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These stories wwere published Thursday, May 26, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 103
Jo Stuart
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Free trade backers turn up the heat in U.S.
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

U.S. Supporters of the Central American Free Trade Agreement have begun a new drive to assure congressional approval of the accord the Bush administration says will help workers in the region and in the United States. A coalition of business and manufacturing groups announced the new effort Wednesday, as opponents continue to voice their objections to the agreement.

With the Republican leadership in Congress hoping for June consideration of the treaty, lawmakers are urging business and Hispanic organizations supporting it to intensify their lobbying campaign.

The Business Coalition for U.S.-Central American Free Trade, comprising some 500 companies and associations used a Wednesday news conference to reinforce several of its key messages: that the free trade agreement will be good for U.S. workers, and will help support emerging democracies in Central America.

Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, promises what he calls a "relentless" public relations campaign to drive home those and other points.

"Mark my words, we're going to win this vote, because the issues are so fundamental to this country," he said. "We're going to get past the ‘China’ arguments, we're going to get past the emotion, we're going to look every member of the House and Senate in the eye and ask him, are they going to let our progress slide behind, are they going to close markets to American manufacturers, I don't think so."

Among many criticisms by congressional and trade union opponents of the free trade treaty is that it will lead to further job losses in the United States and permit exploitation of workers in Central America. 

Among those opposing the past is the United Steel Workers Union and its president Leo 

Gerard who appeared earlier this month at a rally against the treaty known as CAFTA.

"What CAFTA does is it entrenches the rights of multi-national corporations," he said. "CAFTA is not a trade deal. CAFTA is not even an investment deal. CAFTA is a multinational exploitation deal and that is one of the many reasons it has to be defeated."

However, John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, says the agreement will help preserve jobs and prevent U.S. exports and the work supporting them from going to Asia.

"There is $4 billion of existing U.S. exports that could otherwise be diverted to Asia," Engler noted.

Support for the agreement crosses party lines, with a number of free trade House Democrats taking the side of the Bush administration in pushing for implementation.

Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, says the pact is Latin America's last chance to avoid economic isolation.

"This is Central America's last hope. It is. And I'm sorry that so many of my friends particularly in the Democratic party are so resistant to the threat of change, they are willing to take the chance, and we think it is an inevitability, that Central America is going to end up in the backwaters of the global economy. We should not, [and] cannot let that happen," he stated.

However, the treaty faces strong opposition in Congress, much of it from House Democrats who compare it to the much larger North American Free Trade Agreement of the 1990s, and say it will result in thousands of additional jobs leaving the United States.

When lawmakers return from a Memorial Day recess, CAFTA faces crucial consideration in House and Senate committees. 

Bush sends export group out to lobby for treaty
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  President George Bush reaffirmed the importance of passing and implementing the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which he said will continue to promote democracy in Central America and the Dominican Republic and will reduce tariffs on American goods in the region.

Bush met Wednesday with the President’s Export Council, a national advisory committee on international trade comprising business leaders, representatives from the U.S. Congress, and some members of the president’s Cabinet. 

The president used the meeting to strongly urge passage of the agreement by the U.S. Congress.

Speaking at the White House following the meeting, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutiérrez said Bush ‚"stressed how important this agreement is for continued promotion of democracy and freedom in our own neighborhood."

"He was very, very strong about that and strong about getting the word out that this is a very, very important agreement for our country and very important for our hemisphere and very important for our future," Gutiérrez said.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, May 26, 2005, Vol. 5, No. 103

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Our readers' opinions

Customers fueled scheme

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Thanks to Jay Brodell (A.M. Costa Rica May 25, 2005) for his objective talk on the phenomena called "The Brothers," a/k/a Luis Enrique Villalobos, the apparent pyramid/money laundering scheme that paid off handsomely for some, but sunk so many others. As suggested, the only ones who might still view him as a saint are those having trouble facing the fact that they were duped.

Prior to the operation's collapse, a bunch of my friends were talking up the "fail-proof" returns, and tripping over each other to invest. My best friend wanted to borrow money to hand over to The Brothers, and dismissed "high risk" warnings as simply "missing the boat." The publicity driving this gold rush was none other than satisfied customers, both those who were getting their regular monthly payments, and better still, individuals who had gotten their capital back. These testimonials were worth their weight in gold — for The Brothers that is.

By carefully nurturing this safe and lucrative image, The Brothers got fabulous free publicity, avoided negative scrutiny and attracted wheelbarrows of cash for what was it — some 15 years? This speaks of the considerable skill and patience exercised by these very professional con artists. It is sad that religion pretensions might have been part of this camouflage, and sadder still how many trusting people, decent but who should have known better, got so badly hurt.

