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These stories were published Wednesday, May 12, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 93
Jo Stuart
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If you visit the Dominical area, you just might meet this chestnut-mandibled toucan that posed for resident Vance Richardson. This bird (Ramphastos swainsonii) is one of the largest of the toucan species, weighing in up to 25 ounces with a beak sometimes eight inches long.

They are well-known in the tropics from Honduras to Venezuela and distinguished by their ‘yo-yip" call.

A.M. Costa Rica/Vance Richardson

Is the free-trade treaty alternative more vice?
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Despite periodic official denials, Costa Rica has been involved in a Devil’s bargain that promotes sex tourism in exchange for economic wellbeing. If a proposed free-trade treaty with the United States is not signed, the country faces the danger of becoming more and more dependent on vice.

Economic development will not eliminate prostitution or drug use. The United States and Canada have plenty of both.

Analysis of the news

But here the traditional problem stems from better off North Americans coming in contact with less-well-off Costa Ricans and other Latins. And that is the focus of much of the country’s enforcement efforts.

A good example is the Flamingo fishing tourney much publicized in La Nación Sunday and Monday and soon to be featured on the Detroit ABC television station because male residents of that area visited to participate and behaved, some say, as sailors on shore leave.

Reporting on local residents behaving badly out of town is a staple of easy journalism. Throw in unverified hints of child prostitution and a new social problem emerges to justify the report, complete with hidden cameras.

The only unusual facts about the visiting Michigan residents were 1.) that they were in Flamingo and 2.) there were so many of them at one time, some 150 to 175.

In the same weekend, downtown San José hotels were handling their predominately single-male clientele and houses of prostitution, disguised as dance clubs, pensions or restaurants, operated unmolested by officials. Jacó had much the same environment.

By defining prostitution as a tourist activity, Costa Ricans avoid coming to grips with the deep problems in Tico society. And if the Free trade treaty fails ratification, either here or in the United States, the economy is expected to stagger lower, thus making more attractive those things that officials deplore publicly.

Offshore gambling and online casinos here also generate many jobs, and officials do not seem to have made any headway in investigating allegations that the New York Mafia is deeply involved as are money launderers of every nationality.

Although anti-drug police seem to make arrests daily, most major cases involve drugs being transported through the country. The local marijuana, crack and cocaine supplies do not seem to be affected.

The strong demand for a fast buck will only get stronger absent legitimate economic activities promoted by an international trade treaty.
Of course there are those who want to see Costa Rica in the future as a mellow, laid-back drug, sex and gambling paradise, kind of a Disneyland for touring adults. Economically their argument is strong.

And perhaps such an outcome represents the inevitable result of a failed free-trade treaty.

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Tovar: Canadian 'refugee' crackdown inevitable
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Since 2002 about 4,290 Costa Ricans have sought refugee status in Canada and thereby created a bad image of their home country in the eyes of the world, according to Roberto Tovar Faja, the foreign minister.

Tovar said he supported Canada’s decision to require visas from Costa Ricans as of Tuesday. The visa process will contribute to an orderly flow of migration and stop the unjustified applications for refugee status as well as illegal immigration to Canada, Tovar said.

The refugee requests generated a big burden for Canada, even though 99 percent were rejected, he added, noting that Costa Rica is a democracy.

Tovar said he did not think the new rules would affect the legal travel by Costa Ricans.

Canadian officials said they are prepared to issue one-time tourist visas but also multiple-entry 

visas valid for a number of years to qualified persons.

The visa application has to be initiated in Costa Rica, but Canadian officials will send the application to an immigration office in Guatemala, according to a foreign ministry announcement. Turnaround time there is expected to be three days, it said.

Tovar said that in recent years travel to Canada has increased due to unscrupulous persons who offer to help foreign visitors apply for refugee status. Costa Rica, he said, is among the top five countries whose citizens seek to be refugees along with Pakistan, Colombia, China, México and Sri Lanka.

The foreign ministry, officially the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto, said the action by Canada was inevitable.

