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(506) 223-1327                Published Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 166         E-mail us   
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U.S. financial crisis a mixed bag for all living here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

There is good and bad news in the financial woes of the United States and the world for Costa Rica.

The credit crunch and the recessionary trends do not favor the Costa Rican tourism and real estate market. Yet, increases in basic food prices up north are a plus for Costa Rican exporters.

And already the country is getting a small flow of U.S. residents seeking a new life after financial failure or frustration. Although the U.S. employment rate seems to be a decent 4.75 percent, firings are taking place in mortgage and financial markets. And the new housing markets seem to be tightening, too.

"We're at a 37-year high on foreclosures in this country, a 10-year low on housing starts," said U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, head of the Senate Banking Committee in Washington, D.C. Tuesday. "This is a very serious issue."

In short, the U.S. problem is the result of years of residents living beyond their means. Lenders made loans to mortgage customers who did not have good credit and perhaps purchased overvalued properties. Hedge funds leveraged their holdings with these inflated mortgage instruments, and the result was a meltdown since late July that has shaken financial institutions worldwide. Credit card companies also are in trouble.

Now housing credit, mostly mortgages, in the United States is tightening for even the best customers. A lot of Costa Rica's condos and vacation homes are paid for by mortgages made on U.S. real estate. So those in the industry predict a harder time to sell the projects that are now in construction and likely delays in projects that have not reached the construction stage.

The Central Pacific coast, Guanacaste and even the area around Puntarenas centro are full of proposed and half-completed real estate projects.

For expats living in Costa Rica the concern is the strength of whatever institutions hold their bank accounts, investment accounts or pensions. All pension funds have investments in stocks, bonds and other assets, including real estate. There are too many factors to generalize, but the high-interest funds that were invested heavily in real estate paper and consumer financing of vehicles and appliances are likely to take losses.

Most major real estate projects here are being built for the long-term, the expected flow of baby boomer retirees. But smaller, more fragile projects might be the ones most like to get into a squeeze with a market slowdown.

Although doomsayers in the United States are predicting a 40 percent or more decline in housing prices in some markets, Costa Rica seems to have investment interests from many other parts of the world that would keep such nightmare scenarios from taking place here.

On the governmental level Fitch Ratings, the company that rates bond issues, said Tuesday that most Latin American countries are "in a relatively good position to weather the current adverse external market conditions."

The New York-based company said that investors in crisis have been selling emerging market assets to gain liquidity, resulting in depreciation of some

Your credit report flees
with you to Costa Rica

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Here's bad news for deadbeats and credit risks in flight to Costa Rica from the United States and elsewhere.

Local banks and credit agencies are making more use of the extensive reporting network in the United States when an expat applies for a bank loan, a car loan or a credit card here. This is a new development.

If an expat owes money in the home country and he or she is behind on payments, local lenders will not extend credit.


Latin American currencies and a fall in regional stock and fixed income markets. While Fitch said it expects the current external environment to be less benign in the near-term than previously envisioned, the company said that most countries in the region are fully-funded for the remainder of the year, which should limit the fallout from the near-closure of international capital markets.

As such, Fitch currently does not expect any significant deterioration in the credit profile of Latin American nations, it said. A reduction in U.S. interest rates also will help.

"Higher international reserves, lower external financing needs, and the widespread prevalence of flexible exchange rates in the region should provide flexibility to most Latin American sovereigns in dealing with current external conditions," said Shelly Shetty, senior director in Fitch's Sovereign Group.

Of exports, Fitch said that relatively high commodity prices continue to provide an important cushion to the region's trade flows, which thus far has mitigated the effects of the negative shock that has emerged from unfavorable external financial conditions on regional economies. In addition many countries have further developed their local capital markets, which should provide greater flexibility in sourcing their financing, the ratings firm said.

Fitch notwithstanding, the Costa Rican colon is pegged to the U.S. dollar, which has lost significant value. This is bad for firms that have to shop internationally for supplies and raw materials, but this is a great boost for those in the tourist industry who can offer less expensive vacations to Europeans and those whose currencies have gained against the colon and dollar.

Food exporters will continue to benefit from higher prices up north, even though their own profit margins will be eroded here by higher petroleum fuel and fertilizer costs

Individually, a lot of U.S. investors here are taking major hits in their own investment portfolios. On the other hand, some have profited by playing the foreign exchange market.

Others, probably not in Costa Rica, profiting by the financial uncertainty are hucksters selling books and marketing plans based on the assumption that the world is falling into another 1929 depression.


