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These stories were published Thursday, July 1, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 129
Jo Stuart
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'Second' tourist season has official start today
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Today marks the official start of Costa Rica’s second tourism season. Young people, teachers, potential residents and others who have vacations during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer season are arriving individually and in groups.

These are not the big spenders who visit during the high season from December to March. But for what they lack in bank accounts and credit cards, the second season tourists make up in numbers.

The second season lasts through August when most universities and schools in the north resume. Typically about 45,000 North American tourists arrive in July and about 35,000 in August, based on prior year statistics. The two months represent about 20 percent of the year’s tourists. European tourists are here, too.

The second season visitors include more backpackers who probably will be more cost conscious than the high season crowd. Hotels that cater to the young and the backpackers already are busy.

Improving economic conditions in the United States and a diminishing of concerns about terrorism is spurring the tourist wave.

Attractive air fares are designed to draw this crowd. The addition of airline flights into Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia is a boon to the north Pacific coast.

"I have breakfast in Florida and lunch in Tamarindo," said one resident who splits her time between the two locations. In the past, those who landed at Juan Santamaría Airport in Alajuela had to make the half-day land journey to the north Pacific, frequently with an overnight in San José.

Bank closed by regulators will only take money
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Banco Elca was open Wednesday but only to take money.

The bank that regulators took over Tuesday was not cashing checks or even exchanging dollars for colons, according to Luis Lizano, a teller, who was the only person who could be reached at the bank’s central office in Sabana Este Wednesday.

What he said was not what the many expats who had money in the bank wanted to hear.

The bank was only accepting payments on credit it had extended and on credit cards. The bank would not even accept deposits, he said.

Meanwhile, Manrique López, the government official sent to run the bank, remained incommunicado. He works for the Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras, the agency that closed down the bank and dissolved its board of directors due to lack of liquidity and unspecified anomalies.

The government officials were said to be in meetings all day.

A  block away, Ryan Piercy of the Association of Residents of Costa Rica, also wanted to talk to the official. Piercy noted that bank employees had made a presentation to potential new expat residents just Friday at his association’s monthly seminar for those who might like to move here.

Because Banco Elca actively sought deposits from Expats, Piercy said he thought that a significant number of North Americans had money there. Because Banco Elca is a private bank it is not backed by the faith and credit of the country. Bank insurance does not exist here for private entities.

Piercy pointed out two major problems for foreign residents. First, he said he knows of individuals who had deposited the $60,000 required of them by immigration officials to become rentistas here. In addition, others who are pensionados have deposited money in the bank so they could show that they had changed the required $600 a month into colons to maintain their residency status. Piercy said his association would prevail on immigration officials to cut these residents some slack in showing they met financial requirements of their residency.

At the very least, the money will be locked up for the 90-day initial period that López will be in charge. A similar bank failure dragged on for 

months before another bank purchased the assets.

Piercy said he thought that Banco Elca was in better financial shape than Banco Bantec, the La Uruca institution that failed. Officials said that Banco Elca had fallen far below its required 10 percent reserve requirement on deposits.

For more than a year Banco Nacional, the largest in the country, refused to accept Banco Elca checks.

Banco Elca listed nine separate offices in a half-page ad carried in the most recent issue of a magazine published by Piercy’s association. One was in Hospital CIMA in Escazú. Other offices were in San Ramon, San Carlos, San Pedro, Heredia, Barrio Amon in San José, Desamparados and Alajuela. The Superintendencia said 155 people worked there.

The bank had recently accepted an infusion of capital by negotiating a sale of 50 percent of its stock to Venezuelan investors.

One bank customer pretty well summed up the feelings of expats in an e-mail to A.M. Costa Rica Wednesday morning: 

"I was in shock when I read about Banco Elca today in your paper," the man said. Then he listed other financial disasters that have befallen expats here in the last two years: "After the Villalobos, Savings Unlimited, The Super Fonds, and now Banco Elca,  which way do we turn?"

The Brothers Villalobos ran a high-interest borrowing operation paying creditors 3 percent a month until they closed it down Oct. 14, 2002. The loss: About $1 billion. Savings Unlimited was a similar high-interest operation that packed up in the middle of the night the following month. The loss: about $250 million.

