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(506) 2223-1327               Published Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010,  in Vol. 10, No. 152       E-mail us
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Colombian border conflict would reverberate here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The possibility is growing of an armed conflict at the Venezuelan-Colombian border. Such an event will have an economic impact on Costa Rica.

Government and private experts on the politics of the situation believe that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez needs tension to distract his public from an increasingly grim economic situation.

Chávez already has tried embracing the long-dead Liberator, Simón Bolívar, in part to cast blame on Colombia.

Thor Halvorssen, president of the Washington- based Human Rights Foundation, is one of those who expects the worst from Chávez. Despite the Nordic name, he has close ties to Venezuelans and is a Bolívar descendent. Halvorssen wrote another critique of the Venezuelan economic system that appeared Monday in The Huffington Post.

He said Chávez was using a potential conflict with Colombia to whip up nationalistic fervor. The most recent clash between Chávez and the Colombian government arose when Bogotá presented evidence to the Organization of American States that Venezuela was harboring 1,500 leftist Colombian rebels. The rebels, mainly of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia and the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional, have been driven from their homeland by the aggressive military efforts promoted by President Álvaro Uribe.

Chávez ordered army units to the Colombian border last week in a show of force.

Chávez has been dismembering opposing politician and non-governmental organizations for years. Only one television station remains in tenuous opposition. Many of his foes are political refugees. He has taken over many key aspects of the economy with less than success and established foreign exchange controls.

The Bolivarian Republic promoted by Chávez is based on the Cuban Communist model. Still, the country is a major supplier of petroleum to the United States.

The implications of a border war in Latin America are many for Costa Rica. Trouble anywhere in Latin America has a negative impact on tourism. Costa Rica uses petroleum from Venezuela and some industries here depend on Venezuelan raw materials.

Many military observers believe that the Venezuelan army is a paper tiger when compared to battle-hardened Colombian troops, even though Chávez has purchased millions in material from the Russian Republic. Still, Chávez has Iranian, Cuban and Nicaraguan allies, as well as the governments in Ecuador and Bolivia. A border clash would be an unwelcome spark in an unstable political situation.

The finances of the Fuerzas Armadas is based
Chavez on television set
Venezelan government photo
Chávez during one of his weekly TV discourses

 primarily on drug smuggling and protecting local cartel operations. This may have been one reason that the Cuban news service Prensa Latina issued a distorted report when the Costa Rican legislature gave routine approval for U.S ships on drug patrol to dock at local ports, mostly for shore leave.

The approval listed all the 46 U.S. ships that have even the remotest chance of visiting Costa Rica, so Prensa Latina suggested a U.S. invasion or base here. That false claim found quick acceptance in leftist publications and online outlets in the United States. Expats in Costa Rica have yet to see any of the 7,000 U.S. Marines that Prensa Latina promised. But leftists in the legislature have appealed the approval to the Sala IV constitutional court.

Some see the shrilled response by Chávez and his allies to the expulsion of José Manuel Zelaya from Honduras June 28, 2009, as related partly to the drug trade. Honduras had become wide open to key illegal sea and air transport routes.

The Colombian border situation is likely to result in small-scale armed conflicts. Armed men on each side are likely to operate independent of their government's orders, and the 1,500 rebel fighters are another factor.

If a conflict does break out, the oil production is jeopardized. Maracaibo and major production areas are a short distance from the border and fat targets.

Uribe's defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, will soon take over the presidency. Uribe cannot serve more than two terms. Chávez and his advisers might be counting on the change in government to gain a tactical advantage.

Chávez has been linked to the leftist Colombian rebels before, when troops under the direct command of Santos raided an Ecuadorian rebel camp, and killed 20 persons, including rebel leader Raúl Reyes. The portable computer of Reyes yielded information that said Chávez had bankrolled the rebels. Venezuela denied this and condemned the attack.

Chávez had the body of The Liberator exhumed last month. He is seeking to show that Colombian leaders poisoned Bolívar in 1830.

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U.S. launches new strategy
for child exploitation

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The U.S. Department of Justice has released its National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, which provides the first-ever comprehensive assessment of the dangers children face from child pornography, online enticement, child sex tourism.

