A.M. Costa Rica

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These stories were published Friday, April 23, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 80
Jo Stuart
About us
30% sex tax now demanded of tourist hotels
By the A.M. Cost Rica staff

A leading government social agency is now starting to get a 30 percent share of Costa Rica’s sex industry. 

The agency, the independent Instituto Mixto Ayuda Social, also appears to be expanding it taxing authority in order to  levy a 30 percent tax on some tourist hotels.

The complex situation has its roots in the temporary tax plan that legislators passed in December 2002. The law was supposed to last for a year and give the Asamblea Nacional time to come up with a permanent tax reform package.

One chapter of this law was designed to get more taxes from motels, night clubs, and other places that deal in what the law characterized as intimate contacts. Motels in Costa Rica actually are places for sexual encounters. 

This chapter of the law did not contain a sunset provision, so the 30 percent tax supervised by the institute remains even though other provisions of the same law died Dec. 31. An institute employee confirmed this Thursday.

The situation came to light when Jim Holley, operator of Pension Alajuela, complained that the institute had sent him a formal legal notice requiring him to register to pay the additional taxes. The problem is that Holley correctly describes his operation as a family hotel located in downtown Alajuela.

At first reporters believed that the institute had made a mistake, based on the name of Holley’s business. The word pensión in Costa Rica can be interpreted as a place for sexual encounters. Many bars and clubs maintain bedrooms at their facilities for intimate encounters, and they comply with the municipal law by having a pensión license allowing them to rent the rooms.

According to the sex-tax law, operators of affected businesses were supposed to register during the first three months of 2003 and 

begin paying the tax monthly on all charges except restaurant and bar tab.

The affected businesses, according to Article 61 of the law are:

". . . motels, hotels without registers, rooming houses, massage parlors, night clubs having the service of rooms and similar." 

However, the law also says that included in this category are establishments that although they have a guest register carry on activities that in the judgment of the institute should include them in the tax category. So the institute has the last say.

The law gives the institute the power to fine or close down facilities that do not comply.

Joice Rubi López, identified as a financial technician for the institute, said there are many warning letters yet to deliver. She is one of the three signatories of the letters, and Holley’s letter shows that she was the person who actually made the delivery.

The technician told a reporter Thursday that even if someone rents a room for a short time in a private home the owner technically owes the institute a percentage.

Hotels without registers are those who ask no questions of guests. Motels typically do not require registration, just money in exchange for a key. The provisions of the law seem to give the institute broad authority to determine which hotels will pay the tax.

A close reading of the law suggests that because many of the hotels downtown and elsewhere cater to the North American sex tourism trade, they, too, could be covered by the new 30 percent tax.

Holley was unhappy because he noted that he already pays nearly 30 percent in sales taxes and tourism taxes. He said that when an employee visited the institute she also noticed a similar letter that also bore the name of another popular Alajuela family tourism hotel.

About getting a good read on book clubs
Mavis invited me to a meeting of her book club. I call it "her" book club because she has been the chair of it for so many years. Actually, the book club is an interest group of the Women’s Club and was active in 1971 when Mavis settled in Costa Rica and joined. 

Book clubs are one of my favorite things. I first was introduced to them when I was a very young faculty wife at Gettysburg College. A book club existed there, but it was only for full professors and their wives, so my instructor husband and I were not eligible. They met on Saturday nights (so you can imagine what college professors did back then). My husband and I along with other younger and less titled faculty formed our own book club, and we met on Friday nights. 

Our books were a little more jazzy than the ones the full professors read. Like the other club, we had one person who would give a book review. Sometimes the rest of us would have read it. The only book I remember from then is "Comes the Comrade," the story of a woman in, I think, Czechoslovakia whose estate was taken over by the Russians. The reason I remember it is that she would get up early in the morning and walk around her estate and have a morning cigarette. That was the only time she felt free. So I began getting up at 6 a.m. and walking around the block where we lived, smoking a cigarette, feeling free. Faculty wives were under close observation in those days. 

It was many years before I joined another book club. I was living in San Jose, Calif. This was co-ed, too, and we met once a month. In this case, we all read the same book and discussed it. As in the first club, the hosts served a late supper. I never missed a meeting except for something dire. I told my daughter about my book club (it was called Ex Libris) and she immediately organized one in Pasadena, Calif. Hers has been going for over 10 years. The hostess (it is all women) makes dinner. 