So far 520 Costa Ricans have sought refugee status just in this year alone, the ministry said.

Caribbean residents
urged to stay put

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Although rain has eased in the northern zone and on the Caribbean slope, officials are urging victims of flooding not to leave government shelters. More rain is expected.

Meanwhile, a summary of the result from weekend and Monday flooding shows that at least 32 bridges suffered some form of damage, five dikes have been eroded and more than 180 homes have been flooded and damaged.

That’s the latest toll from the Comisión Nacional de Prevención de Riesgos y Atención de Emergencias. The agency said that the number of persons staying in shelters had declined from a high of 2,190 to 1,543.

However, because the soil is so saturated, the agency warned of premature returns home. Three more shelters, one in Pococí and two in Guatuso, were opened Tuesday.

No financial estimate of damage has been prepared yet.

President Abel Pacheco, himself a former Limón resident, toured the area during the morning Tuesday and visited shelters in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí and La Guaria. 

In Estrada, the president stopped on a bridge over the Río Chirripó to stress that the government was expending "incredible force" to encourage the construction of dwellings on stilts in flood-prone areas.

Pacheco expressed satisfaction that the housing project Las Matinitas, inaugurated Oct. 2, had not suffered any damage. The homes are built on stilts, a traditional construction method in the past on the Caribbean slope.

Italian citizen held
on fraud charges

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Law enforcement agents detained an Italian citizen in Sabana Norte Tuesday and held him to face a charge of fraudulent bankruptcy in his home country.

Officials said the fraud was some $2 million.

They identified him as Ilvo Usai, who first came to Costa Rica in 1996. Here he ran a ceramic and used clothing business with the corporate name of Fultrad S.A., officials said

The arrest warrant came from a judge in Torino, Italy, and additional charges include tax fraud and constructing a phony company.

The arrest Tuesday was by the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad, local representatives of the International Police Agency, and Fuerza Pública motorcycle officers.

Ex-banker chased,
beaten by gang

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three cars full of men chased down the former manager of the Banco de Costa Rica Saturday morning in Escazú. They caught up with him when he pulled his car into a gas station and beat him up.

Fuerza Pública officers caught one suspect, who has the last name of Camacho. This man was ordered held for three months preventative detention Tuesday by a judge in Pavas.

The victim, identified by a court spokesperson as Rica Mario Barrenechea, is being evaluated by doctors, and his condition will determine the charges that may eventually be filed, the spokesperson said.

The former manager, driving a BMW automobile, reported he noticed cars following him as he headed home early Saturday. Although the preliminary investigation of the arrested suspect is for aggravated robbery, officials are speculating on the real motive. One possible reason is an attempt to steal the former manager’s automobile or a failed kidnapping try.

Barrenechea said on television Sunday that he believed quick action by gas station attendants and the arrival of police saved his life. The chase and confrontation took place in San Rafael de Escazú.

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World Health report on AIDS not very optimistic
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A World Health Organization report says tackling HIV/AIDS is the world's most urgent public health challenge. 

The World Health Organization says HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among people aged 15-to-59 years worldwide. It has killed more than 20 million people and between 34 million and 46 million are now living with the disease. 

Last year, 3 million people died of AIDS and another 5 million became infected with HIV. 

According to the World Health Organization, unprotected sexual intercourse between men and women is the predominant mode of HIV transmission. The average time-lag between infection with HIV and the onset of AIDS is from nine to 11 years in the absence of treatment. 

Countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are experiencing growing epidemics, driven mainly by injecting drug use, and to a lesser extent, by unsafe sex among young people. 

In the United States, 30,000 to 40,000 new infections occur every year, with African-Americans and Hispanics the most affected. The report adds that nearly six million people in developing countries need anti-retroviral therapy, but only about 400,000 of them received it last year. 

To remedy this situation, the World Health Organization has launched a plan to provide anti-retroviral therapy to 3 million people by the end of 2005. Funds for the campaign are coming in from many sources. 