The publicity as now generated by Jay and A.M. Costa Rica can help mitigate these wrongs by warning those who still might be tempted by what "looks too good to be true, and probably is". 

R. Martin 

B&B owners trashed phone

Dear A.M. Costa Rica: 

Regarding your story, It was a telephone, not a slot machine!, we are the owners of a new B&B in Alajuela, The Dragonfly Inn. 

When we opened in mid-December, we had the BBG international phone installed because we had seen one at another B&B and thought it was a good service to offer.  We were told we would receive a commission, but never given a contract with details despite repeatedly requesting one or any indication of rates. 

When we asked about the rates, the representative who sold us the service said he would get back to us, but never did.  Two months went by before the first guest used the telephone.  As soon as he received his credit card statement he e-mailed to say he had been billed at an exorbitant rate. 

I called BBG to inquire about their rate policy and was given the same explanation as your story reports, probably a pre-written paragraph to counter other irate customers.   After accusing the company of being capitalistic vampires much akin to most corporations in the United States, and assuring them that our establishment was based on sincere service, not sleight-of-hand highway robbery (who actually asks the calling rate before placing a call?), I told them to immediately remove the phone from our B&B. 

A lovely picture of a Costa Rican butterfly now hangs where the phone once did; a much better use of space.   Thank you for exposing BBG for what they are: (you fill in the blanks)! 

Michael Crow & Dawn Jones 

Travelers should beware

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Just to let you know this case is not unusual — travelers should always be aware that telephoning, even local calls, from hotels will cost a lot more. We see the same thing here in Israel and even in New York. 

That's why buying a phone card in the local country (not having one of these you buy in the States) is like a direct dial and the most economical. And of course, not making person-to-person (or other operator assisted) calls is crucial to keeping the cost down. 

Tourists should basically never phone from their rooms in a hotel, anywhere. What's that Latin expression about "buyer beware?"  I love keeping up with all the news via your daily newspaper! Keep up the good work.

Susan Gordon

Restaurant failed to please

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

We follow Lenny Karpman's food column and on several occasions have visited restaurants he recommended and most have been exactly as he described. 

However, there is one glaring exception, experienced by two separate sets of diners and I think you owe it to your readers to give their experiences. 

A group of four of us went to the Greek restaurant in Escazú, on the road next to the golf course.  We found the food to be sub-par, with the chicken souvlaki especially lacking in any taste. 

Then friends of ours, also following Lenny's advice went there and had a dreadful food experience. The salad was old, the chicken was as we had experienced, the service inattentive. 

Each separate group of diners had the same poor feed experience. Both went there solely on Lenny Karpman's advice, and we feel this follow-up feedback experience needs to be made known. To be fair, 90 percent of his writing is bang-on correct. We've happily followed his advice, but in this case your readers need to be aware. 

Alan Thomas

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Karpman makes multiple visits to the restaurants he reviews. He does not identify himself as a food critic nor does he seek any special treatment. Toward the end of the final visit he may conduct interviews. But sometimes the quality of a meal is pretty random. In case of complaints of poor dining experiences, he may work a new visit into his schedule.

Comments on two stories

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

The article "Sort of a tree house that doesn't hurt the forest," Grant Bonsib stated  "You can see the rivers turn brown every time it rains. There's destructions in the ocean from all this dirt." 

This left me wondering whether he takes his protection of the environment one step further and builds septic systems capable of handling the grey water or if it is left to run off into the rivers that turn to brown foam when it rains? 

Regarding the letter concerning the new "global tax" people should understand that this is nothing new.  As a matter of fact, Costa Rica probably learned about this concept from the U.S.  The U.S. tax code says income from what ever source is taxable unless it is specifically excluded.  While there is a partial exemption for wages, all other income earned throughout the world, such as interest, capital gains etc. are subject to U.S. taxes for U.S. citizens. 

The part that makes it palatable is that the U.S. grants a tax credit for taxes on income paid to other countries, thus preventing the double taxation.  The new "global tax" will not change your total tax bill, it just redistributes your tax dollar a little differently between the U.S. and Costa Rica. 

Dave McDuffie 
San Jeronimo de Narango 
Alajuela, Costa Rica
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Image of Virgin finds
a new home in Rome

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An image of the Virgen de los Angeles, known affectionately as la Negrita by Costa Ricans, now has a permanent home in a church for Latin Americans in Rome.

The image, donated by the Costa Rican ambassador to the Vatican, Javier Guerra Laspiur, and his brother, José Ángel Guerra Laspiur, was the centerpiece of a ceremony Wedneday at the Church of Santa María della Luce del Inmigrante Latinoamericano.

