A.M. Costa Rica

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(506) 223-1327        Published Thursday, June 1, 2006, in Vol. 6, No. 108        E-mail us    
Jo Stuart
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City frog

One of the joys of working in Costas Rica is that you never are far from nature, even in the city. This tiny leaf or tree frog wandered into the newsroom at the start of Wednesday's edition.

Now he is chasing insects at a staffer's garden.

Costa Rica is home to more than 150 amphibians, many of which are frogs.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas

Officials are bracing for 'street referendum'
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rican officials are bracing for the start of demonstrations a week from today by unions and others opposed to the free trade treaty with the United States.

The demonstrations are what union leaders are calling the referendum of the streets to stop legislative ratification of the agreement.

Rodrigo Arias, minister of the Presidencia and brother of President Óscar Arias Sánchez, said Wednesday that "the right to demonstrate is the right of all Costa Ricans. It is part of a democratic county —  the right of expression."

However, he said that those who are not participating in the protests also have rights, such as the right to get a bus and get to work.

Previous demonstrations, such as those in August 2004, closed down the major highways of the country for days when truckers joined the protests.

There are indications now that support for the street referendum has declined. Proponents of the trade treaty have been airing continual commercials praising the pact. And some of the support for the August 2004 protests had nothing to do with the free trade treaty but with mandatory car inspections and certain salary adjustments for public employees.

In addition, recent disclosures of special benefits for workers in some of the large state monopolies have surprised the average citizen.

The leading figure on the side of the unions is Albino Vargas Barrantes, secretary general of the Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados. Vargas went so far as to say his union would not recognize Arias as the legitimate president if he were elected. Arias supports the free trade treaty.
He also is the main proponent of a referendum of the streets. This is the last recourse for those opposed to the treaty. First they hoped for a presidential victory by Ottón Solís, who opposes the measure. Then they hoped that the legislature would have a makeup that would prevent treaty ratification.

Failing those results, opponents argued for a true referendum of Costa Rican citizens.

However, the Constitution clearly gives the job of ratifying international treaties to the Asamblea Legislativa.

The plan now is to bring the country to its knees through civil disobedience.

As in August 2004, the big supporters of the demonstrations are workers at the state monopolies who felt they would lose benefits and perhaps their jobs if the company had to compete with private enterprise.

The monopolies include the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, the telecommunications giant and power generator, and the Instituto Nacional de Seguros, the insurance agency. Farmers who grow rice also are opposed.

Some teacher unions and workers for the Caja Costarricense de Segro Social also oppose the pact. The Caja runs the hospitals.

Part of the problem is that no one really knows what will happen if the treaty is ratified. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic already have signed on to the agreement.

In August 2004 many tourists were stranded in the country because the highways were blocked. Then-president Abel Pacheco used minimal force with the protesters.

Arias might be tougher.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, June 1, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 108

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World Cup commercials
will cost $3 million

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Tourism officials are dropping $3 million to broadcast a 30-second commercial shortly before the inaugural World Cup soccer game featuring Costa Rica and host Germany.

The commercial will be repeated during the game and at other times during the soccer matches. The purpose is to promote tourism here.

The commercial, "Marca: País Costa Rica," will be previewed today for news people and officials. It is part of the estimated $7 million that Costa Rica is investing in promotion for the World Cup event.

The topic was discussed briefly at Casa Presidencial Wednesday. And some poster ads were shown. They were in German, but the commercial and the posters are supposed to be prepared in several languages.

Robbery suspect dies
confronting police

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police shot and killed a robbery suspect to end a standoff in Zapote Tuesday night.

The drama unfolded about 8:45 p.m. at the Doble Bonanza grocery when police officers saw two men acting suspiciously. Eventually the men entered the grocery and then became aware of the police presence. One man took the female owner of the store, identified as Din Brizuela, as a hostage, said a report from the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

After confronting the two police officers with the hostage as a shield, the man, later identified as Marcos William Arley Sánchez, 32, gave officers reason to fire to protect the life of the store operator, officials said. The suspect was hit in the chest and died at Hospital Calderón Guardia.

Family of airport victim
again seeking answers

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Relatives of a Costa Rican-born man killed by air marshals at the Miami airport have again visited the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto.

The ministry said that three members of the Alpízar family met with Bruno Stagno Ugarte, the foreign minister.

The dead man, Rigoberto Alpízar Medina, then 44, died last Dec. 7 when he inexplicably raced off an American Airlines passenger jet that had just landed from Colombia. He had lived in the United States for 20 years and had earned U.S. citizenship.

Alpízar disregarded warnings from the air marshals, who later said he shouted about a bomb, officials said at the time.

An  investigation by the Dade County prosecutor did not result in any charges against the two marshals.

His nearest relative is his U.S. wife Anne Buechner. She was on the plane with him and tried to prevent him from running off the craft. He was said to have mental difficulties.

The Alpízar family last visited the foreign ministry in early January when they met with acting foreign minister Marco Vinicio Vargas.

