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(506) 2223-1327         Published Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 162     E-mail us
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Venezuelans, official and unofficial, seek investments in Costa Rica
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Individually and in small groups, Venezuelans who endorse capitalism are leaving their home country, and many are settling in Costa Rica.

Now it is official. A delegation of 25 Venezuelan investors from the Federación de Cámaras de Venezuela has come here seeking opportunities. Their visit began Monday.

The delegation includes representatives from telecom, construction, agriculture and tourism, said the Costa Rican Ministerio de Comercio Exterior. Participating are the minister, Marco Vinicio Ruiz; the vice minister, Amparo Pacheco; Costa Rica's  ambassador to Caracas, Vladimir de la Cruz, and representatives of the Promotora del Comercio Exterior.
The delegation is expected to meet with President Óscar Arias Sánchez.

Although politics is not a big topic among the Venezuelan delegates, others have made it clear they are leaving Venezuela because of the financial and personal insecurity fostered by Hugo Chávez, the socialist president there.

Chávez has authored the nationalization of many important industries and financial institutions. And there are currency controls.

In addition, Chávez keeps threatening to make war on neighboring Colombia and any U.S. troops that might be stationed there.

Venezuelans also say that the crime problem is soaring out of control.

Infamous trade treaty memo case finally put to rest by lawmakers
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Back when the free trade agreement was a hot issue, the nation's first vice president and a legislative deputy related to the president penned a memo urging hardball tactics to win passage of the treaty in a 2007 national referendum.

The memo became public, and treaty opponents used it as a major weapon in their referendum campaign.

The memo suggested more aggressive efforts by Casa Presidencial to warn the public about unemployment if the treaty were not passed. It also suggested that the central government lean on municipal mayors and tell them to bring in the vote or face reduction in resources.

By Chicago standards, the techniques were not drastic. But Costa Ricans like to present a public image of high-minded elections decided by informed, rational voters.

At the same time anti-treaty forces were blocking streets with bonfires, spray-painting slogans on every available wall and marching with caricatures of George Bush and Óscar Arias Sánchez. They were successful in making the alleged memo of fear a major campaign weapon.

The first vice president, Kevin Casas, became a liability, and he resigned his government post. The legislative deputy, Fernando Sánchez Campos, dug in and resisted efforts to oust him.

Perhaps the final chapter came Monday when the Asamblea Legislativa votes 32 to 19 to shelf the case against Sánchez. The vote followed mostly party lines with pro-treaty deputies voting to drop the matter, saying that the legislature did not have the capacity to resolve the case. Anti-treaty deputies sought a legislative investigation against Sánchez. The memo was disclosed by the
Universidad de Costa Rica newspaper which opposed the treaty.

The Partido Acción Ciudadana quickly issued a statement Monday saying that the majority misinterpreted the law and that the legislature really did have the power to investigate the case with a commission of three members.

The political party called the memo a suggestion of actions against the people of Costa Rica.

Casa Presidencial disavowed the memo and said none of its strategies was implemented.

Still, the Partido Acción Ciudadana said it would file a constitutional court case to declare Monday's action by the legislature as unconstitutional.

Anti-treaty forces also yelled foul when the U.S. trade representative, Susan C. Schwab, said in Washington a few days before the Oct. 7 vote that if Costa Rica rejects the treaty, the United States will not seek to renegotiate it. She also pointed out that benefits under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, "including those benefiting Costa Rica’s textiles and tuna industries," are scheduled to expire.

"The fact is, the United States has never faced a situation where one of our trading partners rejects a reciprocal trade agreement with the United States, but continues to seek unilateral trade preferences,” she said.

Anti-treaty forces insisted that the campaign blackout here before a major election should also apply to Washington. Their tone became more shrilled when voters passed the treaty with a bit more than 51 percent of the vote. They were critical of actions by employers bringing workers to the polling places and other developments.

But the fact was obvious to observers: They were out-politicked by the Arias government.

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Another missing tourist
sought by Cruz Roja

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Another search is underway in Guanacaste for a missing U.S. tourist. The sad truth about such cases is that some never are found.