Dr. Richard Feachem, executive director of the 

Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said that funding is no longer a problem. "So, the availability of finance is no longer the binding constraint in doing what we need to do around the world," he said. 

"Large amounts of new finance are available. And the cost of the drug is no longer the binding constraint. As a result of the deal between the Global Fund and the Clinton Foundation and the work that WHO and U.N.-AIDS have done over many years on drug prices, fixed-dose combinations of anti-retroviral drugs are now available for prices of around $150 a year, which is an extreme reduction as compared to a few years ago." 

The World Health Organization report points out that, despite high hopes 20 years ago for an HIV vaccine, the world is still waiting and Dr. Peter Piot, head of U.N.-AIDS warns against over-optimism. 

"There is no vaccine, no effective vaccine, against HIV at the moment," he noted. "Only one product has been evaluated for its effectiveness in people and it turned out that it was not protective. There is another trial that is being concluded in Thailand with a similar product, but we do not expect that this will be giving any protective effect. 

"So what is happening? The good news is that far more investments are being made today in HIV vaccine research than, let us say, 10 years ago," he said.  "There is a renewed interest also coming from industry, from the Gates Foundation and from the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, but I think it is very hazardous to make any predictions." 

He said that the minimum time needed to develop a vaccine is five years, but it could be 20.

Brazil's president suffers a political reverse over bingo ban
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazil's president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wants to reinstate a ban on bingo gaming. 

The announcement comes less than a week after the country's senate overturned the president’s decree that prohibited slot machines and bingo parlors. 

The original ban had been in place since Feb. 21 after federal police reported that gambling halls 

are often conduits for illegal drugs, money laundering and organized crime. More than 100,000 workers lost their jobs when the gaming parlors were shut down. 

Presidential spokesman Andre Singer says Lula did not give a date for when he will submit his proposal to congress. 

Political analysts say the overturning of the gambling ban May 5 was a major defeat for the government, which is trying to restore its anti-corruption image.

U.S. and Panamá to agree for searches of their commercial fleets
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services
and special reports

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States and Panamá will sign an agreement today to allow navy forces to board and search ships on the high seas, if they are suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction. 

A State Department official said the agreement adds Panamá to more than 10 other countries participating in the initiative to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles and related technology.

The agreement reportedly requires little notice before searches. 

The agreement with Panamá will greatly expand U.S. powers. Panama has the world's largest number of cargo ships sailing under its flag, about 6,000. The deal is similar to one the United States reached in February with Liberia, which has the world's second-largest ship registry of nearly 2,000. 

Intelligence experts fear terrorists will try to use cargo ships to stage attacks or move weapons. The pact is not supposed to help search for drugs.

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Children meeting in Italy to protest child labor
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

FLORENCE, Italy — Children from all over the world are here sharing their experiences of exploitation and abuse, and discussing what to do about it with other children and some experts. They are all attending the first World Children's Congress on Child Labor. The children have come to discuss how child labor can be ended, and how to ensure that the rights of children are not ignored. 

Much of the conference involves victims of abuse from developing countries telling their peers from industrialized nations what they experienced, and discussing what can be done.

"It was the absolute perfect opportunity to be able to meet kids from every country all around the world, kids who are working all day," said 15-year-old Maura Welch, explaining why she came to the congress from Syracuse, New York.

The congress was organized to allow delegates to be able to discuss their proposals to combat child labor. Darlene Adkins, the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition in the United States, says the congress has a dual purpose.

"The congress is focusing on the worst forms of child labor, we're talking about child soldiers, child prostitution, forced labor, slave labor, commercial sexual exploitation of children," she said. "These particular forms must be eliminated immediately. And then also the congress is focusing on the need for free basic quality education for all. . . ."

One delegate at the conference, 18-year-old Maphefo Khoza from South Africa was only 10-years old when her mother died, and her father left her alone at home and she was forced to fend for herself.

"I had to get money to go to school, and so I had to go the street and be a prostitute so that I can get money and get myself back to school, buy myself clothes and all that," she said.