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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 166

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Circunvalación will get
two more vehicle overpasses


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Motorists who are sick of playing Tico roulette at the traffic circles in the Circunvalación had some good news Tuesday.

Both the Alajuelita and Paso Ancho circles will be replaced by overpasses. The Corporación Andina de Fomento, a financial institution made up of 17 countries, has agreed to donate $582,000 for design work on the new bridges.

The circles are frequent scenes of accidents. Traffic at the Y-Griega circle has been reduced by a bridge that carries through traffic overhead.  The Y-Griega circle is a main route to the densely populated canton of Desamparados.

A tunnel to avoid the traffic circle at San Sebastián should be completed by December, according to the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes.

The Caracas-based corporation sent representatives here to make an agreement with the ministry. This week the representatives will be on the Caribbean slope. The corporation will finance a much needed new bridge over the Río Sixaola at the country's border with Panamá.

The corporation already has put some $223,000 into engineering work on a 27 km. (17-miles) section of road from Bajos de Chilamate to Vuelta Kopper in the northern zone. The job includes eight bridges, according to the ministry.

The four-lane Circunvalación runs south of San José through Hatillo and then curves north and passes by Mall San Pedro and on to Sabanilla. But what was considered to be a bypass is frequently clogged with traffic because the traffic circles present a challenge. Sometimes traffic is backed up 1,000 feet or more. The jams are so consistent that entire families earn their living by selling products to motorists.

In an effort to move quickly, the transport ministry has suggested that it will select a design company by decree instead of using a bidding process. That should cut six months off the process. Typically such work takes about a year to 18 months once construction has started.

Arias and Ortega meet
for a private discussion


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega met President Óscar Arias Sánchez when the Costa Rican leader arrived by plane in Managua Tuesday.

That ended the speculation whether the two leaders would meet. Ortega, the Sandinista leader, has spoken ill of Arias in press interviews.

In a private 50-minute conversation the two presidents decided to reactivate the binational commission that seeks to solve problems between the two countries, said Casa Presidencial.

They met at Universidad Católica where Arias attended a commemoration of the 20-year old Esquipulas II that ended civil wars in Central America. Both Arias and Ortega were presidents when the peace accords went into effect.

Arias said in a speech that Costa Rica and Nicaragua not only have a common border but they have a common destiny.

Costa Rica is pressing a case against Nicaragua in the International Court in the Hague for the right to travel on the Río San Juan. Although the river is in Nicaragua, it is an important transportation route for people living in northern Costa Rica.

Jacó group to consider the future

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Jacó Environmental Commission will hold an open session at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the Hotel Balcon de Mar to which the public is invited to discuss problems in the region. The meeting will be in Spanish.

The purpose of the session is to help create a strategic plan for the Cantón de Garabito, said an announcement. Organizers of the meeting ask that those who wish to attend and speak call  643-2853.

Our reader's opinion
Measurement system here
really is a mixture


Dear A.M. Costa Rica:
              
In Tuesday's edition there is a small article about Costa Rica's being on the metric system. While true to a degree, Costa Rica is really on the Costa Rica system of measurements.
 
Yeah, they use kilometers, meters, centimeters and millimeters; square meters and hectareas; liters and milliters; grams and kilograms.
 
BUT: They also use inches — to describe the cross-sectional dimensions of lumber, e.g. 2 X 4, 1 X 6 etc. And — to make matters even more confusing, the unit of length for lumber is the vara. So you have a 2 X 4 X 3 (varas), which is a tad longer than 8 feet.
 
Now it gets even more interesting. Lumber is sold by the pulgada, which is the Spanish word for inch. But — a pulgada of lumber is actually a cubic measure, like our board foot in North America. A pulgada is one inch by one inch by four varas! So a 2 X 4 X 4 (varas) contains 8 pulgadas of wood.
 
There is more. Land in the campo is frequently measured in manzanas. A manzana is 100 varas by 100 varas, or 10,000 square varas. The term square vara is mine and is not used here.
 
Regarding the vara. It is a very old form of measurement dating back to Spain. As best as I can tell, it was supposedly the length of the king's arm, just as the yard was the length of the king of England's arm. The Spanish king's arm was shorter since a vara is about 33 inches as opposed to the yard's 36.
 
Lastly, the U.S. gallon has not entirely faded away here. I have frequently been advised to dilute herbicides and pesticides with so many gallones of water.
Peter Todd
Puriscal

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 166

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Chinese working to solidify their influence in Costa Rica
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

For Costa Rica, meetings with representatives of the People's Republic of China today is being considered a major diplomatic coup.