The strategy outlines a blueprint to strengthen the fight against these crimes, building upon the department’s accomplishments in combating child exploitation by establishing specific, aggressive goals and priorities, as well as increasing cooperation and collaboration at all levels of government and the private sector.

The strategy includes sex tourism involving minors.

As part of the overall strategy, the U.S. Marshals Service is launching a nationwide operation targeting the top 500 most dangerous sex offenders in the nation. Additionally, the Justice Department will create a national database to allow federal, state, tribal, local and international law enforcement partners to work with each other, engage in undercover operations, share information and intelligence, and conduct analysis on dangerous offenders, future threats and trends.

The department also created 38 additional assistant U.S. attorney positions to prosecute child exploitation cases.

“Although we’ve made meaningful progress in protecting children across the country, and although we’ve brought a record number of offenders to justice in recent years, it is time to renew our commitment to this work. It is time to intensify our efforts,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “This new strategy provides the roadmap necessary to do just that — to streamline our education, prevention and prosecution activities; to improve information sharing and collaboration; and to make the most effective use of limited resources.”

Since fiscal year 2006, the Department of Justice has filed cases against more than 8,600 defendants as part of Project Safe Childhood, a unified and comprehensive strategy to combat child exploitation that was started in May 2006. These cases include prosecutions of online enticement of children to engage in sexual activity; interstate transportation of children to engage in sexual activity; production, distribution and possession of child pornography; and other offenses.

Some of these cases involved arrests and convictions for engaging in illicit sexual conduct with a minor in a foreign place. Most of the cases involved U.S. citizens who were involved with minors in Thailand, Cambodia and The Philippines.

Palmares to be test case

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Those living in the Palmares canton will get a preview of the 2011 national census this month.

The Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos said that it will be conducting test runs of the census form from Aug. 23 to 27. The results eventually will be made public and will provide an up-to-date look at the canton.

The institute said Palmares was selected because its population makeup resembles that of the country.

The full Censo Nacional de Población y Vivienda seeks to determine the population by sex and age, education, employment, housing situation, health, rural development and access to basic services, among other facts.

Our reader's opinion
Crucitas means a lot more
than just 3 percent return

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

"Las Crucitas Saga" Will it ever end? I suspect not until the pay cheques or salaries for individuals of the environmental groups runs out. After all, it is a job. It is their mission statement to do anything possible to disrupt what their superiors have deemed to be of significance, all but to protect that sacred cash flow they depend on for their daily subsistence. Well let's stop there in all fairness before I begin to sound resoundingly familiar.

I agree there have to be environmental rules and regulations in any country. But there must also be rule of law, and if that law can be manipulated endlessly, then it is not law, it is a joke.
Why is it in Costa Rica that when a court makes a decision that its never really the end of the issue at hand and a ruling can be changed at any time in the future ?
And why is it that in Costa Rica when it comes to getting all the necessary information from someone or to someone in a single meeting, it is impossible and gets dragged out for day or week or months when it should take only hours?
And how is it possible that with all the engineering in the country, everything is falling apart or never works from the inception: Roads (old /new) bridges/civil infrastructure (no sewers) polluted water, garbage, and none of this is new? This is competent engineering?
So tell me who are the people that inspected the planning for this mine ?

What are the names of these people and what government department do they work in? "Oh, you're not sure?" "Can't remember?"
These are just a few questions that relate to some of the things President Chinchilla has inherited and it is why in the case of Las Crucitas the fact that she has accepted a court ruling as final is a complete surprise on one hand. But on the other it shows her as a beacon leading the country into the First World for all business and industry to see. She has demonstrated that she can be totally objective in her judgment of the situation. I also suspect she has done the math and after actually reading and reviewing everything the financial aspect carries a lot of weight and possible benefit if it can be done correctly and safely.

Statistics I have on file show that as of Sept 7, 2009, the cash-flow statement reads as follows: Based on a price of ($750USD ounce) at that date.