Experts at this conference say the problems of child exploitation affect children all over the world. While countries like India and Pakistan are considered the most affected by the child labor problem, in Africa child trafficking is a major concern.

Sophie Agdibi, who works to help child laborers in Togo and Benin, says there is an organized system to force children to work, and she says the result is great suffering among children who should be at school. She says the children are being exploited to the benefit of adults.

The conference is being sponsored by an international organization called the Global March for Child Labor. Its regional coordinator for West Africa, Mally Cleophas, says a lack of statistics makes it difficult to describe the magnitude of the problem. But he says thousands of children are affected in the region.

"Either they take them for child domestic, either children in agriculture and sometimes in sexual exploitation for commercial purpose," said Cleophas. "But the two main activities are in agriculture and child domestic workers."

Children who are at the congress and are now able to tell their stories say they want governments to be held accountable for their commitments to provide education to all young people. 

They want all possible efforts to be made, and resources to be provided, so that children like themselves no longer have to work to survive.

Noriega says state of press freedom is mixed here
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The state of press freedom in the Americas is mixed with many nations able to do more to ensure media independence and protect journalists, according to Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Noriega outlined the important role of the press in a democracy Monday at an Inter-American Press Association meeting. He said that  Article 4 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter states that "freedom of expression and of the press are essential components of the exercise of democracy."

The record of hemispheric governments on ensuring press freedom in the Americas, he said, is mixed.

Noriega himself is an insider in the Bush administration, which has been criticized strongly for restricting information and journalistic access particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Although Cuba is the only Western Hemisphere country that owns all access to media channels, Noriega observed that "other countries could do more to ensure the independence of the press and to protect journalists who publicly criticize actions taken by their government."

He said that even though the nations of the Americas do well in comparison to other regions in the world in ensuring press freedom, the recent study entitled "A Global Survey of Media Independence" classified Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba as having "not free" press environments. 

Noriega explained that nations in this category engaged in "varying degrees of legal harassment, political pressure and violence against journalists."

He cited libel laws employed to restrict free speech, to thwart the media's watchdog role, and to contribute to corruption cover-ups as among the specific threats to press freedom in the Americas. Noriega said that this problem is particularly notable in Panamá.

He added that journalists' self-censorship also inhibits press freedom in the region, and he urged reporters to overcome this tendency.

To their credit, Noriega said, many hemispheric nations are working to enhance freedom of expression by reforming "defamation law," and he cited Mexico's Access to Information Law as an example of such progress.

By contrast, Noriega pointed to the abuses perpetrated in Cuba, which he described as "the blackest mark against freedom of the press in our hemisphere."

Noriega noted that the regime of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro sentenced 27 independent journalists to prison in 2003, and he hailed the Bush administration's efforts to promote a peaceful democratic transition within Cuba. To this end, he said, the United States will spend $23 million to break Castro's "information blockade" in Cuba and to give information about U.S. foreign policy.

Addressing another hot-spot in the region, Noriega said that the United States remains committed to working with the Organization of American States to promote a  peaceful, democratic and electoral resolution to the political impasse in Venezuela.

In Bolivia, where democracy also remains at risk, Noriega said that the United States is committed to supporting President Carlos Mesa.

"We are committed to continue to work with President Mesa to maintain an aggressive coca-eradication program, achieve fiscal stability and establish sound economic policies," he said. "We believe it is critical that President Mesa complete his constitutional term of office, which runs until August 2007."

Meanwhile, as Bolivia works to surmount its political crises, Noriega pointed to Argentina as evidence that democracy can overcome serious challenges and emerge strengthened.

The last hot-spot he discussed was Haiti. Noriega said the United States' immediate goals in Haiti are to "stabilize the security situation, provide emergency humanitarian assistance, and promote the formation of an independent government that enjoys broad popular support."

"We will work with the government of Haiti to begin to build truly democratic institutions, while encouraging steps to improve the difficult economic situation of the Haitian people and provide essential public services," he added.

Jo Stuart
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