Archbishop Luis Robles Díaz, vice president of the pontifical commission for Latin America, presided. Attendees included the Costa Rican ambassador to Italy, Manuel Hernandez, and the nation’s ambasador to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, Victoria Guardia de Hernández.

During the ceremony Robles read a telegram from the Vatican in which Pope Benedict XVI invoked the continual protection of the Virgin Mary for the Latin American faithful.

The image is identical to that of the Virgen de los Angeles in the basilica of the same name in Cartago.

Archbishop Luis Robles Díaz hands the image of the Virgen de los Angeles to Tica Vania Alvarez so she can place it on the display reserved for it.

Canadian official says Villalobos raid was Tico idea
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has found no wrongdoing by the agency’s police officers who were in Costa Rica when the Villalobos Brothers offices were raided July 4, 2002.

The letter, dated May 3, came from Divisional Superintendent Dale Begbie, who was responding to a series of allegations raised by Jack Caine, a creditor of the defunct high-interest Villalobos operation.

The police official also made it clear that the raid conducted on the Villalobos operation at Mall San Pedro July 4, 2002, was planned and carried out by Costa Rican officials and not because Canadian officers had asked that it be done.

Sgt. Cam Croal was the principal investigator of Caine’s complaints. Caine provided a copy of the letter.

From reviewing documents from Costa Rica, the Canadian law officers realized that authorities here were in possession of information and evidence with respect to businesses, bank accounts and suspicious financial transactions related to the Villalobos Camacho Family dating back to at least 1998, said the superintendent.

Caine made his complaint April 26, 2004 with the Commission for Public complaints against the RCMP. His allegations were mostly procedural but he also suggested that Canadian police officers were involved when money was pilfered during the raid at the Villalobos operation.

The superintendent said that Costa Rican officials report that there is no missing money and that $260,797.60 and 7,562,000 colons were taken in the raid and are in the accounts of the Costa Rican drug institute as the law provides. "The final decision regarding the allocation of the funds will be determined after the trial to be initiated against Osvaldo Villalobos Camacho," said Begbie.

The superintendent also noted that no Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer was present when the Mall San Pedro operations were raided. Canadian officers were in Jacó where a raid was being conducted at the condominium of the target of their investigation, Bertrand St. Onge.

Caine argued in his complaint to Canadian officials that Bertrand St. Onge was dead at the time of the raid. But the superintendent said that Bertrand’s actions, in combination with the actions of the others who also were under investigation, formed the basis for belief by investigators that Bertand St. Onge and others were involved in a conspiracy to import cocaine into Canada, that Bertrand St. Onge had acquired and held rights to property in Jacó beach with the proceeds of crime and that Bertrand St. Onge, Richard Rivers and Norm Denault had deposited the proceeds of crime into an account at the Villalobos operation.

St. Onge had died of natural causes the previous March.

Luis Enrique Villalobos and his brother Oswaldo ran a money exchange business and an adjacent office where depositors could get up to 3 percent a month on deposits in excess of $10,000.

The letter quoted prosecutor Walter Espinoza as saying the Villalobos investigation was under way before Canada sought help in its investigation. And Canadian law officers were not present for the July 4 raid of the Ofinter money exchange business or of the adjacent Villalobos office in Mall San Pedro, he said.

The government of Costa Rica took more than a year to provide copies of evidence seized in the raids to Canadian authorities, the superintendent said. By Oct. 3, 2003, the Canadian Department of Justice had obtained convictions and forfeiture orders from the principal conspirators.

Five of the six people involved as suspected in Operation Oilcrew have been convicted. Four of the six had been living in Costa Rica.

The superintendent’s letter clarifies the situation with those with ties to Costa Rica who were arrested in Canada. 

Sandra Kerwin-St. Onge, the wife of the dead man, pleaded guilty March 10, 2003. Richard Rivers pleaded guilty June 17, 2003, and Luc St. Onge pleaded guilty June 25, 2003.

Several proponents of the Villalobos brothers, have said repeatedly that no one had been convicted in the Canadian drug case. Technically this is true. Three admitted their guilt without trial. Al Día went even further and published an incorrect story that said the suspects had been acquitted.

A fourth suspect, Richard Thibault, has requested adjournments and is not expected to go to trial until next January and there is a court order imposed to prevent publication in relation to the evidence, said the superintendent.

He said this because Caine claimed the Canadian police were blocking information even though the case was concluded.

The Canadian case was called Operation Oilcrew. The six-month investigation, resulted in the seizure of cocaine with an estimated value of over $60 million Canadian. This cocaine was destined for the Ottawa-Gatineau region, said investigators at the time.

