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(506) 2223-1327       Published Tuesday, July 28, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 147       E-mail us
Jo Stuart
Real Estate
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Private deal opens way to resume train service
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The government agency in charge of the San José-Heredia train line seems to have entered into a secret deal with the owner of an adjacent property to allow the train to continue service.

The Poder Judicial said that the Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles and Comercial El Diez S.A. had reached a private agreement as the  Tribunal Contencioso Administrativo was about to being a day-long hearing on the situation.

The train had been halted by the tribunal at the request of the property owner.

The court decided to lift the ban on the train because the parties agreed to negotiate further.  Comercial El Diez owns property and structures
that are close to a steep cut where the train runs. The court had halted regular passenger service because the property owner had predicted damage to the land by any passers-by.

The agreement to negotiate was reached Monday morning as the tribunal was about to hear from witnesses and consider scientific studies.

The Poder Judicial emphasized that the negotiation was a private one to be reached before a judge even though the railroad agency is public.

Railroad officials were to announce today when the passenger service would be reinstituted. The passenger trains had been running about two weeks when the court shut them down. The train line is considered a vital link in reducing motor vehicle traffic in La Uruca and the road to Heredia centro.

Emergency officials want to close Turrialba park
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The national emergency commission is taking steps to improve the escape route from the vicinity of the Turrialba volcano. Meanwhile, the commission and local officials are asking the Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Telecomunicaciones to close the park around the volcano to reduce the number of people who might have to leave in a hurry.

The highway between La Central and the national park is in bad condition, the emergency commission said, and the state of the roadway would impede any evacuation. And the volcano is emitting gas that is likely to affect the health of the population nearby. The commission said it was requesting that the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad take steps to improve the highway.

The request to close the park to visitors came after a meeting by the officials of the Comisión Nacional de Prevención de Riesgos y Atención de Emergencias and volcano experts from both the Universidad Nacional and the Universidad de Costa Rica.

There is no evidence that lava is on the move within the volcano, but the mountain has been putting out hot, acidic gases that have wilted vegetation. There also are cracks on the sides of
IUrazu and Turrialba
Enhanced NASA graphic
Both volcanoes dominate the eastern side of the Central Valley

the volcano where more gas is vented.

The emergency commission also is doing a census of the population around the volcano and making plans for temporary housing if evacuation is necessary, it said.

The Turrialba volcano is one of two at the east end of the Central Valley. The other is Irazú. They are more or less joined at the hip and are generally considered two outlets for the same volcanic system.
Turrialba is being monitored by electronic devices to detect an increase in activity.

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Lawmakers try to patch up
battered woman violence law

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Legislators and others met Monday to try to remove the constitutional barriers to a law that protects just women from their spouses or boyfriends.

Key elements of the law were thrown out by the Sala IV constitutional court in October. Lawmakers and even a court magistrate met Monday to try and create a law that would pass constitutional muster.

According to Zarella Villanueva, a magistrate, the idea is to correct two sections which she called the backbone of the law.

The court threw out one element that provides six months to two years prison for anyone who attacks or physically harms a wife or live-in companion when the event is too minor to be handled by other criminal laws.

A second section that was thrown out provided the same penalty for someone who insults, devalues, frightens or embarrasses a wife or female companion in public or in private.

The law was passed May 30, 2007, after a series of murders of wives and live-in companions by men. At the time, the constitutional issue that the measure just covered women and penalized men was raised but the politics of the day prevailed. The court said that the law set out a series of penalties that violate legal principles that are established for all persons. It stopped short of addressing the gender issue directly.

Proponents of the law had demonstrations at the Corte Supreme de Justicia building.

The group will continue to study the law today. About 70 percent of the complaints filed under this law, including physical and psychological mistreatment, are based on the two articles that were ruled unconstitutional, the group was told.

The women said they want to have a final bill ready for introduction in August.

Contract drivers may face
rules similar to taxistas

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Lawmakers decided Monday that those drivers who work as porteadores must own their own vehicle, which cannot be older than 15 years.

This was another step in trying to adjust the commercial code to the satisfaction of licensed taxi drivers and the porteadores or private contract drivers.