Over the years the dinners have become more and more elaborate. One time, when I was visiting, and Lesley was the hostess, the book was "Chocolat" so we prepared a French dinner. Once a year they spend a weekend at the beach eating and talking books (I think they talk about books).

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

Most of the book clubs I know about have had less than 10 members. Not so with the Women’s Club. Although it started small, it has grown to some 23 members. The first book that Mavis was asked to review was her own, "The Costa Ricans." (The precursor of the latest Biesanz book, "The Ticos.") Because nobody wants to quit this group, natural attrition seems to be the only way members leave. 

The book club meets once a month at a member’s house. They meet in the late morning and stay for lunch. One person reviews a book that others may or may not have read. The hostess prepares the main dish and others bring the rest. Usually at least 18 people show up. 

The oldest member, Norma, has just celebrated her 90th birthday. Norma has become a model for all of us women who hope to be her age: she is pretty, vital, vivacious, immaculately "turned out" and more active than most of us. 

This week the meeting was held at Mavis’ new home high in the hills above Escazú. Rhoda Oblensky reviewed "The Kitchen Boy," a fictional tale of the exile and imprisonment of the royal family of Russia. 

During the discussion Mavis mentioned a book she is reading titled "Reading Lolita in Teheran." This book is about a group of women in Iran who meet at their professor’s home (creeping there in their burkahs, and risking arrest). 

Once there, they throw off their burkahs and read and discuss great books of the West. She (the professor) was without a job when the universities were closed down in Iran but wanted her female students to continue to read and learn. 

It sounds like a fascinating book and just goes to show to what lengths women will go to belong to book clubs. 

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Raid recovers kidnapped Quepos girl, 13, safely
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Kidnappers grabbed a 13-year-old girl in Alajuelita April 15, but agents finally were able to liberate her Wednesday night when they raided a home where she was held.

A spokesman for the Judicial Investigating Organization said that the kidnappers and the stepfather of the girl negotiated for days via the telephone. The stepfather is a Quepos businessman involved in the bus transportation business.

The girl, Daniela Gómez, was rescued safe and sound after agents detained two suspects when they tried to pick up a promised ransom about 9 p.m.. That happened in Plaza America in Hatillo. Kidnappers originally demanded 70 million colons, 

some $163,000. Eventually they settled for 5 million, some $11,600.

Two persons were detained when police raided a dwelling in Barrio Verbena in Alajuelita to rescue the child. Held were three men and a 52-year-old woman with the last name of Cascante. She was described as the leader. The men’s last names and ages are Bonilla, 28, Rodríguez, 28 and Campos, 29.

The girl lives in Quepos but was visiting Alajuelita. She was in the company of the Cascante woman, a family friend, when the kidnapping took place, agents said.

The girl told investigators that the kidnappers always wore ski masks when they entered the room in which she was being held.

International guests
awaited at Unity

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Kazuaki Tanahaski, a painter, storyteller and author, will be the guest Sunday in the Wisdom Garden at Unity, Piedades, at 10 a.m.

The visitor will be bringing nine other persons with him, including a musician with a unique instrument, said a spokesperson.

Unity is 350 meters south of the Shang Hai Restaurant in Piedades de Santa Ana. More information is available at 203-4411.

Motorcycle club plans
big weekend rally

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Gitanos Motorcycle Club is hosting an international rally of like-minded riders this weekend. The headquarters is the Hotel Best Western Irazu where a variety of motorcycles will be on display until Sunday.

Bikers have come from all over Central America, Curaçao and Aruba.

The local club, predominately of English speakers, supports two primary charities, a home for the elderly and a children’s foster home.

Boy dies from blast

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An 8-year-old boy died Wednesday when his brother, 6, accidentally shot him in the chest with a shotgun. The mishap took place in Aguas Arcas de la Bomba in Limón about 6:30 p.m.

The dead boy was identified as Jamaire Duarte Rodríguez.

Investigators said the family purchased the weapon to kill a wildcat that roamed the area.

Fiesta in Atenas

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Feria del Clima kicks off today in Atenas. It will run until May 1.

