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These stories were published Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 187
Jo Stuart
About us

Public employee union members display their view

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Smart students brought umbrellas

Free trade protesters turn city into chaos
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Hundreds of college students and some union members shut down San José Tuesday afternoon as they set up human roadblocks at key intersections and traffic circles.

The protestors carried red flags, some bearing the hammer and sicle of the old Soviet Union. Other wore masks over their faces or the black ski mask favored by revolutionaries in other parts of Latin America. They were protesting the proposed free trade treaty with the United States.

At one point in San Pedro students attacked a vehicle that tried to dodge the blockcade. They struck the vehicle with poles and sticks, but the driver eventually pulled away.

One young man was seen burning a U.S. flag nearby.

Traffic in San José did not move much of the afternoon and evening. The traffic jam was bumper to bumper even on the secondary side streets. In the downtown, large crowds accumulated at bus stops because the buses were not running. Taxis sat in traffic without passengers.

Streets were clogged 10 to 15 blocks from the center of the city and on the main streets east to San Pedro.

One taxi driver said he saw students blocking the highways at every traffic circle, including in Guadalupe north of San José.

Police were present but seemed to make no effort to guarantee motorists the constitutional right of free transit.
The report BELOW!
The students were mostly from the Universidad de Costa Rica in San Pedro and Universidad Nacional in Heredia. Both are public insitutions. The students began gathering outside Casa Presidencial in Zapote as a committee of five citizens was delivering its report on the free trade treaty.

Among other things, the committee warned against the disconcerting national polarization caused by the treaty. Most of the students were uncommunicative with the press but clearly they did not want President Abel Pacheco to deliver the text of the free trade treaty to the Asamblea Legislative for debate and a vote.

The protest began on a light note in the morning with antics in front of Casa Presidencial and young people sitting together under umbrellas to protect them from the sun. 

A drummer played. A number of public employee union members, distinguished by their organge shirts, populated the crowd.

Later in the day, the mood turned combative and many of the union members vanished. Students appeared to have goals established in advance to block vehicular traffic at evening rush hour. They were not daunted by downpours.

The blockcades continued past 7:30 p.m. and perhaps later near the Universidad de Costa Rica campus in San Pedro. Caught in traffic were ambulances on the way to hospitals and at least one funeral procession.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005, Vol. 5, No. 187

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The British are coming
to visit assembly here

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Six British members of Parliament will arrive in Costa Rica Saturday as guests of the Costa Rican Asamblea Legislativa. This will be the first visit of such a group for over 30 years and reciprocates one by a delegation of Costa Rican lawmakers to Britain in 1977, said a release from the British Embassy.

The delegation will travel from Costa Rica to Nicaragua as guests of the Nicaraguan national assembly from Sept. 28 to 30.  The last visit of a Nicaraguan group to Britain was in 1990. 

The lawmakers are members of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Four visitors sit in the British House of Commons, the lower house, and two are members of the House of Lords. They represent the three main political parties: three from the governing Labour Party of Prime Minister Tony Blair, two from the Conservative Party, and one from the Liberal Democratic Party.

The group leader is Peter Kilfoyle, a Labour member for Liverpool Walton. Others are Charlotte Atkins (Labour), Norman Baker, (Liberal Democrat), Richard Shepherd (Conservative) and Baroness Gale (Labour) and Baroness Hooper (Conservative). The visitors will be meeting Costa Rican Ministers and officials Monday and will spend much of Tuesday in the Costa Rican assembly talking to parliamentarians and Party leaders.

In Nicaragua they will have the opportunity to meet members of the Nicaraguan executive branch and the national assembly and visit municipalities of Granada and Masaya in order to see local government at work.

A key area where British parliamentary experience may be of particular interest in Costa Rica and Nicaragua is the way in which members of Parliament are able to hold ministerial posts. Such double duty is not allowed under the Costa Rican Constitution.

Certain residents get
extension of visas

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Costa Rican immigration service has given a two-year extension to foreigners who hold residency under a special 1999 ruling that includes mostly Nicaraguans.

The Dirección General de Migración published a decree in the la Gaceta Tuesday that automatically extends the visas of these estimated 150,000 persons.