If passed, the measure would eliminate fleets of porteadores owned by the same company. The porteadores compete with taxi drivers by offering essentially the same service. Yet, taxi drivers have to comply with many more rules.

Another requirement approved Monday was that the porteador should have the vehicle inspected every six months, the same time period mandate for taxis.

Bird in the sky to watch
national fishing fleet

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The agency that controls fishing and other ocean activities has decided to require boats of more than 18 meters (59 feet) to have satellite monitoring equipment on board.

The requirement would extend to foreign flag vessels that operate in Costa Rican water.

The idea of the satellite project is to keep track of the boats and to see if they enter prohibited areas.  There also is the desire to keep track of boats that may be used for the transport of illegal drugs, but these boats frequently are much smaller.

The board of the Instituto Costarricense de Pesca y Acuicultura approved the measure earlier this month. The concept had been proposed years ago, and a parallel concept was set up for tractor trailers.

Boat owners would have to pay for installing the tracking device on their craft and the institute would bear the cost of monitoring, it said.

U.N. health agency predicts
2 billion swine flu cases

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The World Health Organization says the swine flu virus could infect up to two billion people over the next two years, about one of every three people in the world.

A senior official for the U.N. agency, Keiji Fukuda, said that his agency has been reporting only laboratory-confirmed cases thus far, but those are really only a fraction of the total number of swine-flu infections.

Speaking in Geneva, the health agency's headquarters, Fukuda said the global epidemic is still in its early stages.

A separate report said the virus has spread to almost every country in the world, killing about 800 people since it emerged in April.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 40 percent of Americans could contract swine-flu over the next two years. Unless an effective swine-flu vaccine is developed and produced successfully, the American government's experts say up to several hundred thousand people could die nationwide.

The first U.S. human trials of a potential swine-flu vaccine could begin in a few weeks. If all goes well, Fukuda said the first vaccine doses could be available before cold weather, the normal peak season for flu, arrives in the Northern Hemisphere in a few months.

The White House said Friday that it has been holding regular meetings to prepare for an expected spike in U.S. infections after September.

The U.S. has the highest number of swine-flu fatalities of any country in the world, followed by Argentina and Mexico. In Britain, Europe's hardest-hit country, new cases of swine flu spiked last week to 100,000, nearly twice as many as the week before.

Several pharmaceutical companies have indicated they will give out vaccines to developing countries at a reduced cost when they become available.

Gregory Hartl, World Health Organization spokesman, said that after developing countries vaccinate health care workers, the organization will give them the choice of whom to treat. He said young people and adolescents are still the most likely population groups to become infected with the virus, but that the more severe cases seem to appear among older people.

The agency declared in June that the spread of swine flu worldwide had reached a pandemic stage, where large-scale outbreaks could be expected in multiple locations.

Our readers' opinions
Parental responsibility
is key in protecting kids

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

We are deeply saddened by the death of young Brooke.  This was an unfortunate tragedy.  I do not agree however with the comments of Mr. Oldenburg.  This accident was neither the fault of the quadracycle tour operator, the traffic police nor the transport minister.

A 12-year-old child is presumed to be under the care of a responsible adult, in this case, her mother, who typically would have paid for the tour.  This implies consent and an acceptance of involved risks. An informed decision would have been not to allow her young daughter to operate such a vehicle. 

The "pass the buck" mentality should not prevail in this case.  Parental responsibility should have been paramount.

G. McKinnon
Ontario, Canada

Mobilization against the flu
is just a way of sowing fear

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

"Mexican flu is not dangerous" and the global mobilization against the pandemic has no purpose other than sowing fear. If we want to believe the French Professor Bernard Debré.
Debré makes his statements in an interview with the French Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche. "The flu is probably less dangerous than the normal flu," says Debré, which in France is a renowned urologist and deputy for the UMP party of President Sarkozy.

