

BASIC RULES: The photo must be taken by the person who submits it, and he or she, as a condition of submission, agrees to give A.M. Costa Rica the right to publish the photo in A.M. Costa Rica. Upon publication, the photo will be covered by A.M. Costa Rica’s copyright, which the newspaper will happily assign back to the contestant upon request. As a condition of submission, the contestant affirms that he or she owns full rights to the photo and that it has never before been published in any professional medium.

The photo must have been taken within the borders or territorial waters of Costa Rica between Nov. 15 and the contest deadline. 

Only one entry per photographer is allowed in each category. Judges reserve the right to place the photo in another category during the selection process.
 
Employees, shareholders or interns with A.M. Costa Rica may not enter the contest. 

This is an open competition. No distinction will be made between professional and amateur photographers.

A.M. Costa Rica, at its option, will publish photos and information including the name of the photographer, as submissions are made.

The management of A.M. Costa Rica and judges are the final authority on contest rules and submissions.

TECHNICALITIES: The photos must be sent digitally via e-mail to 

editor@amcostarica.com, and the subject line must specify "photo contest." Within the body of the e-mail, the contestant must specify into which category the photo is submitted. The photo should be between 4 and 8 inches in width and contain no less than 72 pixels per inch of density. Each photo should not be larger than 200 k.

The e-mail message must clearly state the name and the circumstances surrounding the taking of the photo and the date the photo was taken. 

The photo should be in jpeg format and sent as an attachment with the file name as the number of the category in which it is being submitted followed by the name of the photographer.

For example, the file name of a photo in the sports category taken by Mr. Jones would be 4jones.jpeg or 4jones.jpg

PRIZES:  A first place winner will be named in each category, and the prize will be $100 paid via Pay Pal, the electronic fund-transfer system.

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