Take the case of Leo Widicker, an 86-year-old U.S. citizen who vanished at the Tabacon Resort west of La Fortuna de San Carlos Nov. 18, 2001. He vanished from the resort's parking lot and has never been found despite a reward offer by the family. Police there searched extensively.

Then there is Mark Vockery and his bride, Laura McCloud Vockery. They left on a boat from Flamingo with a crew of three Costa Ricans July 29, 2005. Gone without a trace.

The parents of Brendan Dobbins are lucky because they at least know he is dead. The Australian student attending a Florida university vanished on a spring break trip in Tamarindo in March 2005. He was seen last walking down the community's beach. Sometime later bones identified as those of Dobbins were located inland in a wooded area.

Several expat residents also have vanished without a trace. In one case, a crocodile is the main suspect.

Then there are the handful of swimmers who are grabbed by rip tides and never turn up. Most drowning victims are recovered eventually.

The latest missing tourist is 28-year-old David Gimelfarb of the Chicago area. He vanished more than a week ago when he did not return from his hiking trip to Parque Nacional del Rincon de la Vieja. Searchers reported they found his parked rental car.

His parents are in Costa Rica trying to assist with the search.

Unlike the case of Dobbins when an Australian diplomat traveled from México to assist, Gimelfarb's mother told Newsradio 780 in Chicago that the U.S. Embassy here has been useless. The parents sought an airplane with infrared capability. The embassy also failed to issue any public alert about the missing man.

The bulk of the searching now is in the hands of the Cruz Roja.

An exciting day in Paradise
with virus and dead phones

By Jay Brodell
editor of A.M. Costa Rica

Monday was an exciting day.

Some of our subscribers started the day early with calls and e-mails about a virus-infected newspaper.

The problem was with the company that provides and transforms our news feeds so they can be read on Web pages. The company had suffered a virus attack over the weekend and was listed as a possible virus source. The Internet address of the company was imbedded in the code for the news feed.

So the page is clean, and so are the various news feeds, but some browsers continue to generate a virus warning.

We probably would have gotten more calls except that the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad snipped our telephone lines about 2:30 p.m. We ordered the lines to be moved to our new offices nearby, but it would have been nice if some telephone technician just stuck his head in the door and let us know what was going to happen.

That was about four hours before I dented the passenger side door of the car by turning too close to the metal entry gate. My wife was watching so I won't be able to blame it on her later.

There was the problem of getting serious news stories. With Óscar Arias Sánchez home with the flu, government has pretty much halted. That may be good.

The lawmakers are afraid of getting flu themselves, but they gathered long enough Monday to vote to shelf an election complaint against one of their own. They don't have to worry about banging car doors. They have public vehicles.

The good news: I did manage to slip by a platoon of traffic policeman at one of the major traffic circles in the downtown forbidden zone even though I have a 1 as the last digit of my license plate. That and 2 were the wrong numbers for Monday. But they were too busy writing tickets to see me.

And we do have a decent newspaper, thanks to a little digging.

If you need to reach us, please call ad reps on their cell phones for the next 24 hours and you can call me at 8832-5564 if the cell battery does not wear down.

Three held as smugglers
in big Tarcoles drug bust

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Anti-drug police fired on two smuggling suspects early Monday when they raided a landing site in Playa Tarcoles.

The location is well north of where open drug boats usually land. The location is north of Jacó at the mouth of the Río Tarcoles.

Drug police said they were tipped off and arrived at the site to see two vehicles being loaded with packages.

Two men resisted, and one suffered an injury to his arm and the other to his foot.

Agents identified them by the last names and ages of  Rodríguez Orobio, 33, Minota Estupiñan, 58, and Lagos Campos, 40. Lagos is a Costa Rican, police said. The other two men are Colombians, they added.

Police said they weighed out 382 kilos (840 pounds) of suspected cocaine. They also confiscated money in dollars, Colombian pesos and colons.

Surfers, man your boards
for strong Caribbean surf

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Weather officials said they expected Hurricane Bill to have an indirect effect on Costa Rica by sending waves larger than normal ashore on the Caribbean coast. These waves can be expected Thursday and Friday, said the Instituto Meteorológico Nacional.

The weather report also calls for two more days of heavy rains in the Central Valley and on the Pacific coast. These rains are caused by a decrease in atmospheric pressure over the Caribbean, the report said. The next two days will be wetter than the corresponding days last week with heavy afternoon downpours, according to the prediction.