The high point will be the oxcart parade that traditionally is celebrated the last Sunday in April, which is this weekend.

Atenas boasts the best climate in Costa Rica, hence the name of the festival.

Solar energy exhibition

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The 14th Fiesta del Sol will be held today, Saturday and Sunday at the Casa del Sol in Santa Bárbara de Santa Cruz. Various organizations, including the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad will be there to discuss tapping solar energy.  Information; 681-1015 or soldevida@racsa.co.cr

Companion set on fire

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A woman doused her companion with flammable fluid about 3 p.m. Thursday at an apartment in Escazú. Then she ignited the fluid, according to investigators. The man, identified as Marvin Salgado Martínez was reported in very critical condition in Hospital México.

Cuba cites blackmail
in withdrawing motion

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

GENEVA, Switzerland — Cuba has withdrawn a resolution it proposed last week at the U.N. Human Rights Commission that accused the United States of abuses at Guantanamo Bay. 

Cuban Ambassador Jorge Mora Godoy accused Washington of using "threats and blackmail" to ensure the resolution would not pass if sent to a vote. 

He said at the commission meeting Thursday that the U.S. administration used, "fascist practices" to pressure Western and Latin American countries to reject the proposal. The United States had no immediate comment on the accusations. 

Cuba was calling for an investigation into alleged arbitrary detentions at Guantanamo, where about 600 al-Qaida and Taleban suspects are being held without trial or access to legal council. Most of them were captured during fighting against the former Taleban regime in Afghanistan. 

Cuba proposed the resolution last week after the commission narrowly approved a U.S.-backed resolution calling on Cuba to respect fundamental civil rights. That resolution also asks Cuba to allow a U.N. monitor into the country, something the Communist island nation has repeatedly refused to do.

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Visiting governor finds a fan seeking a photo
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Nelson Torres Fitzpatrick is Puerto Rican in his heart, even though he is living here. So Thursday he stationed himself outside the Asamblea Nacional in the hopes of seeing that U.S. commonwealth’s governor and of taking her photo.

He was the only civilian there, even though there were police, guards, reporters and lawmakers in the area.

When members of the governor’s entourage found out that he was there, they made sure that the governor found out, too.

So Gov. Sila María Calderón not only agreed to a photo, she brought Torres into the photo where both beamed for the camera.

Then the governor was off to reopen the Puerto Rican trade office. President Abel Pacheco suggested reopening the office when he visited Puerto Rico a year ago, according to Casa Presidencial. He participated in inaugurating the office, which is in the Oficentro del Este.

A previous office was closed in 2001. Gov. Calderón said that she wants to consolidate relations with Costa Rica. Pacheco was scheduled to decorate her with the Orden Nacional Juan Mora 

A.M. Costa Rica photo
Gov. Sila María Calderón and Nelson Torres.

Fernández with the grade of Gran Cruz Plata de Oro in a ceremony Thursday evening.

The governor is leading a trade delegation that has scheduled meetings with various sectors of Costa Rican society over two days.

Key Central American drug smuggling suspect arrested in México
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

JUAREZ, México — Mexican police have arrested alleged Guatemalan drug trafficker Otto Herrera, who is described by U.S. officials as Central America's most wanted drug smuggler. 

Authorities arrested the Guatemalan native at Mexico City's Juárez International Airport Wednesday. 

He is suspected of using planes, speedboats, and trucks to move Colombian cocaine through Central America en route to the United States. 

He is wanted in El Salvador on drug smuggling and other charges. The United States has also offered a multi-million-dollar reward for his capture. 

Mexican Attorney-General Rafael Macedo de la Concha said that the arrest will help break up the leadership of a criminal organization linked to the most significant transfer, distribution and sale of narcotics in Central America. 

Mexican officials have also announced the arrest of three of Herrara's alleged accomplices. Officials said that the suspects were picked up in the resort town of Cancun.

Venezuela raids passport factory after senator vents criticisms
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela —  Police have arrested at least eight people for allegedly making fake passports and identification cards.

The suspects were picked up during raids at multiple locations in the Venezuelan capital.

The raids came just days after U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson accused the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of not doing enough to stop widespread sales of false passports. He said that 

those passports could end up in the hands of terrorists.

After a three-day visit to Venezuela, Nelson also said that Washington may soon have to treat the Chavez government as hostile to U.S. interests. 