The Super Fondo dollar bond fund took a beating earlier this year because Banco Nacional marketers oversold the shares that were invested in fixed Costa Rican securities. Some investors lost up to 50 percent of their cash.

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Big tamale fest
planned in Aserrí

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

There’s a tamale festival in Aserrí this weekend.

The residents there said they could not wait for Christmas to enjoy the traditional food.

The Asociación Civico Cultural Aquecerrí and the Cruz Roja organized the event, which will run Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Aserrí centro.

Friday the organizers promise tamales and other traditional treats and the presence of masked performers. Saturday morning exercises are planned to work off the previous day’s tamales in advance of a full day of sports at the Parque de Aserrí. There is a concert that night by the Banda Municipal. 

Sunday is the oxcart parade and a folkloric presentation.

Organizers are touting the panoramic vistas of the Central Valley from the community that is south of San José. There is bus service, too. 

The Instituto Costarricense de Turismo also is sponsoring the event, which is called Expoferia Turística del Tamal Aserrí 2004.

Tamales, the traditional Christmas food, contain meat and vegetables coated with dough and boiled in a wrapping of banana leaves. They are readily available year round, but are identified strongly with Christmas.

Alex Solís requested
to resign his job

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Members of the Asamblea Nacional did not even wait for a report from an investigating committee.  They voted, 40-9, Wednesday to formally ask Alex Solís Fallas to resign the job he just got June 14.

Each of the national deputies received time to explain their vote. Some said they thought that Solís should resign so that he would not harm the institution of Contraloría de la República, the nation’s fiscal watchdog.

He was named contralor general for an eight-year term, but then Solís admitted on television that he had signed his brother’s signature to a real estate document and then authenticated in his capacity as a notary. He said he had permission of his better-known brother, Ottón Solís, the leader of the Partido Acción Ciudadana and a former presidential candidate.

Last week it was revealed that Alex Solís made a business of lending money to his southern Costa Rica neighbors so they could pay off smugglers to get them into the United States illegally. 

He charged 3 percent a month and sometimes took the real estate of neighbors who could not pay.

Gloria Valerín, a deputy of the ruling Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, said what Solís does is usury and an indecent, immoral act that does not dignify the person who holds the job of contralor general.

The nine deputies who voted against the motion generally said that the results of the investigating commission should be heard first.

The debate lasted three and a half hours.

Solís has said that he would not resign, but he has not been faced in the past with a resolution that reflects the overwhelming sense of those who elected him.

Mom faces allegation
of pimping daughter

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigators have arrested a 30-year-old mother from Desamparados on the allegation that she has been pimping her daughter since the girl was 12. The girl now is 14.

Agents identified the woman as Viviana Vásquez Godinez of the San Rafael Abajo section. Agents said they were able to determine that clients of the woman would arrive at her house or meet her and the girl in another place in order to shake off police.

Agents from the Judicial Investigating Organization said they found evidence when they raided the woman’s house.

Although prostitution is not prosecuted in Costa Rica, pimping is a serious crime as is prostitution involving a minor.

Parental kidnapping
arrest made here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police said they arrested a U.S. citizen in Pérez Zeledón Wednesday on a charge of parental kidnapping and tax evasion lodged in the United States.

The man was identified by the last name of Sims. He was being held for extradition.

Sims did not have custody of the boy but took him to Costa Rica anyway, officials said, citing the allegation in the U.S. complaint. The arrest was made in the community of Rivas de Pérez Zeledón.

The man will face a hearing at the Juzgado Penal de los Tribunales de Justicia del Primer Circuito Judicial de San José.

Border agents alerted
to possible terrorist

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Security officials said Wednesday that a suspected Al Qaeda member was recognized in Panamá and in Honduras, so they stepped up border procedures to keep him out of the country.

In Panamá there was speculation that the terrorist group was targeting the canal to dispute transportation between the Pacific and Atlantic.

The man who may have been seen here is Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah of Saudi Arabia. He is wanted in the United States.

The alarm was raised by La Prensa in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, which said that the man had been seen there in an Internet cafe. The man is an associate of Osama Bin Laden.