But for the Chinese, it is just one more step in isolating Taiwan and increasing its influence in Central America. The isthmus has been a battleground between the two Chinas even before Panamá obtained control of its canal under a 1977 treaty, and Communist China made even more substantial investments there.

A Hong Kong firm appears to control the entrance to both sides of the canal. This has been a major concern for U.S. intelligence officials. However, the concern has been deflected by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.

Both Chinas maintained intelligence operations in San José, and probably still do. The new Red Chinese Embassy in Rohrmoser certainly will have an intelligence component.

This afternoon President Óscar Arias Sánchez will meet with He Yafei, a deputy minister of the People's Republic exterior ministry. Wang Xiaoyuan, the new ambassador to Costa Rica also will attend.

Others attending include Ma Xiuhong, a vice minister of commerce, Wang Jinzhen, vice president of the China council for the promotion of international trade, Wu  Mingxi, president of the Zhi Gong political party; and  Zeng Gang, director general of Latin America for the Chinese foreign ministry.

The Zhi Gong political party is one of a handful of approved political organizations in China. This party includes individuals who have lived overseas or who have overseas ties. In reality Red China is a one-party, authoritarian state.

In a carefully scripted press conference Thursday morning reporters in Costa Rica will be limited to just three 
questions. There is a contingent of Chinese reporters here, too, and they seem to have been given priority, according to the official script.

While Communist Chinese officials are being feted in San José, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian will be on the first stop of a nine-day trip through Central America. He also will go to El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Officials in Taiwan claimed to have been surprised by the June 1 rupture in relations with Costa Rica that had endured since the start of the nation of Taiwan. His goal is to shore up relations with the nations that still recognize the island nation.

Costa Rica officials expect to get as much as $50 million by breaking with Taiwan. Trade officials are also looking at the gigantic Chinese market as an outlet for Costa Rican agricultural products. China will put on a trade fair here this week, and officials have discussed the possibility of a free trade agreement and an agreement to protect investments.

The conflict between Red China and Taiwan did not often break out in the open. An exception was when Taiwan dedicated the Puente de Amistad over the Río Tempisque. That day the Fuerza Pública in Jacó detained two men who may have been intelligence officers for Red China. They had fake identifications. The men vanished between their arrest in Jacó and their expected arrival for interrogation in San José.

Costa Rica also has been the destination of many mainland Chinese. In January Mario Zamora, the nation's immigration director, reported that he was offered a $2.5 million bribe to allow 500 Chinese to enter the country.

Officials said at the time that Chinese men were being brought to the country to work as low-paid help in various restaurants and businesses. The officials said that the passport and visa ring was a very well organized criminal operation. However, paying $5,000 for a visa for a dishwasher does not seem to make economic sense, some officials agreed.


protesters in san josé
A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas and Saray Ramírez Vindas
Free trade protests, as is the tradition, burn a U.S. flag while women police officers hold the line.
University community protests to defend their autonomy
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Government officials put women police officers in the front line Tuesday when protesters from four public universities converged on the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones.

During recent protest marches women officers have been at the front of the crowd control effort, and there have been few incidents. Officials reason that protesters will not scuffle with women.

The morning march was by university students, members of university unions and academics who oppose the free trade treaty and want to make their voices heard. They object to a election tribunal warning that public funds and time should not be used to support one side or the other of a referendum that goes to the voters Oct. 7.

The Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica has enlisted its public relations department to oppose the treaty. The university rector is a major spokesman against the treaty. The universities said they had the autonomy to take a political position because the various university councils had determined such actions would be consistent with the role of the higher educational institution.

The tribunal had to issue a press release Tuesday after marchers criticized what they thought was a sign in a window supporting a yes vote on the treaty. The sign was left over from the 1998 general elections and was designed to get citizens to vote, the tribunal explained in a press release. The sign said  <Yo Sí voto porque amo a Costa Rica> "Yes I vote because I love Costa Rica."

Marchers were not treated to music at the end of their trek, as was the plan. Protesters lacked a permit from the Municipalidad de San José to use the Plaza de la Democracia, officials said.

In other free trade developments Tuesday legislators from the Partido Acción Ciudadana met with Rodrigo Arias Sánchez, the minister of the Presidencia, and received assurances that a claim by one of their number would be investigated.

José Joaquín Salazar, a legislator, said he was thrown to the sidewalk by a policeman when he tried to enter the municipal building in Zarcero Saturday. That was where
man involved in scuffle
A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Adrian Carranza, who was in a scuffle with police Saturday, reported on the protest Tuesday for notlc.com.