Nelson cited allegations that Venezuela supports leftist Colombian rebels and concerns that President Chavez is trying to block an opposition effort to force a recall referendum on his rule.
Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel has dismissed these allegations as untrue. 

Haitian rebel commander surrenders himself to face charges
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A rebel commander who helped lead the country's February uprising has turned himself in to authorities. 

The convicted murderer and former paramilitary commander, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, surrendered Thursday to face charges.

Chamblain had pledged to turn himself in after meeting with rebel leaders, justice officials, Haitian police, and members of the country's multinational security force. 

Chamblain once led the Front for the Advancement of Progress of the Haitian People, a paramilitary group blamed for 3,000 civilian murders during Haiti's 1991 to 1994 dictatorship. He also was convicted in absentia for killing supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the early 1990s.  Chamblain had returned from self-exile in the Dominican Republic earlier this year to take part in the uprising that led to Aristide's resignation. 

Human rights groups have criticized the country's new interim leadership for not doing enough to reign in criminals.

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Morse code gets a new symbol for 21st century
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The 160-year-old signaling system of long and short tones called morse code seems antiquated in this age of the Internet and wireless voice communications. But morse code isn't dead yet. In fact, it even made news this past week . The United Nations agency that oversees the worldwide audio-frequency spectrum has approved the first new morse code signal since World War II, 60 years ago. 

Now there is a dots-and-dashes version of the @ sign that millions of people use daily in their computer e-mail addresses.

There's a name for the morse code version of the little a, wrapped in a pigtail, that you find above the number two on English-language keyboards. It's called the commat, short for the 'commercial at' sign. When they were talking in morse code and wanted to exchange e-mail addresses, hams, as the estimated three million amateur radio aficionados around the world are called, used to have to spell out the word "at": a -- t. 

But there was a problem. If you tap out "at" too fast in morse code, the symbol for "a" and the symbol for "t" run together and form, not "at", but the letter "w". Hence the need for an entirely different Morse signal for the at sign. The @ now can be sent in code as o — — o — o or dot dash dash dot dash dot.

The approval of a new morse code for the @ symbol is a reminder that the code still plays a role in modern communications, including the well-known S.O.S. Many people have seen vintage or new versions of the movie Titanic, or naval wartime films, in which the radio operator of a stricken ship frantically taps out a distress signal.

Old-time mariners like Morris Blum, 94, of Annapolis, Maryland, know the universal call for help well. Mr. Blum learned Morse code in the Boy Scouts in the 1920s and used it often during long careers in the Navy and as a civilian ship's radio operator. He says he never actually sent an S.O.S.

"... thank heaven! But I was out at sea in the mid-30’s when the S.S. Morro Castle, a passenger liner, caught on fire and burned in the Atlantic when she was off the New Jersey coast," Blum said. "They lost a lot of lives. I was on a small passenger ship nearby, and I got the S.O.S., sent it up to the bridge. We didn't go because they had plenty of people around their ships. And they beached the thing anyhow in New Jersey, on the sands."

Another time, Blum took in an S.O.S from a Dutch freighter, carrying a cargo of wild animals. It seems a lion had escaped and was roaming the decks, and crewmen were cowering in their rooms. He said, "The radio operator sent out a message, 'Any ship with guns, please answer.'"

Such scenes are a thing of the past. The only person aboard a Navy or Coast Guard ship required to know morse code today is the quartermaster, who has absorbed some of the duties of the old signalman grade, because morse code signals are still sometimes sent by blinking lights at sea. Audible shipboard distress signals are sent via modern satellite communications or an onboard key that radio operators monitor at sea. But the message is no longer in morse code.

It is amateur radio operators who are keeping the code alive.

Ham Radio Dave Patton, an official of the American Radio Relay League, which is the national association of hams, explains that most morse code traffic is in English, though there is nothing to keep French speakers or Arabic speakers or others from communicating in their languages, using the Roman letters common to English. Patton says there are, however, what are called cue signals in International Morse code that everyone understands.

"For instance, the letters Q.T.H. mean 'I am located at,' or 'I am transmitting from this location.' So if I wanted to say, 'I am located in Connecticut,' I'd go, 'Q.T.H. C.T.' on code," he said. 