   * Cash flow before taxes and capital expenses would be $356 million USD;

   • Cash flow after taxes and capital expense would be $200 million USD;

   • Additional benefits to country: 260 direct JOBS;

   • $30 million in salaries;

   • $10.5 million in social security;

   • $83.8 million in corporate taxes;

   • $14 million in royalties

And this is based on Sept 2009. Multiply this by approximately 77 percent to reflect today's gold prices ($1,185.52USD/oz) This is a hell of a long way from the numbers given by the environmental movement — a long way from just 3 percent, not to mention the $1.7 billion is not far off the settlement value if you actually do the math based on the industry standards and investment return to date.
Maurice Aerts 

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Sala IV orders quicker action on awarding cell concessions
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Sala IV constitutional court has given public officials three months to award concessions for cell telephone frequencies.

The decision came as a surprise Tuesday because there had been no report that anyone had asked the high court to rule.

Specifically the Sala IV ordered the Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Telecomunicaciones, the Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones and the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad to coordinate their efforts so that the award of cell telephone concessions would take place in three months.

Some six companies are seeking frequencies on which their calls could travel. The Sala IV said that the lapse of time has been excessive in preparing the auction and that the rights of consumers were being jeopardized. Companies hoped to be offering service by September.

The specifications for bids have been public for some time. The spectrum auction is only open to potential bidders who can show that they are experienced in the operation of new networks in countries like Costa Rica.

Companies will have the chance to bid on one of three packages of spectrum. Concessions one and two each consist
of 15 MHz in the 1800 MHz frequency and 15 MHz in the 1.9/2.1 GHz range, with uplink and downlink for a total of 60 MHz.

Concession three has three frequency bands, with 5 MHz in the 850 MHz range, 15 MHz in the 1800 MHz spectrum, and 10 MHz of 1.9/2.1.

The concession offers will be the end of a long road that began in 1995 when the U.S.-based Millicom was forced to end cellular telephone service. The Sala IV determined that the new innovation infringed on the monopoly that was guaranteed to the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad. Millicom had been offering the cell service here since 1989. Naturally it took the government monopoly more than a year to resume the cell service.

Once before the government tried to open up the telephone industry to private companies. Riots ensued and the idea was abandoned. The current opening is due to the free trade treaty with the United States. Having lost its monopoly service, the government-owned Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad fears a loss of income. The fears are well grounded because local telephone service, including cell service, is offered at less than cost.

The government telecom company has been dogged by complaints of poor coverage, overloaded systems and other flaws, not to mention less than stellar customer service.

Osa turtle reserve battles bureaucracy to protect eggs
By Dennis Rogers
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Efforts to raise endangered turtle eggs in protected hatcheries have met with differing levels of support from local governments when attempted on the Pacific coast.

The turtle hatcheries consist of little more than a place to bury eggs rescued from the beach where they will likely fall prey to poachers. The hatchling turtles can also be escorted to the water safe from terrestrial predators like vultures, though once in the sea they are on their own.

A project near Ojochal on the south coast has encountered difficulties with the Municipalidad de Osa, running into a barrage of paperwork to get the needed beach-use permit to put the hatchery in the 50-meter protected zone. 

Once this is attained, another permit from the environmental ministry is required, but that bureaucracy is considered more sympathetic. A professional biologist named Oscar Brenes manages the scientific requirements.

The Playa Tortuga Reserve staffers allege that efforts to force the mayor to comply with court orders and remove squatters from the turtle beach have made the municipality unresponsive to their needs.

At a municipal council meeting on July 21, Brenes offered a request that the permit be extended as the turtle nesting season is about to begin and the hatchery must be readied. Mayor Alberto Cole first pretended not to remember who Brenes was, then heard him out.

The atmosphere at the meeting was considerably less formal than might be considered typical in Costa Rica, with the mayor dressed in slacks and a buttoned shirt whereas the representative of a developer there came in jeans and a half-tucked t-shirt. (He reminded those present that the investment was $8 million, in case they had forgotten.) Brenes addressed the council in shorts and sandals. A lengthy prayer was offered as grace.

According to the turtle researchers, what they are doing is
no different from last season, and they have already fulfilled more requirements and presented more documentation. The meeting concluded with the mayor and council agreeing that one more “application” was needed, though he did not spell that out in detail.