Efficient cars generating
plenty of competition

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Competition to produce the most fuel efficient vehicles is shifting into overdrive after General Motors announced triple digit miles-per-gallon ratings for its new hybrid-electric vehicle. Analysts say renewed interest in environmentally sound, ultra-efficient vehicles has opened a myriad of opportunities for manufacturers. One small company in Colorado is convinced it can give the big automakers a run for the money.

General Motors made a big splash this month when it announced its new electric vehicle, the Chevy Volt, will go an astounding 230 miles per gallon (more than 97 kilometers per liter).

Company CEO Fritz Henderson believes the new line of gas-electric hybrids is the company's ticket back to profitability.

"A car that gets triple digit fuel economy, we believe, can and will be, a game changer for us," said Henderson.

Now in production, the Chevy Volt is expected to launch in 2010. Industry analyst Rebecca Lindland says there's a lot riding on the new car."

"It is very important that it be a homerun for them because they have put a lot of their reputation into this vehicle," said Rebecca Lindland.

But GM will have plenty of competition. Nissan is set to unveil its new, all-electric Leaf next year, and Honda is expected to roll out a new hybrid gas-electric called Insight.

Although they can't compete with the Volt's fuel efficiency, the price tag, between $10,000 to $15,000 less, could win converts. And there's also homegrown competition.

Coda, a new company based in Colorado, is promoting a new vehicle that can maintain speeds of 130 kilometers per hour for more than 160 kilometers without using gasoline. The company has received $45 million in stimulus funds to jump start production.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter was among the first to test drive the prototype.

"This is the first Colorado company the Department of Energy has provided loan guarantee money," said Ritter. "It means they believe in the concept." Company officials hope to put 20,000 of the battery-powered cars into production this year.

At about $35,000 apiece, Ritter says the Coda produces no emissions and takes only six hours to charge. "You take that car and it goes to someone's garage," he said. "That person plugs it in, their energy's delivered to their home through solar or wind or geothermal, and there's zero emissions as part of operating that vehicle."

But with so many fuel-efficient vehicles vying for attention, analysts say green vehicles are just part of the solution for the ailing auto industry. After the worst sales slump in decades, General Motors is targeting another emerging market with plans to build a compact car that will sell for about $4,000.   No word yet if the low-cost vehicles will be sold in the U.S. 

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 162

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New Heredia rail service experiences yet another jolt
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The trouble-plagued San José-Heredia train confronted another problem about 5:30 p.m. Monday.

The wheels of one car of an Heredia-bound train came off the rails on a curve in Cinco Esquines de Tibás.

The engineer may have been traveling faster than normal to make up for lost time. Miguel Carabaguíaz, president of the Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles said the wheels may have been obstructed by garbage or trash on the track. He said the cause would be investigated.

The mishap fractured the schedule of the week-old train service and left many passengers waiting for their ride. 
There were about 25 persons in the car that derailed. The car remained upright, although firemen responded and rescue workers provided comfort.

Carabaguíaz did not discount the possibility that someone placed an object on the tracks. Vandals have hurled stones at trains in the last week.

The mishap is reminiscent of the troubled trip by Oscar Arias Sánchez earlier in the year to the anniversary celebrations for the Provincia de Heredia. His car derailed, too, and workers replaced nearly all the wooden cross ties with concrete to make the rails more stable.

The rail car was one of those recently purchased from the Spanish government's narrow gauge service.

Arias scheduled to sign immigration bill this Wednesday
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Óscar Arias Sánchez is expected to sign the new immigration bill into law Wednesday in a ceremony after the weekly cabinet meeting in Casa Presidencial. For Arias, it will be one of his first official functions in a week because he has been isolated at home with swine flu.
The immigration law was a priority for the administration, but it took more than three years to put a draft on the presidential desk.

The 2002-2006 legislature had passed a rewrite of the immigration law that went into effect four months after then-president Abel Pacheco left office. Almost immediately upon being sworn in, Arias and others in his administration tried to stop the law from going into effect. That would have required legislative action, and lawmakers missed the deadline.

