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These stories were published Thursday, July 11, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 136
Jo Stuart
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Compromise on taxes results in a new study
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco agreed Wednesday to set up a committee to study the countryís debt and tax situation and recommend solutions.

The decision seems to put a major proposal for tax reforms in limbo because the committee has a year to complete its work. Foreigners were interested because the proposal as presented to the Asemblea Nacional in May contained proposals to tax foreign income, perhaps even pensions.

A.M. Costa Rica photo
Big space where numbers were 

Parmenio Medina
moving into history

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

For the first time in a year, the sign on the Colegio de Periodistas in Sabana did not contain numbers showing the days that the murder of Parmenio Medina Pérez has gone unsolved.

A secretary inside the building said that the one-year anniversary of the manís death had come and gone and that the professional organization of journalists would soon take down the sign. For a year, employees religiously updated the numbers representing the days on the sign.

Mario Zaragoza Borrasé, a member of the board of directors of the organization, sent out a copy of a story he wrote on the murder case Wednesday in which he said that he was sure when the sign was erected that the case would be solved in a year.

But now it seems, he said, that the sign will hang on the facade of the organizationís building forever. But it looks like the sign will come down, according to the secretary.

There was a flurry in the local press at the end of the week because Sunday was the anniversary of the radio newsmanís death. But there is not much new. Investigators say they have a good idea who paid to have the man killed but insufficient evidence to bring him in.

Gunmen caught up with Parmenio Medina while he was driving just a short distance from his Heredia home. As the producer of his radio show, "La Patada" or "The Kick," he mixed commentary with serious reporting and scored a coup by bringing into the spotlight Radio María, a radio station that was collecting great sums in donations.

The reform package, some 500 pages, ran into trouble in the legislature when the bloc of Partido Acción Ciudadana, Ottón Solisí party, would not back it. It was with three deputies from that party that Pacheco met Wednesday in a 75-minute closed-door session.

The special commission will contain six representatives of the public, seven deputies and one person appointed by the government. Epsy Cambell, one of the Acción Ciudadana deputies, said that the commission would meet next week to set up an agenda and begin work.

The tax reform proposal now before the deputies would eliminate some nuisance taxes, tax foreign incomes of both foreigners and Costa Ricans and establish a value added tax that would generate substantial new funds for the government. Costa Rica has a national deficit of nearly $1 billion on which it has to pay interest each year.

Pacheco went on television Sunday to urge quick action by deputies on the plan, which had been developed under the previous administration by six former ministers of Hacienda of both major parties. The proposal also called for restructuring customs fees and the internal debt of the nation.

Pacheco said earlier this week that he was not going to sell government institutes such as the Instituto Nacional de Seguros or the Instituto Costarricenses de Electricidad to investors to solve the countryís debt problem. The administration of Miguel Angel Rodríguez had its biggest confrontation with the pubic, the so-called combo protests, more than two years ago when he tried to effect some privatization.

The government said in a release from Casa Presidential Wednesday that each citizen owes 527,000 colons as his or her share of the internal debt. Thatís $1,460.

Despite the year term for the committee, Deputy Campbell said that the commission would present proposals as they were developed.

Summit will be here
two years from now

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rican government officials are thrilled that the country has been selected as the site for the XIV Summit of the Iberoamerican Chiefs of State meeting to be held in November 2004.

Chancellor Roberto Tovar made the announcement Wednesday. The decision was made in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where a coordinating committee was meeting  to set up the session. Costa Rica was represented there by Ambassador Javier Sancho.

"The designation of our country as the site of the Iberoamerican Summit is a recognition that honors the traditional respect and commitment of the Costa Ricans with democracy, peace and the environment," said Tovar.

The Iberoamerican Summit draws delegates from 21 countries in Latin America and Europe where Spanish or Portugese is the principal language. The delegates represent about 600 million persons, said the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto in a release announcing the summit.

The group meets yearly with the last meeting being in Spain.

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Some expats starting to get mad about fund freeze
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

After six days of calm, some North Americans are beginning to get angry that a major source of cash has been frozen.

Other investors are searching for investment houses that also offer substantial monthly interest rates.