Family members who visited Monday were Rolando Alpízar, the brother of the dead man, his sister Flora and a nephew, Jorge Jiménez Alpízar.

The United States has promised to deliver a report on the shooting to Costa Rican officials.
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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, June 1, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 108


Emilio and Heidi Kühnlein in their kitchen in Cahuita

A.M. Costa Rica photos/Annette Carter

Need was the impetus for a career as beach bakers
By Annette Carter
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

If innovation is the key to success, then Emilio and Heidi Kühnlein have hit the nail on the head by bringing their own style of German baking to the seaside town of Cahuita on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.

It began more as a way to survive than an art form for the Kühnleins, who have been baking for Cahuita residents since 1995 and who saw a need and set out to meet it.

“When we were here on vacation in 1983 we were lucky to find a can of tuna, a tomato and a hard piece of bread,” Emilio said.  “Even in the early ‘90s there was not much in Cahuita, only a pulperia and the only kind of bread was the johnny cake (a type of Caribbean fry bread).”

When the Kühnleins moved to Cahuita in 1995 from Bavaria, Germany, far from retirement age and looking for a way to support themselves they decided to try bread baking.  In the beginning their menu consisted only of the traditional baguette. Being new to the business, they found the recipe in a cookbook.  “Sometimes it worked and sometimes not,” Emilio said. “We had no experience.”

They marketed their new business by giving free loaves to everyone they knew.  Soon, people were knocking on their door at 6 a.m. to buy bread and even making special requests for other items such as French, integral, and sweet breads, and even chocolate cakes. Their niche has always been home delivery even though their bread is now also sold in the local markets. In the early days Emilio logged 15 to 20 kilometers and four hours daily on his bicycle making deliveries.

“Back then Cahuita was a little town and quiet,” said Heidi.  “After the futbol field on Black Beach there was no road, you had to go on the beach and there were less than five cars in town at that time.  You had to use a bike or walk.”

Today, more than 10 years later, with a three-year hiatus to own and operate a pizzeria, Emilio delivers three days per week year-round on his motor bike to about 40 regular customers including markets and restaurants. The menu has expanded dramatically to include cinnamon rolls, croissants (plain or with chocolate or ham and cheese), rye and other German breads, rolls, hamburger buns, pigs in a blanket, individual pizzas, pretzels, spinach rolls, with cakes of whipped cream and fruit available by special order. 

The bakery is five steps out the back door of their house just north of Cahuita center in a building constructed for that purpose. Their tools include a bakery oven, industrial sized mixer, baking sheets and work tables.  Recipes are written on a chalk board – flour, sugar, yeast, fat, water. After 35 years of marriage and working together in two bars they owned in Germany, the Kühnleins have developed a playful rapport when in the kitchen together. 

“Sometimes it’s really difficult but we don’t have fights we just throw rolls at each other,” said Heidi with a laugh, “sometimes a whole bag of rolls.”

Some of the variety now on the menu

Their work actually begins the night before when Emilio measures the ingredients, a lesson he says he learned in the early days before he was used to working in the wee hours of the morning and would forget an ingredient. The baking day begins at 4 a.m.
when Emilio adds water to the pre-measured ingredients and puts the mixture into the big dough mixer. 

After it’s mixed, he weighs the dough and Heidi shapes it and — after letting it rise — puts it in the oven to bake.  The baking usually takes about two hours. While Emilio begins his first deliveries at around 7:30 Heidi packages the rest of the product into plastic bags and Emilio returns to the house to replenish his supply for the rest of the route—about 20 kms. in all.  

After the work is done, Emilio returns home where he and Heidi figure the sales for the day and eat an early lunch around 11:30 and then take a nap.  Later, they might go out for a cold beer or watch television.   Bedtime is around 9 or 10 p.m.

Although they love their lifestyle, a life they say they could not have in Germany due to the high cost of living, the Kühnleins say working in Costa Rica has not been without its challenges.

“Once we had all our bread ready for the oven and ICE (the government-owned electric monopoly) had one of its famous power outages which lasted five hours, and we had to throw everything out,” Emilio said.  But the couple agrees that the benefits far outweigh the challenges when you get to earn your living close to the sea in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

“That’s just Caribbean living,” Heidi said. 

Recipe for Heidi and Emilio’s Cinnamon Rolls
(All measurements are metric.)

625 g. flour
125 g. butter or other fat
25 g. yeast
4 T. sugar
300 ml. water

Mix ingredients together and let rise.  Then roll the dough flat and spread honey and sprinkle cinnamon onto the dough.  You can also add raisins, chocolate or chopped nuts.

Next, roll the dough into a long roll and cut in slices. Turn each piece with the stuffing side up and squeeze it down flat using a cutting board or other flat object.   Let the slices rise again. Bake in a 175 degree oven for 15-20 minutes or until brown on top. 

When just out of the oven, drizzle or spread with a glaze made by mixing sugar and water. 

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, June 1, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 108

Oil wealth gives him leverage
Is Hugo Chávez just another dictator in training?