"The sick, who is not even been checked whether they have H1N1, is now asked to swallow paracetamol. Professor Debré made the debt to the World Health Organization WHO. "Authorities had no other choice but to act drastically, after the WHO daily reports and numerous press conferences led to a wave of panic."
"The culture of fear" has long been a formidable weapon of governments and agencies.
Ed van Grootel

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Your Costa Rica

Truck with suspected cocaine
detoured by cops in Atenas

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Judicial agents intercepted a truck loaded with a suspected 1,441 kilos (about 3,170 pounds) of cocaine Sunday night near Atenas. Officers unloaded the vehicle at a home not far from the Atenas municipal building.

They said they detained two men with the last names of  Arce and Rivera. Judicial agents did not say a lot more about the confiscation but readers in the Atenas area said that policemen blocked the streets while agents counted the number of sacks in the truck Monday morning.

The merchandise was taken under police guard in a convoy to San José.

Atenas is known as a major storehouse for illegal drugs. Agents have been watching various locations there and appear to have spotted this vehicle en route.

The truck may have been coming from the Pacific coast where the cocaine may have been brought by boat. Observers said some of the sacks seemed to be covered with beach sand.

Agents said they expected to detain other individuals involved with this shipment.

Agents in the Sección de Estupefacientes of the judicial police made the arrests, suggesting that the men or the location had been under scrutiny for some time.
drugs in truck
Judicial Investigating Organization photo
Sacks of suspected cocaine are stacked up near the truck that was carrying them.

overview of arrest
A.M. Costa Ricas/Bruce Jones
A man sits in handcuffs as police officers count the number of sacks in his truck

Unidad anticipates an innocent verdict in Calderón trial
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Most criminal suspects wait until they are acquitted before proclaiming their innocence. But not Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier.

The former president was the topic of a press release put out Monday by the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana of which he is the presidential candidate. The press release came as his trial moves into its final stages.

Public statements are not foreign to the ex-president. He and his wife took to the television just as the trial was starting to insist on his innocence.

The press release said that none of the 150 witnesses involved Calderón in any crime. Calderón and others are accused of accepting a $9 million commission as part of a $39.5 million loan from the government of Finland to purchase medical equipment from that country. Prosecutors have traced the money to bank accounts in Panamá.
Walter Reiche, the former head of the Corporación Fischel, testified at length about his role in the case. Reiche implicated Calderón as well as Eliseo Vargas, former head of the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social.  Fischel was an agent for the sale here.

The release also said that 35 physicians had testified that the equipment purchased from companies in Finland were extraordinary and provided excellent service to the clients of the Caja, which operates the hospitals.

That statement seems to be at odds with findings before the trial that much of the equipment was unnecessary and some of it was stashed in closets and storage rooms.

The trial has been going on since Nov. 3 in the Tribunales de Justicia in Goicochea.

If Calderón is convicted, Unidad will be left without a presidential candidate. If he is acquitted, he is likely to be a strong candidate.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, July 28, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 147

Port of Moin
Junta de Administración Portuaria y Desarrollo Económica de la Vertiente Atlántica photo
Caribbean port of Moín would get 1.5 kilometers of new dock space
Concession plan for Caribbean ports causes split in union
By Dennis Rogers
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The struggle for control of Costa Rica’s Caribbean ports continues as the government attempts to let the docks as a concession. A rift in the dockworkers’ union has appeared with dissidents collecting enough signatures to force a rank-and-file vote on their leaders’ intransigent position.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index 2008-2009 has Costa Rica’s port infrastructure in 128th place of 134 countries ranked. Many landlocked countries score higher. Panama is number 15.

The ports are controlled by the government agency Junta de Administración Portuaria y Desarrollo Económica de la Vertiente Atlántica, known as Japdeva. It is also responsible for development projects in the Limón area. The Oscar Arias administration plans to offer the existing docks as a concession to whatever operator will expand the nearby Moín facility.

The project as presently imagined has the existing Limón container dock continuing in operation with the rest used for cruise ships. At Moín, an additional 1.5 kilometers of dock would be constructed in two phases, eventually with space for up to five Panamax class container ships. A substantial breakwater is needed and the dock must be adequate with additional dredging to accommodate bigger ships as larger locks are built for the Panama canal.