Thatís the fallout from a Costa Rican investigation of Ofinter S.A., a money exchange firm that also offered high-interest investments to a predominantly North American clientele.

Costa Rican authorities raided two locations of the money exchange firm last Thursday and also the home of one of the owners and the home of the head accountant. The pretext for the raid was a request by Canadian police who simultaneously arrested in that country six persons who now face money-laundering charges.

But it quickly became obvious that Costa Rican probers had a parallel investigation because they took many boxes of papers and announced that they had been monitoring the money exchange houses for two years.

The company is operated by Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho and his brother Osvaldo, therefore the name usually used by North Americans: "The Brothers."

Where the money exchange operation ends and the private loan business begins is hard to say. At the San Pedro Mall, the money exchange is one of a number of businesses facing the pedestrian traffic. 

Also there is McDonalds and a bookstore. But a side door leads to a waiting room and the offices where customers have given employees investment money, a minimum of $10,000.

In return, the company has been paying 3 to 3.5 percent interest per month, and the monthly payments represent a significant source of income for expats living here.

The source is so important that even last Friday some observers suggested that some North Americans were so heavily invested with their retirement funds that suicides might result if the company did not reopen.

Others have suggested more recently that closing the firm would be a major economic blow to an already struggling Costa Rican economy. There are no hard numbers on how much money was invested with the firm, but estimates of monthly interest payments are as high as $3 million.

So far the firm is still in business, but authorities have frozen up to 50 bank accounts in Costa Rican institutions, thereby crippling normal operations. 

The firm has denied any wrongdoing even though it is clear that at least $300,000 of tainted funds did flow through the company to the Canadians.  Some visited or lived in Costa Rica.

Some North Americans correctly point out that many banks have been caught unknowingly providing services to drug dealers or mobsters. And this is where the anger comes from.

A lot of investors were upbeat and optimistic on Monday. But now that they realize the firm might be undergoing a long legal process with the Costa Rican officials, tempers are flaring. And the government is getting the blame. The investigation could last up to a year or more with the accounts continuing to be frozen.

Some speak of jealousy by established Costa Rican government banks who lost a lot of investors by paying only 4 to 5 percent a year compared to Ofinterís 42 percent compounded.

Others suggest darkly that the Costa Rican government seeks to solve its serious financial situation by confiscating the funds of The Brothers.

Typically in a situation like this, the government gets much of the blame because investors strongly support the managers of the investment fund. In the early days of freedom in Russian, the failure of MMM cost a lot of Russians their entire savings.  The investment house had advertised heavily and paid a very attractive monthly interest rate.

In Albania, a similar investment failure in 1997 caused widespread revolution and extensive bloodletting when 500,000 Albanians lost all they had in a firm promoted on state television.

In both case, investors came out against the governments that had taken steps to regulate the financial entities.

No one is expecting revolution here, and the investors are predominantly foreign nationals. Yet hostility against government regulators is growing. There even is some hostility against A.M. Costa Rica. A few letterwriters said this newspaper placed unnecessary prominence on the financial situation with Ofinter.

Despite the problems with Ofinter, some North Americans were out looking for investment companies that also promise high interest rates. There are several. Whereas Ofinter wonít say specifically how it earns funds to pay investors, other firms say they invest in the casino industry. Others are into agriculture. One even offers 4 percent per month, said a person who follows the industry.

Of course, the danger exists that once Costa Rican authorities terminate the Ofinter investigation they will begin looking at other companies.

Consideration of street children touches every flaw
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The experts are going to take another look at the problem of street children. And they will arrive at the same conclusion:

The problem is wrapped up with every strand of society and simply throwing money around will not solve much.

Some who have been social workers for a long time remember in 1979 when the problem of street children was declared solved. But such youngsters are back in force, and statistical projections say there will only become more.

Numbers probably represent the brightest spot here in Costa Rica. There are not that many street children when compared to other countries with much greater poverty and lack of hope.

These are the kids patrolling the streets, sometimes in criminal gangs. They smoke dope, engage in crime and prostitution and sleep in doorways.