Luis Enrique Villalobos closed up his office a little more than three months after the raid, leaving his creditors high and dry. He continues to be a fugitive. Oswaldo Villalobos is awaiting the decision of a judge who presided over his preliminary hearing. The judge may order the case to trial or void the charges. The charges include fraud, money laundering and illegal banking,

U.S. gets a lot of the blame
Amnesty International says rights going downhill
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LONDON, England — The human-rights organization, Amnesty International, says respect for human rights across the world is on the slide, and the group says U.S. policy has a lot to do with that. The 308-page annual report highlights the state of human rights in nearly 150 countries.

Last year was not a good one as far as human rights goes. That is the conclusion of Amnesty International. Based on detailed information from 145 countries, the organization says governments are betraying their promise of a world order based on human rights. 

Amnesty's Secretary General Irene Khan delivered her gloomy assessment.

"In 2004, far from any sign of principled leadership, what we saw was actually a new and dangerous agenda in the making," he said. "Rewriting the rules of human rights, discrediting institutions of international cooperation and usurping the language of justice and freedom to promote policies that create fear and insecurity."

Ms. Khan singled out Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Uzbekistan, and Haiti as among the worst human-rights offenders.

Amnesty International says the United States, by its actions, is sending out a permissive signal to abusive governments and that is leading to more torture worldwide. 

Ms. Khan says the United States must end, what she calls, its practice of indefinite detention, which she says is in breach of international law.

"Amnesty International is calling on the U.S. administration to close Guantanamo and disclose the 

rest," she said. "Either release the prisoners or charge and prosecute them with due process. By peddling the politics of fear and division, this new agenda has also encouraged intolerance, racism and xenophobia." 

Amnesty International has been refused access to the prison camp. The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross is the only independent group to have access to the Guantanamo detainees. 

Amnesty's Khan says the United States sets the human rights standard worldwide and is the most important role model for other nations.

"The U.S., as the unrivaled political, military and economic super-power, sets the tone of government behavior worldwide," said Ms. Khan. "By thumbing its nose at the rule of law and human rights, what message does the U.S. send to repressive regimes who have little regard for international law anyway?" 

Ms. Khan says several governments have openly defied human rights and international humanitarian law in the name of national security and "counter-terrorism."

Amnesty also criticizes the United Nations as being unable and unwilling to hold its member states to account. The report says the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has become a forum for horse-trading on human rights. 

Among the few positive trends the group noted in 2004, were U.S. and British legal decisions curbing some anti-terror measures and what Amnesty calls a rise in human-rights activism.

The U.S. government has not responded to the Amnesty report, but a military spokesman says the United States continues to be a leader in human rights, treating detainees humanely and investigating all claims of abuse. 

USAID administration reports
Crime and corruption taking toll on Latin governments
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Latin America has made real progress toward democratic consolidation in recent decades, but violence, corruption and weak institutions in the region could undermine these democratic gains, according to Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In testimony Wednesday before A House subcommittee, Franco said that although democracy has taken hold in most of Latin America, democracy and good governance are not one and the same. He added that trends linked to poor governance could unravel past democratic progress.

Franco pointed out that violence and high crime rates in Latin America are creating instability and impeding economic development. He said that corruption is also undermining development efforts, and weak institutions are compromising governments' abilities to provide services to their constituents.

The struggle of Latin American governments with these governance challenges has eroded perceptions of government legitimacy and undermined public support for democracy, Franco said.

"When governance and rule of law are weak, all efforts to promote democratic development suffer," he said. "Efforts to reduce poverty and promote free trade and economic growth cannot compete with the offspring of bad governance, which include poorly defined property rights, high transaction costs and economic risks, corruption, and greatly reduced domestic and foreign investment."

To help Latin governments confront governance challenges, Franco said, The U.S. Agency for International Development has allocated approximately $271 million in fiscal year 2005 for efforts to support democracy and encourage good governance.

He told lawmakers that the focus of governance programs in the region is justice-sector modernization The U.S. official noted that the region has made progress on a number of fronts toward more modern justice systems — particularly the transition to oral, adversarial trials.

Franco noted that 12 Latin nations have adopted more modern accusatory, oral criminal procedures since 1992. He said that his agency has trained thousands of judges, prosecutors, litigators, law professors and community activists to smooth the transition to these more modern judicial systems.

Pension proposals in Panamá trigger student clashes with police
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

More demonstrations against a Panamanian government pension reform plan are expected Wednesday in the capital, Panamá City. Hundreds of students and workers clashed with police Tuesday. Witnesses say the protesters blocked streets and damaged property. At 

least 72 students were arrested and several people were injured during similar protests on Monday. The protests have been organized by opponents of a government proposal to save money in the government pension system through reforms such as requiring an older retirement age. Officials say the pension system is facing a serious budget deficit. 

Jo Stuart
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