At least 10 major international port operators are reported to be interested. The estimated cost is $812 million, with a 30-year concession. Income from the existing port activities is included, thus the need to buy out the existing work force. The government plans to receive bids in September.

A work slowdown that ended in July 2008 was caused by the administration’s insistence that dockworkers change from six to eight hours, eventually with a pay raise to mollify them. Workers were getting overtime pay for the two hours in question. Since then, maneuvering has centered around what the union will accept to cancel its collective bargaining agreement and allow the concession of the existing ports.

The contract gives the usual holidays off as well as a day during Limón’s carnival, which was cancelled by the ministry of health in 2009. There is an allowance of 12 work hours for union activities several times per year, and the docks close. While work doesn’t completely stop for these events, wait times, already the longest in the region, worsen.

Negotiations with the union about a contract buyout began in October 2008 with an offer of $80 million to be divided
among about 1,400 employees. This was rejected out of hand by the union leadership in a brief meeting with the ministers of labor and transport. News reports showed the negotiators did not even look at the government offer.

Eventually there was a counter offer on the part of the workers asking for $500,000 for each employee. This was not accepted by the government, alleging it was nearly the budget for the entire project.

At the end of May the government returned with an offer that would total about $137 million for the 1,334 employees. This was again rejected, with union head Ronaldo Blear calling the government’s offer immoral in an interview. The union leadership maintains a firm position, even insisting “for the fifth time, the answer is no” when called to meet representatives of prospective concessionaires.

Meanwhile, a small group of workers began gathering signatures to force an assembly and secret vote. Wednesday  they presented a list of more than half the membership to a secretary actually, as the directorate refused to meet the petitioners. The assembly should take place this week.

According to a formula found at, each worker would receive three times the average monthly salary of 458,000 colons for each year labored up to 20. After that three times his real present salary for each additional year. This is in addition to the ordinary severance of a month’s salary for each year.

A worker presently making 600,000 colons (about  $1,000) with 20 years on the job would receive almost 40 million colons or about $69,000.

Japdeva also hired a Colombian company to dredge both docks at the end of 2008, but strong winds in November damaged the dredge ship and the job was abandoned. Neither port has been deepened since 1994.

Limón and Moín together handled 835,000 twenty-foot equivalent units in 2008. Most containers are 40 feet and equal two units. This was a slight dip from 2007 reflecting a prolonged work slowdown in May and June.

Caldera handled 170,000 units but this was up 27 percent. From 2006 to 2007 Caldera more than doubled its cargo handling when management was privatized and workers went to two shifts per day.

The two Panama ports, Colon on the Caribbean and Balboa on the Pacific, managed 4.6 million units in 2008. That was up 15 percent from 2007. The largest port in the world is Singapore, which moved 28 million units in 2008, according to Container Management Magazine.

Smaller port of Caldera shows big increase in productivity
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Costa Rica already has experience with the concession of a port. The Pacific port of Caldera was turned over to private control in 2006. The process started in 2001 but took nearly five years to complete, and legal challenges still keep one key segment of the docks unfinished.

The situation was similar to what the government faces in dealing with Limón and Moín, except on a smaller scale. Even with improvements in productivity, Caldera still handles less than 25 percent of the total container traffic for the country. The Abel Pacheco administration did most of the negotiations, though he was no longer in office when the keys were finally given to the new managers.

Ultimately the Instituto Costarricense de Puertos del Pacífico turned over control to a consortium of mixed Colombian/Costa Rican capital in August 2006. This required a buyout of the existing work force for a total of $23 million. About 1,000 employees were involved, with some getting as much as $50,000. About 300 of the veterans were re-hired, and the port now requires 400 to 700 workers daily depending on activity.

Productivity immediately improved 63 percent as an additional shift increased operations from 16 to 24 hours
and down time for meals and rest was reduced. Ultimately container handling doubled from calendar year 2006 to 2007, the first full year of the concession.

The construction of a new bulk transfer facility for grain and fertilizer has been less lucky. The design was appealed by a public employees union on “environmental grounds” and after two years has still not been seen by the Sala IV appeals court. Construction costs have apparently doubled in the meantime.