In San José there even are middle-aged men who have been on the street for 30 or more years. They work now in marginal jobs, beg and seek the crumbs from a society they never really joined.

"If you can save two of every 100, you are doing good," said a long-time, experienced social worker. Some have done better. Small groups of children have been rescued with strong determination, a little money and the promise of a future.

Bruce Harris of Casa Alianza met with President Abel Pacheco Monday. Casa Alianza is an advocate for children, and the organization agreed to bring in experts to study the problem here. 

Harris knows the problem well. He has been involved with ills in Guatemala many times greater, and in Honduras, 33 children and youth were murdered during the month of June ó two of them in police detention, according to the organization.

Thatís one response to street children. Kill them. That happens all over Latin America, and Harris has said that he worries unless the situation is reversed here, Costa Rica could be the next killing ground.

The kids are born with little prospects. Their dysfunctional mother, perhaps a drugged-up prostitute. The father, a drunk or an addict. You will find the kids on San José south side smoking crack from a pipe at 500 colons a button.

Drug use walks hand-in-hand with these abandoned
children, and so does prostitution of minors. Add a 

strong dose of teen rebellion, and some youngsters 
from more traditional surroundings join the crowd. Add incest and physical abuse to round out the mix.

Analysis on the news

Thatís why they are on the streets. What happens there is even worse. 

Refuges provide part of the answer. There are some good ones in San José and elsewhere. 

But too many working in the field do not envision an end to the problem. They have long since forgotten the big picture and are content with helping children in ones and twos. You hear words like "impossible," "hopeless," "overwhelming."

Nearly everyone agrees money is not the answer. Education and the possibility of jobs motivate some. Others fall back into their drugged up ways and personally solve the street children problem by becoming a street adult. Or a dead kid.

AIDS could cause
even more orphans

By A.M. Costa Rica wire service

BARCELONA, Spain -ó The International AIDS Conference in Barcelona continues Thursday after releasing a new study saying AIDS could orphan more than 25 million children worldwide by 2010. 

The joint study released Wednesday by the United Nations and U.S. Agency for International Development says 13 million children have already lost one or both parents to AIDS in 88 countries. The highest concentration of AIDS orphans lives in sub-Saharan Africa.

Carol Bellamy, U.N. Children's Fund chief, suggests attacking the crisis through international support for extended families and community institutions, such as non-governmental and religious organizations. Another study says new medicines are still too expensive for victims in developing nations. 

About 40 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. These include 28.5 million people in Africa and 6.6 million in Asia, a region that officials call the current hotbed of rapidly escalating HIV infection.

A tribute to the Del Rey bartender by a friend
By Stephen Golden

Jay Trettien passed away last Friday morning. I received an e-mail from his wife early Thursday saying Jay was terribly ill and she was rushing him to the hospital. Then, I received another message on Friday saying Jay had passed away. 

Life is short, desperately short for all of us. But Jay knew that. He almost left a few years back, but he cheated death. I only wish he could have done it again.

Anne lost a husband, we lost a friend, the Del Rey lost a bartender, but Costa Rica lost one of their biggest supporters and admirers.

During the years I knew Jay, I was fortunate enough to have him tutor me in the finer points of Costa Rica. He often would say that it was unfortunate that most people come to this country and think itís the size of the "Gringo Gulch" with nothing more to offer. He showed me the history, culture, art and beauty of this fine country. 

He was extremely well versed on where to go to see

the real Costa Rica: those little out of the way areas and towns that gave you a window to his perspective on life. And, he loved to share them with people who would ask ó you only needed to ask.

Just as if you were at the bar, if you whistled or yelled to get his attention it could be a long and dry encounter. Sarcastic, curt, honestly cruel, aloof and insensitive could be used to describe Jay at times . . . and this was when he was in a good mood. 

Jay was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, raised in Boca Raton, Florida, schooled in New York, New York and educated by traveling the world before dying in San Jose, Costa Rica. We will miss him for he was and is a friend.

In September, I will share a white wine spritzer with my friend, sitting where I usually do, looking to where Jay usually put himself with one foot up on the cooler. 

It is a shame that we all lost a friend, but even more tragic that Costa Rica lost such an ambassador.