According to Cristina Volkart of the reserve, the next day the municipal personnel said they would need a report from the tax department and one from the maritime zone administration. Eventually agreeing those requirements had already been fulfilled, an application for a regular construction permit was offered and completed to the best of the abilities of the researchers.

An answer is expected soon, said Volkart.

In contrast to the travails of the Osa group, a turtle project on Isla Palo Seco has been underway since 2006. Their problems relate to the environmental ministry requirement that a licensed biologist supervise any research. The municipality of Parrita has been cooperative.

There is no money to pay a professional, so the turtle nursery has gone unused as it did last year, but the year before it was quite successful with 64 nests rescued. Egg clutches ranged from 50 to 135, according to a community activist.

The hatchery is right across the road from the Isla Palo Seco school, which at the moment has 27 students from grades 1-6, though for a more typical year there are less than 20. One teacher covers all grades.

It took help from government researchers to get the hatchery going and official. Turtles became part of the school curriculum, and two years ago the sixth graders took the project to the district science fair, and it made it all the way to the national competition, causing quite a buzz in the Parrita district.

The activist said it has been somewhat difficult to change local people’s attitudes about the turtles, since it wasn’t so long ago that so many arrived that they were allowed 10 nests per night to feed pigs.

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Workers at environmental oversight agency plan mini-strike

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Workers at the Tribunal Administrativo Ambiental, the environmental police, are holding a symbolic work stoppage for three hours today to publicize their complaints that they are paid less than judicial workers doing similar jobs.

The tribunal is under the Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Telecomunicaciones. The employees also are protesting a dramatic cut in the agency's budget.

Workers will not do anything between noon and 3 p.m., they said. If the government does not respond, workers said they would be conducting a work stoppage all day Friday.

This is the agency that inspects the country for environmental violations, like illegal tree cutting, invasion of the maritime zone and constructions in rural areas that do not have permits. As such, the agency has not endeared itself to many contractors or to some officials.

The tribunal conducts what amounts to environmental trials and has the power to assess penalties for environmental damage. The workers made clear that the Tribunal's judges
were not participating in the stoppage. The workers also are unhappy because the environmental minister, Teófilo de la Torre, and President Laura Chinchilla threw out a decree that would have provided salaries equal to similar positions in the Poder Judicial.

As examples, the workers said that a judge's assistant in the Tribunal Registral Administrativo has a base monthly salary of 664,200 but those holding the same job in the environmental tribunal get 139,200 colons less. The exchange rate today is 510 colons for a U.S. dollar.

In the Tribunal Ambiental a judge gets 527,900 colons a month, which is 334,300 less than the base salary of a Registral judge, the workers said. In addition, the Registral judge gets a 22 percent premium for accepting the risk of working for the Poder Judicial, they said.

The workers said that the Costa Rican Constitution contains an equality pay clause which is being violated. They also said that the central government is reducing the budget of the Tribunal Ambiental some 400 million colons for 2011. That is about $785,000.

Some of that money was supposed to adjust their salaries, they said.

Housing exposition promises sweet deals for homebuyers

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Financial institutions are promising preferential interest rates and low downs for those who negotiate for homes during ExpoCasa, which is being held today through Sunday at Pedregal Expo Center in La Asunción de Belén, Heredia.

One firm, Grupo Mutual, said it is offering credit in colons or dollars. The money also can be used to remodel or build
an addition, a release said.
Other firms are promising that Costa Ricans merge their debts into one monthly payment at a lower interest rate. Exhibiters pay in excess of $1,000 to set up stands at the event.

Organizers, which include the country's construction chamber, are promising more than 150 exhibitors for many aspects of the real estate and housing industry.

This is the seventh year and some 15,000 visitors are expected.

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Southern Command chief
sees non-traditional threats

By the American Forces Press Service

Illegal trafficking remains the biggest challenge for U.S. military forces in Central and South America as they work to balance such nontraditional challenges with the constant threat of natural disasters there, the commander of U.S. Southern Command said.

Service members and their civilian partners have to keep ahead of the tactics of those involved in illegal trafficking — of drugs, weapons, exotic animals and human beings — that undermine security and stability in the region, and threaten the United States, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser said at a military strategy forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He spoke last week in Washington, D.C.