Despite the new security measures, officials here said there was no indication that the man ever had entered the country.
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Cubans in U.S. divided over new travel regulations
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MIAMI, Fla. — New rules tightening travel and remittances to Cuba went into effect Wednesday. The rules are part of what the Bush administration calls a comprehensive strategy aimed at making life more difficult for Cuba's Communist government. But the rules are making life more difficult for some Cuban-exiles in Miami. Others say they are necessary and long overdue.

Waiting areas at Miami's international airport were crowded with Cuban exiles as the new rules went into effect. Hundreds of people tried to get on flights before the rules were applied to avoid the new restrictions. Many like George Perez, who was trying to board a flight to see his two aging sisters in Havana, say they are angry about the restrictions. 

"I guess President Bush has his own opinions, but if they say you can only see your family in three years that is a long time," he said. "So, we are trying to go for a last time and then wait three more years." 

The new rules allow U.S. residents to visit relatives once every three years, instead of an annual visit, previously allowed. Those traveling to Cuba can only spend $50 a day on food and lodging and $50 on transportation, considerably less than under the old rules. Other changes restrict what U.S. residents can send to Cuba and only allow them to send money and gifts to immediate family members. 

The rules are part of more than 600 recommendations sent to the Bush administration by Cuban-American members of Congress and Cuban exile leaders. One of the architects of the new rules is Ninoska Perez, who directs the Cuban Liberty Council, a hard-line anti-Castro organization. She says the new rules will hit the Cuban government hard where it hurts most.

"Well, they go directly towards the economy of a repressive system," she said. "These are what sanctions really do. When you want peaceful change you apply sanctions, in the same way that were applied in South Africa and in other countries. The United States is trying to promote a change towards democracy in Cuba." 

No one is affected more by the new rules than the seven charter companies which book an average of

20 flights a week between Havana and the United States. Tessie Aral, the vice president of ABC Charters says she will have to lay off many of her 16 employees. Ms. Aral says the new rules will hurt a broad crosssection of Cuban exiles and their family members inside Cuba. 

"It does not help the Cuban people because the regulations basically prohibit people from seeing their families on a regular basis," she said. "They prohibit people from sending their family goods, like clothes, sundries, toothpaste and soap. They prohibit people from taking any money they can spend while they are visiting Cuba. They hurt the Cuban people who have free enterprise by prohibiting the buying of Cuban goods, so now the people who make souvenirs and have their own private enterprises can no long sell those goods. So, I do not understand how this helps the Cuban people."

Tessie Aral and other opponents of the new rules say they are designed to help President Bush solidify his support with Cuban-American voters, a charge administration officials strongly deny. 

What the new rules have done is highlight divisions between Cuban exiles who arrived in the United many years ago and those who arrive more recently. The rules mostly affect exiles who came to the United States in recent years and who have family members still alive in Cuba.

However even some Cuban exiles with relatives in Cuba like Mirta Casao say they support the new restrictions, although with mixed feelings. Ms. Casao, who had just arrived in Miami after visiting her mother in Havana, says she supports anything that will bring an end to the Castro government. 

"I think what we, the Cubans, want is Castro out," she said. "So, the sooner we get him out of there the sooner we will be able to go back to our country. So, I am for anything that is against Castro and for taking him out." 

Cuban officials have strongly condemned the new rules. An estimated 176,000 U.S. residents visited Cuba in 2003 and thousands more traveled to the island via third countries like Mexico, Canada and the Bahamas. U.S. residents visiting Cuba spend an estimated $200 million annually, an amount which is expected to be considerably reduced by the new restrictions.

Argentina and Brazil look to China as trade partner
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentine President Nestor Kirchner is in China this week hoping to increase trade with the Asian giant. The visit follows a similar mission by Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. These high-profile trips by the leaders of South America's two biggest economies highlight the growing global influence of China and South America's desire for increased economic independence beyond Washington. 

Business between Argentina and China is booming. It has quadrupled over the past decade.

Here at the Port of Buenos Aires, containers full of Argentine products like soybeans, leather and wool are bound for China and its more than one billion consumers.

But one thing that China does not receive from Argentina is fresh fruit. 

"For desserts, the Chinese people eat only fruit," said Adolfo Storni. "They don't eat like cake or ice cream, its only fruit." 