God bless you Jay.

U.S. House passes bill
to give pilots guns

By A.M. Costa Rica wire service

WASHINGTON, D.C. ó The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow thousands of commercial airline pilots to carry guns in the cockpit to use against terrorists. 

Wednesday's vote was an overwhelming 310 to 113. 

It would let as many as 70,000 pilots volunteer to be trained and deputized with the authority to use lethal force to protect the cockpit. Backers of the measure say pilots are the last line of defense aboard an aircraft. They claim that if pilots had been armed, the September 11th terrorist attacks would have failed. 

But opponents, including President Bush, say giving pilots guns is too dangerous and threatens the passengers and entire planes. They support stronger cockpit doors and armed undercover agents aboard flights. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to face tougher opposition than in the House.

Reich praises Brazil
a Ďvery good friendí

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Otto Reich, the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, has hailed Brazil as a "very good friend" of the United States that is cooperating with the Bush Administration on such issues as fighting terrorism, narco-trafficking, and international crime.

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday in Brasilia, Reich said the U.S.-Brazilian relationship is so strong that when a problem arises between the two countries, such as on trade, "it becomes magnified because of the lack of other more serious problems."

"I am not minimizing the importance of trade," said Reich. "But when taken in the context of international relations today, what is happening in the world with terrorism, narco-trafficking, organized crime, pollution, and everything else, our relations with Brazil stand out as very good."

Flight saves mother, baby

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Close coordination between rescue workers and a Security ministry police saved the life of a 24-year-old woman and her new baby.

The rescue happened in Piedra Grande where a woman, Roxanna Ortiz Jiménez began bleeding. She was six months pregnant. Her husband quickly called the emergency number.

At 9:30 a.m. a helicopter, piloted by Jorge Rovira of the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública, took off, picked up the woman and her husband and took both to Hospital de Turrialba.

U.S. urges Venezuelans
to keep march calm

By A.M. Costa Rica wire service

WASHINGTON, D.C.óThe United States is urging Venezuelans to remain calm and respect the rule of law in advance of an opposition march Thursday marking three months since a failed coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez. 

There are concerns among both supporters and opponents of President Chavez in Venezuela that the demonstrations might lead to the same kind of violence that preceded the April coup attempt. 

At a briefing in Washington, Philip Reeker, state department spokesman, said the United States shares those concerns, appealing to Venezuelans to keep the protests peaceful and to focus on political reconciliation.

"Tomorrow, Venezuelans are going to mark the events of April 11, that produced a constitutional crisis, led to the deaths of 17 people, and the injury of over 100 others," he said. "Those events three months ago, I think, should act as a sobering reminder to all of the importance of dialogue, of peaceful resolution of conflict and of course the rule of law." The violence that broke out at the April 11 opposition march, and ensuing rioting in Caracas neighborhoods that left another 60 people dead, were followed by the overthrow move by military officers opposed to President Chavez' populist policies. 

But the effort to depose him crumbled and Chavez, himself a former senior officer, returned to power three days later, pledging to seek national dialogue.

Spokesman Reeker said the Bush Administration supported the political-peacemaking mission to Venezuela by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who left Caracas Wednesday after four days of consultations, but without convening the meeting between President Chavez and leading opponents that he had hoped for.

The spokesman said the State Department expects to consult with the former President on the results of his trip, and also he stressed a standing offer by the Organization of American States to facilitate Venezuelan reconciliation. 

Use of animals
will be prohibited

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Donít count on seeing any lions, tigers or bears when the circus comes to town. Scratch the camels and elephants, too.

The chimps are out. Seals, too. 

That will be the effect of a decree President Abel Pacheco said he will sign as soon as some technicalities are taken care of. He told reporters this Tuesday at his daily Council of Government.

He was accompanied by Carlos Manuel Rodríguez. The decree, when signed, will take effect when published in the governmental gazette. Circuses still will be able to traverse the country to move from Panamá to Nicaragua and back.

Pacheco and Rodríguez were making some segments of the environmental movement happy. Several groups have been working to eliminate shows that use wild animals. Horses, cows and other domesticated animals will be permitted in shows.

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