The alternative was to draw up a new law, which legislative aides promptly did. But there were strong objections from such political players as the Roman Catholic Church. Among other concerns, church officials were fearful that immigration police would crack down on refuges that were set up for mostly illegal immigrants. The law contained a provision against housing illegal immigrants, aimed mostly at hotels and commercial establishments.

The administration then convened an informal committee to design a redraft of the pending law. Expats were excluded from these deliberations, and the final draft held expats to excessive financial requirements for pensionado and rentista residencies. It also required current residents to meet these new, stiffer requirements.
The final new law raises the monthly financial requirement for pensionados to $1,000 from $600, but it is not retroactive. A retroactive clause was deleted. Rentistas will have to show a steady monthly income of $2,500 but close family members are included in that requirement.

The broad law creates an immigration police that is composed of Fuerza Pública officers. It criminalizes trafficking in persons. It creates an immigration council to issue visas to citizens of restricted countries. And it makes hotel and operators of other lodging businesses responsible for maintaining a registry of their customers.

The measure also gives the president the power to grant residency by decree. A.M. Costa Rica has reported that this creates the possibility of immigration amnesties of the type that were mandated twice in the 1990s.

Another change for expats is the requirement that they affiliate with the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social for medical care.

This requirement was passed instead of a simple assessment of each foreigner here as proposed in the earlier drafts.

Once Arias signs the law, it will be sent to the La Gaceta official newspaper for publication. Those interested in the topic will study the published law closely to see if lawmakers inserted any last-minute changes. They sometimes do.

Then the clock starts ticking. The draft legislation says that the law will go into effect six months from publication, which will be sometime in mid-February. 

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 162

Zelaya and aides hint at U.S. involvement in his ouster
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Exiled Honduran president José Manuel Zelaya has suggested that the United States was involved in the coup that spirited him out of the country to Costa Rica June 28.

Zelaya, visiting in Brazil, said that the plane that carried him stopped at the Soto Cano Air Base before flying to San José. There is a contingent of U.S. military at the air base. Zelaya's allegation was repeated by members of his former government in interviews later in the week.

Philip J. Crowley, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, denied the allegation in his daily press briefing. U.S. military personnel were not involved in and had no knowledge of President Zelaya's flight to Costa Rica on June 28, he said.

"Soto Cano Air Base belongs to Honduras," he said. "It was run by and operated by the Honduran air force, and they make decisions about its use. Military personnel were not involved in the flight that carried President Zelaya to Costa Rica on June 28th. Task Force Bravo members had no knowledge of or any part in the decisions made for the plane to land, refuel, or take off."

"In light of the June 28th coup, the 600 American soldiers, sailors, and airmen based at Soto Cano as part of JTF Bravo have ceased conducting joint operations and
exercises with the Honduran military," he said.

Zelaya said that he did not think high U.S. officials conspired to create the coup but he mentioned the Central Intelligence Agency.

A delegation from the interim Honduran government is expected to be in Washington today meeting with U.S. officials and the Organization of American States.

The Barack Obama administration has deplored the Honduran coup, but Zelaya is pushing for other countries, including the United States, to intervene on his behalf. The United States has cut off funds.

He also has made other allegations of assassination attempts that were not raised until he had been in exile for weeks.

The Zelaya situation has been followed closely in Costa Rica because President Óscar Arias Sánchez volunteered to arbitrate the dispute between the ousted president and Roberto Michelette, the interim leader. The negotiations hit a dead end because Michelette refuses to allow Zelaya to return to the country.

Since his ouster, Zelaya has been making the rounds trying to gain support in other countries. His major supporter is Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela. Chávez has threatened to invade Honduras to reinstall Zelaya.

U.S. and México agree to track guns used in crimes there
Special to A.M. Costa Rica
with staff reports

U.S. and Mexican officials have signed a letter of intent to develop a coordinated and intelligence-driven response to the threat of cross border smuggling and trafficking of weapons and ammunition.

The officials are Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora, Mexican National Public Security System Executive Secretary Jorge Tello Peón, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives acting Director Kenneth E. Melson and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary John Morton.