Also after only 16 months of private management the commissions paid to the port institute and the municipalities of Esparza and Puntarenas totaled $7.3 million, of which some $1.2 million is dedicated to social projects. The municipalities also received about $2.5 million between them for public works.

This compared favorably to the amount available to the Junta de Administración Portuaria y Desarrollo Económica de la Vertiente Atlántica, which had a social works budget for the Limón area of about four billion colons in 2006, this being from the revenues of a much larger operation. Only about a half of that was spent with 833 million colons on actual projects and the rest eaten up by salaries. However, the municipalities are not efficient in getting their money spent either.

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U.S. turns off signboard
tweaking Cuban policies

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The State Department confirmed Monday that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana has turned off an electronic message board that had irritated the Cuban government. The two countries, long antagonistic, have recently taken steps toward dialogue.

The State Department said the U.S. interests section in Havana has turned off the electronic message board and Cuba has taken down some anti-American signs near the U.S. mission in actions reflecting the modest thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations in recent months.

The message board — running across windows along the fifth floor of the seven-story U.S. diplomatic post on the Havana waterfront — had been flashing news and criticism of the Cuban government's economic and human rights policies in 1.5-meter-high letters since January 2006.

Cuban authorities had responded by erecting tall flagpoles and signboards that largely obscured the American message board from public view.

At a news briefing Monday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly confirmed reports that the message board was turned off last month, and said that Cuba in what he termed a positive gesture had taken down some very negative signs and graffiti around the U.S. mission.

Kelly said the dueling billboards were not serving the interests of promoting a more constructive relationship.

"We believe that the billboard was really not effective as a means of delivering information to the Cuban people. It was evident that people weren't even able to read the billboard because of some obstructions that were put in front of it," he said. "We think that some of the measures that the president announced on April 13, to increase the free flow of information to the people of Cuba, will ultimately be more effective," he added.

In the April 13 announcement, President Barack Obama cleared the way for U.S. telecommunications firms to offer telephone and other services in Cuba, and authorized U.S. residents to pay for phone, internet and other services for relatives and others in Cuba.

He also lifted restrictions on remittances and travel to the island nation by Cuban-Americans.

The broader U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, imposed in 1962, continues and will remain in place, administration officials say, unless there are major changes for the better in the Havana government's human rights policy.

Earlier this month, the two countries resumed talks on migration, which were suspended by the Bush administration in 2003 along with other channels of dialogue after a major Cuban crackdown on political dissidents.

The United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961.

The U.S. interests section in Havana and its Cuban counterpart in Washington were set up by mutual agreement in 1977 to handle consular and other routine matters.

They are technically part of the Swiss embassies in both capitals though in practice they operate independently except in matters of protocol.
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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, July 28, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 147

Latin American news digest
U.S. housing market seen
on upswing with rising sales

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire service

America's battered housing industry is showing signs of life, according to new U.S. government statistics.

U.S. home sales recorded the largest monthly increase in more than eight years, rising 11 percent in June, according to the Commerce Department. It was the third consecutive month of rising sales.

The U.S. housing market is a key indicator of the future of the Costa Rican market because much of the equity used here comes from the sale of properties in the United States.

Global Insight economist Nigel Gault says the sales jump is a welcome sign of improvement in an industry that has suffered its worst slump in decades.

"The signals, at least on the home sales front, are pretty clear. We hit bottom sometime during the first half of the year, and we are now on the uptrend," Gault said.

Even so, home values continue to decline. The median sales price in June was $206,000, down from $219,000 in May and $234,000 a year ago.

Gault says, over time, a revival of home sales will revitalize the entire industry.

"The housing market is stabilizing. Sales are starting to pick up. And as a result, builders are also starting to increase their construction of new homes," Gault said.

From 2003 through 2007, a housing boom boosted the U.S. economy, spawning construction across the country and providing millions of American homeowners with equity that many used to finance everything from home improvements to new cars.

But the housing market crashed in 2008 amid a rash of mortgage defaults and home foreclosures that triggered last year's financial meltdown and helped send a faltering U.S. economy into a deep, prolonged recession.

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