Storni knows fruit. His company, San Miguel, is one of the largest producers and exporters of lemons and oranges in the world. He is part of the Argentine delegation in China this week that hopes to augment the ailing Argentine economy by increasing exports with the world's fastest-growing market. 

"In our case, the visit to China is very important because we don't have an agreement between Argentina and China, so the main purpose of the visit is to sign a health protocol that will allow the company to sell legally or directly, our product into China," he said. 

Argentina's Secretary of International Trade, Martin Redrado, says that negotiations with the Bush administration for a Free Trade Area of the Americas have hit an impasse. He says until progress can be made with Washington on free trade, Argentina will continue to expand its marketing options.

"We have launched a multi-polar trade strategy, negotiating with our partners in the Americas, the U.S., Mexico, negotiating with the European Union and now going to China," said Redrado. "So our goal is to increase the access of Argentine products to the rest of the world, with no challenge, it's not one against the other, it's one and the other." 

And while Argentina is banking on Chinese consumption of commodities like citrus and soybeans, it is also hoping to offer services in fields like biotechnology and nuclear energy. In return, China has said it will invest in Argentina to help boost infrastructure, especially in railroads.

Julio Werthein is president of the Argentina-China Chamber of Commerce. He was one of the first Argentines to travel to China after the countries established diplomatic ties in the 1970s. Last year, Argentina sold more than $2 billion worth of goods to China, a vital number, Werthein says, especially in the wake of Argentina's recent economic woes. 

"A very good customer. We have a special relationship with the Chinese since the last 32 years," said Werthein. "And I do hope this continues because we feel that this is a necessity for our country, we are trying to grow and I think we grow together with China." 

The high-profile state visits by the presidents of Argentina and Brazil highlight Latin America's increasing economic independence. But Jeffrey Schott of the Institute for International Economics in Washington says that they do not pose a serious threat to the Bush administration's desire for a hemispheric free trade agreement. 

"I don't see any conflict with Latin American countries trading and investing more with China and trading and investing more with the United States," said Schott. "I think its all part and parcel of a process of opening up their economies to greater competition, opening their economies to greater opportunity for growth and the more that these countries grow, the better trading partners they will be for the United States."

But becoming better trading partners with China is what Argentine President Nestor Kirchner is banking on to help his country out of economic ruin.

And as far as Argentina and Brazil are concerned, why spend more time waiting for a free trade deal when they can be trading with China right now? In the meantime, the U.S. is pursuing partnerships elsewhere and recently signed a free trade agreement with Central American countries. 

South America's trading bloc, Mercosur, of which Argentina and Brazil are key members, has increased talks with China and the European Union. It is a further sign that a hemisphere wide Free Trade Area of the Americas deal by 2005 is looking more and more unlikely. 

Researchers cite multivitamins as way to stem AIDS infection
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Multivitamins could prolong and improve the quality of life of millions of people infected with AIDS, according to the results of a new study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine. Vitamin supplements which are abundent and cheap, may have their greatest impact in Africa, where HIV infection is rampant.

Investigators, led by Wafaie Fawzi of the Harvard University Department of Nutrition in Massachusetts, found that women who took multivitamins were siginificantly less likely to progress to advanced HIV disease than women who did not take multivitamins.

"They were also less likely to die as well compared to women in the control group. They had fewer symptoms of later stage of HIV infection, such as mouth ulcers, mouth infections or diahrreal disease," Dr. Fawzi said. "And multivitamins also signifcantly increased CD-4 cell counts, which are immune cells that are necessary for boosting immune function in the context of HIV infection."

Some 30 percent of women who took multivitamins showed a clear advantage over women who either did not receive the vitamins or who were given daily doses of vitamin A.

Researchers found vitamins C, B and E were beneficial, but not vitamin A by itself. 

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New U.S. $50 note
to be introduced
in September
U.S. Treasury Department graphic
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new multi-colored $50 bill will hit banks and wallets beginning Sept. 28. 

The new design adds blue and red background colors to the traditional black and green ink. The new $50 also sports a new image of a waving American flag and a small metallic silver-blue star. 

It will continue to feature the portrait of former President Ulysses S. Grant. 

The $50 is the second bill receiving new color treatment. The $20 bill was updated last fall, when the Treasury added splashes of peach, blue and yellow. A new $100 bill is planned.