President Óscar Arias Sanchez was giving a talk. An investigation was promised.

Another free trade opponent said he was roughed up by
police Saturday in San Ramón. The man, Adrian Carranza, identified himself as a newsman for notlc.com. He released photos and a tape of his confrontation with police, and some of it was aired on national television.

However, the Ministerio Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública said Tuesday that Carranza was stopped first by a Tránsito officer because he was driving a motorcycle and did not have a license and that his 16-year-old brother was aboard without a helmet.  The report was by Liliana Solórzano Artavia, a lawyer for the Fuerza Pública in Alajuela. She reported that Carranza also showed disrespect for police.

The report also said that Carranza tried to grab what appeared to be a firearm from the compartment under his seat. The weapon turned out to be a BB pistol, the report said.

Carranza told a reporter Tuesday that police told him that they would get him before the incident took place.


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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 166


Yucatan reports no deaths despite arrival of Hurricane Dean
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Mexican officials say no casualties have been reported since Hurricane Dean hit the nation's Caribbean coast and moved inland. The storm may still be a threat as it continues to move west toward central Mexico.

Officials in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula began assessing the damage from Hurricane Dean after the category 5 storm hit the coastline early Tuesday bringing, winds of 265 kph (about 165 mph).

The eye of the hurricane first reached land near the Mexican town of Chetumal, where it uprooted trees, snapped power lines and flooded streets. Mexican troops had evacuated some residents in the area ahead of the storm, but others remained in their homes.

During a trip to Canada, where he met with U.S. President George Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, said he was cutting short the meeting so he could return to Mexico to focus on the disaster. Calderón said he had received no reports of casualties from the hurricane so far.

At a news conference, Bush told the Mexican leader that Washington was prepared to offer emergency assistance if needed.

Forecasters said the eye of Hurricane Dean followed a path across sparsely populated areas on the Mexican coast, and away from population centers such as the resort city of Cancun.
Hugo Camarillo, an employee at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Cancun, said Dean brought strong winds and rain to the area, but caused no real damage.

"As I have heard, there are no damages at any hotel. It is still a little bit cloudy, but the sun is coming out," he said. "The ocean is still dangerous for swimming, but everything is going back to normal."

Camarillo said only 30 guests remained at the hotel while the hurricane passed through, but he said tour groups were expected to begin returning to the beach-side hotel late Tuesday.

In a nearby community of about 4,000 some 500 homes suffered damage, but they were not as solidly built at the Cancun hotels.

The last major hurricane to hit the area was Wilma in 2005, which caused nearly $3 billion in damages on Cancun's coast.

Weather forecasters said Hurricane Dean had steadily weakened as it moved over land, and was downgraded to a category one storm with winds of 140 kph (87 mph).

But they warned the storm could regain strength as it moved into the Bay of Campeche, on its way to a second landfall in central Mexico, sometime Wednesday afternoon.

Hurricane Dean is blamed for at least 11 deaths in Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Haiti and the island of Dominica.


U.S. to unveil design of its new $5 bill via Internet Sept. 20
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The United States will unveil a new design for the $5 bill Sept. 20 on the Internet. This is the latest in a series of redesigns of U.S. currency in an attempt to foil counterfeiters.

Counterfeiting of U.S. currency has been kept at low levels through a combination of improvements in security features, aggressive law enforcement and education efforts to inform the public about how to check their paper money, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The $100 bill will be the next denomination to be redesigned after the $5 bill is issued in early 2008. The government has no plans to redesign the $1 and $2 bills, it has said.

The unveiling Sept. 20 will rely on digital communications. The government said this will serve two purposes: first, echo its approach to staying ahead of counterfeiters by using the latest advances in technology to enhance the bill's
security; and, second, allow for the unveiling of the new $5 bill design to be widely accessible. The event will make use of the currency Web site.

Officials from the U.S. Treasury, Federal Reserve Board, Bureau of Engraving and Printing and U.S. Secret Service will reveal the new $5 bill design and discuss continuing efforts to stay ahead of counterfeiting.

"The United States government will continue to enhance the security of our nation's currency," said Rose Pianalto, assistant to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. "From Bangkok to Boston, we want those who rely on our paper money around the globe — whether they are central banks, businesses or consumers — to have the information they need to verify the money they receive is genuine and to ensure a smooth introduction of new designs into commerce."

Confidence in U.S. currency has been eroded with reports that North Korea, as an official government project, is producing high-grade copies of U.S. paper currency.


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