Southcom, with headquarters in Miami, provides contingency planning, operations and security for the region covering Central and South America, and the Caribbean except for U.S. territories. The area is strategically important to the United States, now the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking nation with one-third of its population expected to be of Latino origin by 2015, Fraser said.

The United States has a “great and enduring relationship” with Latin America, Fraser said, but often doesn’t give enough attention to its southern neighbors. “A lot of times, we in the U.S. look east to west and not north-south in own hemisphere,” he said.

The general said he sees no threat of conventional warfare in Central and South America, either toward the United States or within its own nations. But nontraditional challenges such as trafficking remain high, he added.

Widespread poverty and disproportionate wealth drive crime and corruption, Fraser said, leading to multibillion-dollar trafficking networks adept at changing routes and tactics. For example, he said, the United States has worked with Colombian authorities to confront drug traffickers. However, he added, the criminals have moved their operations to other areas, such as north to Mexico or through the southeast waterways to Africa.

“As we’ve had success in Colombia, they’ve gone to other places,” Fraser said. “We need to continue to keep pressing on all sides of the balloon.”

Southcom has disrupted or obtained about 100 metric tons of cocaine so far this year, but that’s only half of what it seized compared to this time last year, Fraser said. “We don’t know why,” he said. “There are changes going on in the trafficking world, and we’re trying to catch up."

At least 60 percent of illegal drugs flowing out of Central and South America and the Caribbean end up in the United States, Fraser said, adding that U.S. officials need to address the issue of American demand for illicit drugs.

Urban gangs are plentiful in Southcom’s area of responsibility, Fraser said, and there is evidence of financial support there for Middle Eastern-based terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas that have taken root in Central America.

At the same time that Southcom is working such nontraditional challenges, it also has to stay prepared to deal with Mother Nature, Fraser said.

“I was not expecting to respond to an earthquake in Haiti,” he said, referring to the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the Port-au-Prince area and caused 22,000 U.S. servicemembers to deploy there through June for relief operations.

“I don’t know what next crisis will be,” Fraser said. “We have to remain prepared.”

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Banning Blackberry use
draws mixed reviews

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The United Arab Emirates says it is disappointed with the United States for criticizing its decision to ban key Blackberry communication services.

United Arab Emirate officials say they plan to suspend Blackberry Messenger, e-mail and Web browser functions, saying they pose a threat to national security because they cannot be monitored.

Monday P.J. Crowley, U.S. State Department spokesman, called the United Arab Emirates move to restrict Blackberry use a "dangerous precedent" in limiting freedom of information.

But United Arab Emirates officials say his comments contradict America's approach to telecommunications regulation. 

Yousef al Otaiba, the Emirates' ambassador to the United States, is quoted by the national news agency WAM as saying his country requires compliance with its laws for the same reason the United States has regulatory laws.  He says the United Arab Emirates is trying to protect national security and assist in law enforcement.

But critics of the country's information laws, such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders, say the country's conservative government tries to control content it deems politically or morally objectionable.

The director general of the Emirates' telecommunications regulatory authority, Mohammed Nasser al Ghanim, points out his government has been trying to work out a way to monitor Blackberry output with the device's developer, Research In Motion.  He says officials only agreed to a ban after a compromise could not be reached.

"The suspension is a result of failed ongoing attempts dating back to 2007 to bring Blackberry services in the UAE in line with the telecommunications regulations," he said. "Under the current form, certain Blackberry services allow users to act without any legal accountability causing judicial, social and national security concerns in the UAE."

Emirati journalist Sultan al Qassemi believes the United Arab Emirates will work out an agreement with Research In Motion before the ban is scheduled to begin Oct. 11.

"I think the UAE wants to sort this out.  We want to be a business friendly country," he said.  "The TRA understands that Blackberry is a very important business tool to attract businessmen and banks.  You cannot but have this service functioning in the UAE; however, there are security concerns.  We have challenges in the region, including terrorism."

At the moment, it is impossible for countries like the United Arab Emirates to monitor Blackberry output because the handsets automatically send encrypted data to computer servers abroad.  There are an estimated 500,000 Blackberry users in the United Arab Emirates.

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