U.S. Treasury officials say they're issuing the new bills, which also have an embedded plastic strip, to combat digital techniques used by today's counterfeiters.

Nearly $700 billion in U.S. bills are in circulation worldwide.

Called first in Latin America
Special Colombian anti-kidnapping school in session
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

BOGOTA, Colombia — The government of Colombia has inaugurated Latin America's first anti-kidnapping training school, specifically designed to teach the country's security forces how to resolve hostage situations and to crack down on terrorists who use kidnapping for political and financial ends.

The school, located outside this, the Colombian capital, is partly funded under a $25 million U.S. government anti-kidnapping initiative for Colombia. The school aims to help that nation defeat a terrorist tactic known as kidnapping for ransom, involving innocent people who have been taken hostage. The United States has said that Colombia's estimated 3,000 kidnapping incidents per year afflict both Colombian and U.S. citizens and undermine investor confidence in the Andean nation.

The Colombian National Defense Ministry said in a statement announcing the inauguration of the training facility that it is the first school of its type in Latin America and the third in the world. The ministry said the main function of the school, which has been in operation since August 2003, is to "fight against this loathsome crime" of kidnapping "that is rejected by the whole world, because it violates the fundamental rights" of its victims.

Colombian Vice President Francisco Calderón said at the inauguration ceremony for the school that kidnapping is a transnational crime, committed by terrorists, that all countries of the world must defeat. He said that thanks to aid from the United States, new sophisticated tactical equipment is being employed to help Colombia become much more effective in the fight against kidnapping.

The U.S. State Department said in its annual "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," released Feb. 25, that kidnappings in Colombia declined significantly in 2003.

The State Department said, however, that kidnapping, both for ransom and for political reasons, remains a serious problem in Colombia. The State Department cited figures showing that Colombia had 2,200 kidnappings during 2003, compared to 2,982 kidnappings reported in 2002. Among those kidnapped were three U.S. government contractors who were taken hostage in February 2003 by anti-government rebels. The U.S. government has offered up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those holding the Americans.

The State Department said that the Colombian government's elite anti-kidnapping units, known by the Spanish acronym GAULAS (Unified Action Groups for Personal Liberty), and other elements of Colombia's security forces freed 667 hostages in the first nine months of 2003. However, the State Department reported that at least 52 kidnapping victims died in captivity through August 2003 despite Colombian government efforts.

In addition, the State Department said kidnapping continues to be an "unambiguous standing policy and major source of revenue" for two narcoterrorist groups in the country, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The State Department said that these groups were responsible for about 55 percent of kidnappings reported in Colombia during the first 11 months of 2003. The FARC often purchased kidnapping victims from common criminals and then negotiated ransom payments with families.

Cofer Black, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, has said that Colombia is as dangerous a terrorism environment "as you find anywhere in the world." But he added that the Colombian government, headed by President Alvaro Uribe, is "absolutely determined to defend its people. It has the will to resist and has made dramatic progress" in fighting terrorism.
Kidnapped senator
released by rebels

By the A.M. Costa Rica wires services

BOGOTA, Colombia — Rightist paramilitaries have released a former Colombian senator they kidnapped earlier this week.  Police say members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, freed Jose Gnecco Wednesday in Colombia's northern Magdalena region. 

Mr. Gnecco and seven members of his family were kidnapped Sunday after their vehicle was intercepted on a highway. All the hostages except Gnecco were freed Tuesday. 

Mr. Gnecco's release comes one day before President Alvaro Uribe's government is set to open peace talks with the paramilitary fighters. 

The talks are scheduled to take place in a special zone granted to the fighters in the northern part of the country.

Endangered vegetarian mammals need not apply
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

RIO DE JANIERO, Brazil — Officials have announced a new environmental action plan to save 26 carnivorous mammals from extinction. 

Brazil's Environment Institute warned Wednesday that these animals are very important in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. Officials say if the predators disappear, there could be a 

population explosion of deer, wild pigs and other animals that would put pressure on plant species. 

The plan aims to protect endangered mammals such as wolves, otters and pumas through studying illnesses affecting them and ways to minimize their contact with humans. 

The institute says the destruction of these animals' habitats is the biggest threat to them.

Jo Stuart
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