Ham radio equipment can be rigged for the hearing impaired. Flashing lights send the dot-and-dash messages. 

"And the same thing goes with touch," Patton said. "There are people, of course, who can't hear, and they put their hands on a transducer, and they can feel something buzz for a half-second, and that'll be a dash, and a quarter-second buzz could be a dot."

Amateur radio buffs like Wendell Wilson, 78, of Concordia, Kansas, can tap Morse code in a flash, well over 30 words per minute, and easily understand the flurry of dots and dashes.

The primary function of amateur radio, Wilson says, is to handle traffic in times of emergencies. You'll almost always find a ham operator at the scene of an earthquake or devastating tornado, where morse code is sometimes the only form of communication. Unlike the human voice, which can be lost in atmospheric static, Wilson says, morse code is transmitted in a narrow, continuous wave that can break through clutter and be heard. 

"We are acutely aware of what could happen in this crazy world," he said. "One electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear blast, high in the atmosphere, could disable all the satellites, ruin all the microwave systems, shut down all the VHF, UHF communications, and all the cellphones. And the ham radio operators would be one of the few groups able to continue handling emergency traffic nationwide, worldwide."

First company signs code against child trafficking
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

A leading U.S.-based international travel company became the first North American enterprise to sign an industry "code of conduct" to protect children from commercial sexual exploitation, a move hailed by government leaders and private organizations as a major step forward in the fight against child prostitution.

"The travel industry is critical in the fight against commercial sexual exploitation," U.N. Children's Fund Executive Director Carol Bellamy said at a signing ceremony Wednesday in New York. "We can no longer look the other way while members of our own communities are abusing children in the most unthinkable ways. These are predators of the worst kinds."

Although nongovernmental organizations have taken action and governments have passed laws in an effort to stop the sexual exploitation of children, this new "code of conduct" provides a way for the private sector to confront the issue, the UNICEF executive director said. Bellamy added that this travel industry initiative will complement the ongoing work of the other entities. 

"It will take all of us — travel professionals, lawmakers, educators and the international community alike — to make tourist destinations safe for all children," Bellamy said.

The code of conduct was signed by Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairwoman and chief executive officer of the privately held Carlson Companies, the parent corporation of a group of companies specializing in business and leisure travel, hotel, restaurant and cruise services. Through both owned and franchised operations, Carlson employs about 198,000 people in more than 140 nations.

Carlson Nelson said that she hopes the signing will begin a movement for the industry to take responsibility for action against child sexual exploitation.

"The problem has been one that has suffered from . . . a kind of conspiracy of silence. More because it is unthinkable," she said. "It is so painful we want to put it aside."

UNICEF has estimated that 2 million children, 

mainly girls, are part of the multi-billion dollar commercial sex trade. For example, about one-third of the prostitutes in Cambodia are children. In Mexico, more than 16,000 children are involved in prostitution, with the highest numbers working in tourist destinations, the child advocacy agency said.

By signing the code, members of the hotel and travel industry agree to establish a corporate policy against commercial sexual exploitation of children. Signatories also pledge to train personnel on what to do to take action and to include clauses in contracts with suppliers stating opposition to the practice. The code also requires the industry to provide information on the sexual exploitation of children to travelers and provide information to local "key persons" at destinations.

John R. Miller, director of the U.S. State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said that research conducted by the United States estimates that sex slavery is the third largest source of revenue for organized crime after the drug trade and the arms trade. "Sex slavery, which includes children, is now a major source of revenue for organized crime, probably netting $6 or $7 billion a year," he added. 

Because sexual exploitation of children is a problem not just where it takes place, but in the home countries of the tourists, Miller pointed out that the U.S. Congress has passed the Child Protect Act, which allows the prosecution of tourists who leave the United States and go elsewhere to procure sex from children.

Miller emphasized that the Carlson Companies' action to sign the code of conduct is "a major step forward."

Carlson Nelson said that her company will be undertaking the employee training programs the code requires, and will clearly communicate to all business associates that Carlson will not deal with anyone who knowingly participates in the child sex trade.

The company will establish a hotline for employees to use in reporting a possible problem. Then experts will look into the report, assess if what is suspected is indeed sexual exploitation, and deal with it.

Jo Stuart
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