"Law enforcement agencies in both nations recognize the importance of tracing every crime gun recovered on the southwest border to help determine trafficking patterns and potential traffickers of illicit firearms. ATF is committed to its strong partnership with ICE in working collaboratively to reduce firearms-related violent crime as we stem the diversion of firearms to international criminal markets,"
said Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden.

The letter of intent recommends a joint strategic plan to develop cooperative protocols to investigate weapons and ammunition trafficking in the United States and Mexico and improve information sharing between the two countries to better identify smuggling and trafficking trends and support joint investigation efforts, the agencies said.

Obama officials have targeted the transfer of weapons from the United States to México as a major factor in the drug wars raging in that country. However, it is unclear how many weapons actually come from the United States. Drug cartels use automatic weapons and explosive devices that are not easily obtainable in the United States.

A report on confiscated weapons in México linked them to the United States, but most of the weapons were purchased by Mexicans for personal defense.

Gun advocates in the United States are suspicious of the administration motives and see it as a way to tighten weapons purchases by U.S. citizens.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 162

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U.S. consumer prices
reported down in July

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services
Consumer prices in the United States were unchanged in July as lower energy costs and falling demand kept a lid on consumer prices. A government report released Friday shows the Consumer Price Index dropping at the fastest rate in decades. It's a worrisome trend that reflects how far consumer confidence has declined.

According to the latest survey on consumer sentiment, recession-weary Americans did more browsing than shopping in July.

"I am more cautious with my shopping now than I have ever been. I have always been somebody who enjoys shopping, but I do think about it more than I did before," said one woman.

Some shoppers say they're reluctant to open their wallets for much beyond the basics.

"My situation is fine, but I am still aware that I could lose my job at anytime, and there's still no definite security. That's why I am paying attention more," said another shopper.

It's a new attitude for many Americans who once racked up credit card debt with very little hesitation. And it's a big concern for investors who worry that Americans are not spending enough to help fuel an economic recovery. 

Experts say consumer spending is a big deal because it accounts for two thirds of the U.S. economy.

Joe Brusuelas is the chief market analyst at Moody's

"Households are cautiously approaching their spending," he said. "No one is being confident in terms of expecting that their stream of income will continue through the next couple of years."

That insecurity was reflected on Wall Street where stock prices fell sharply. 

The decline in retail sales came as a surprise to some, given the success of the government's "Cash For Clunkers" program, which has helped boost auto sales by 2 percent.

But some say the program, which gives consumers cash to trade in older vehicles for more fuel efficient models, may actually be hurting retailers. 

Joseph Feldman is a retail analyst for the Telsey Advisory Group.

"I believe the Cash for Clunkers program is taking away from retail spending," he explained. "It's more at the higher end or more discretionary items. Big ticket things like flat screen TV's, I would think, are taking a hit."

The U.S. Labor Department report shows the spending slump has resulted in a 2 percent drop in consumer prices since last year. The economic news follows a series of reports that show foreclosures and jobless claims are rising.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 162

Latin American news digest
Another State employee
admits passport curiosity

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

A fifth State Department employee has pleaded guilty to illegally accessing numerous confidential passport application files, The man, Kevin M. Young, 42, of Temple Hills, Maryland, pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay in the District of Columbia to a one-count criminal information charging him with unauthorized computer access. Young is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 9.

According to court documents, Young has worked full-time for the State Department since February 1987. For the past eight years, Young has been a contact representative for the Passport Special Issuance Agency. In pleading guilty, Young admitted he had access to official State Department computer databases in the regular course of his employment, including the Passport Information Electronic Records System, which contains all imaged passport applications dating back to 1994. The imaged passport applications contain, among other things, a photograph of the passport applicant as well as certain personal information including the applicant’s full name, date and place of birth, current address, telephone numbers, parent information, spouse’s name and emergency contact information.

These confidential files are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974, and access by State Department employees is strictly limited to official government duties.

In pleading guilty, Young admitted that between March 11, 2003, and Dec. 21, 2005, he logged onto the passport database and viewed the passport applications of more than 125 celebrities, actors, comedians, professional athletes, musicians, models, a politician and other individuals identified in the press. Young admitted that he had no official government reason to access and view these passport applications, but that his sole purpose in accessing and viewing these passport applications was idle curiosity.

Young is the fifth current or former State Department employee to plead guilty in this continuing investigation.

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