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Venezuela's fiery President Hugo Chávez is the subject of both adulation and scorn. Some say he is headed toward despotism. Others claim he is a man of the people. And still others say he is both.

When Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias was first elected president in 1998, oil-rich Venezuela was ripe for change. For four decades, two parties, the Democratic Action Party and the Christian Democratic Party, dominated the political scene. During that time, many observers note, no Latin American country deteriorated more than Venezuela. Its gross domestic product fell nearly 40 percent. Three-quarters of the population lived below the poverty line.

According to Riordan Roett, director of the Western Hemisphere Program at The Johns Hopkins University in Washington, the country's old political elites were guilty of rampant corruption and mismanagement.

"The Christian Democrats and the Democratic Action Party captured the Venezuelan state in the 1970s and 1980s, and robbed it blind. And they bear heavy responsibility for not taking the appropriate social development policies in the last quarter of the last century. Chávez would not exist if the oil wells in Venezuela had been invested in the Venezuelan people, rather than in the pockets of its politicians," said Professor Roett.

He adds that Venezuela's oil wealth — the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere — only deepened the discontent of the poor. When Chávez entered politics, his confrontational style and populist rhetoric served him well. He came to office in a landslide victory in 1998 and was re-elected two years later on his promise to help the poor and reorder the political system.

But many critics point out that in the past several years, Mr. Chavez has taken personal control of economic matters, tightening his grip over the military and expanding its role. Moreover, a constituent assembly, which is chiefly made up of Chávez supporters, has written a new constitution that granted the president increased powers and weakens the legislature and judiciary.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa of The Independent Institute, a public policy organization based in California, contends that Hugo Chávez bears all of the hallmarks of an autocrat.

"Chavez is a prototype of a Latin American populist caudillo [i.e., a Latin American military dictator]," he said. "Populism has been a staple of Latin America for much of the last century. He came to power thanks to the dishonor of the political class. He has concentrated unhealthy amounts of power, and he is using populism thanks to the windfall he obtained from oil to create a large base of support."

Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based center for policy analysis argues Chávez has certain authoritarian tendencies. He says Venezuela is currently pursuing “a model that basically tries to get as many resources to consolidate his power and create patronage, so that he can enhance his own political support in Venezuela and abroad. I don't think there has been any strategy of development. So there is militarism, nationalism, socialism — a mix of a lot of different things."

Some analysts, including Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, argue that the Venezuelan leader and his party, the Fifth Republic Movement, spent the first few years of Chávez's administration trying to survive turmoil: a right-wing coup attempt in 2002 and several oil strikes that crippled the economy in 2002 and 2003.

"Since then, all they have done is try to deliver on

Hugo Rafael
Chávez Frias

some of their promises. The government is very cognizant of the fact that they have inherited a dysfunctional state from the past and they have only been able to make limited gains. 54 percent of the country now has free healthcare and a majority also gets subsidized food. But he wears a beret. He is a former military officer. So people use this imagery to say it is not a democratic country," argued analyst Weisbrot.

Many Venezuela-watchers agree that Chávez's popularity with the country's poor strengthened as he made more funds available for social programs. But most analysts, including Roett of The Johns Hopkins University, question the long-term effectiveness of President Chávez's economic strategy.

"If you look behind the façade, what you have is a country in which poverty really hasn't been reduced very much," he warned. "Most of what he has done is handouts to the poor, but no real long-term investment decisions have been made. Oil production is down from where it was 10 years ago. PVDSA [Petroleos of Venezuela, the state- run oil company], which was once one of the best-run oil companies in the world, is no longer very well run. And Chávez has been purchasing oil in European markets to meet his forward contracts. So that doesn't give you a very healthy picture of the economy.”

Professor Roett says the Venezuelan leader has been able to escape accountability because of the country's oil bonanza, which has allowed him to establish what the government calls an 'international development fund' worth an estimated $20 billion, which Chávez has used to buy influence in the region.

Since taking office, Chávez has insisted that Venezuela should use its oil wealth to lead South America toward political unity and stand up to foreign powers, mainly the United States. Most observers say Chávez has given perhaps millions of dollars in financial support to like-minded Latin American leaders, courted friendships with countries like Cuba and Iran, and also alarmed Washington with his anti-American rhetoric, arms purchases and recent statements that Venezuela is seeking nuclear technology.

But Chávez might be over reaching. Recent opinion polls show that less than a third of Venezuelans believe the country should spend its oil revenues abroad. And his open support of South American leftist populists has alienated some of his supporters in the region.

According to Llosa of The Independent Institute, Chávez's political fortunes are mostly tied to his country's economy — if it falters, so will his appeal. He warns, "In every single case, from the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century to the 1980s, which was a very populist decade, you've seen the same story all over again. These populists had a very rosy few years in power and then that made a turn toward a very ugly situation. I imagine that will be the case for Chavez."

Yet other analysts caution that with oil prices at record highs, there may be little in the way of Chávez's advance and popularity, at least in the near-term.

Jo Stuart
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