Johnny Marín, the new director of Migración, said that the extension saves a lot of paperwork for the agency and paves the way for a uniform document for non-citizen residents that will be issued in 2007. Without the decree, the visas would have to be renewed when they are two years old.

The immigration agency has been having trouble keeping up with the demand. It issues passports to Costa Ricans, and the waiting period has been some months. The agency also is where North American expats receive their residency visas and carnets.

Marín said that those not covered by the decree may obtain an appointment at the central offices of Migración or as of Nov. 3 will be able to show up on Thursday and Fridays. Migración will handle 300 persons without an appointment each of those days.

Migración has cut back on appointments and the issuance of visas and carnets because of the paperwork flood. The agency has been reorganized so that a special department that used to handle the applications of rentistas and pensionados no longer exists. Many English-speaking expats are rentistas or pensionados.

The agency is trying to install more advanced computer processing systems.

Agents search young victim's home

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Judicial agents pulled a surprise search Tuesday afternoon at the home of 8-year-old murder victim Josebeth Retana Rojas.

Investigators had identified a neighbor as the principal suspect because he was seen near the place where the schoolgirl was seen for the last time Sept. 5. The girl was found tied up in a fertilizer sack in a river Sept. 11.
The home in Ticari de Sarapiquí is occupied by the girl's mother, Maribel Retana Rojas, and her stepfather,  José Daniel Mejía.

Our readers' opinions

Chávez is progressive,
this reader says

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Poor Marvin Powell, holed up in Panamá, having his sweaty nightmares of impeding Communist invasions from the south.

Latin Americans, however, do not share his views, and are increasingly embracing progressive leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as a refreshing alternative to U.S. interference, bullying, corruption and its long failed war on drugs.

Sure the U.S. government would like to assassinate Chávez, as Pat Robinson embarrassingly blurted out on TV. If Marvin doubts such murderous intent could lurk in the White House, he might want to check the history books on who does the invading and setting up military coups in Latin America.

Gee, am I mistaken or has not the U.S. directly or otherwise launched illegal military attacks against México, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Chile, Panamá, El Salvador, and Grenada?

This divine right to punch out its impovished neighbours started, I believe, when the U.S. relieved Mexico of California and the Midwest . . .  and was called “manifest destiny.” Anyway, neither Venezuela nor Cuba have the military means to threaten anyone, so Marvin can sleep tight, at least until something in Panamá upsets Washington again.
R. Martin
What about all those doctors?

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Very intriguing indeed the article about 10,000 Cuban doctors in Venezuela and the $200 billion military buildup geared towards an attack on Colombia. Might we ask where Marvin Powell gets his information? I for one would like to have a look at this.
Alan Bollinger
Chiriqui, Panamá

EDITOR’S NOTE: An analysis of the presidency of Hugo Chávez is HERE!
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Franklin Chang Díaz explains the committee's report during a session Tuesday at Casa Presidencial.

Free trade report focuses on internal changes here
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The much anticipated report on a proposed free trade agreement puts the burden on Costa Rica to change its internal structure to compete in a modern world.

But President Abel Pacheco continues to place primary priority on the proposed tax plan that is in the legislature and not on the free trade treaty. He announced no decision Tuesday on when he would send the free trade agreement with the United States to the Asamblea Legislativa. He said he would meet in an extended session with his cabinet Tuesday to consider the treaty and the report by his hand-picked committee of five.

The committee is headed by Franklin Chang Díaz, the Costa Rican born U.S. astronaut. The 69-page report is extensive and lists the dozens of meetings committee members had over two months with backers and foes of the treaty.

Pacheco got the report Friday but did not reveal the contents until Tuesday.

In anticipation of a favorable decision on the report, students and public employee union activists demonstrated outside Casa Presidencial Tuesday.

However the committee stopped short of giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on the report. Instead, as Chang explained, the treaty is like a tool that can be used well or used badly.  And much depends on the will and effort of the Costa Rican people.

In a chat with a reporter, he amplified an analogy in the report of a hose connected to a fire hydrant.

The metaphoric way to see the free trade treaty, he said, is as if a huge fire hydrant full of water was connected to a hose. The size of the hose, that is the Costa Rican infrastructure, determines how much water comes out.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Gabriel Clavo of the Universidad de Costa Rica shows off his skills in the party-like atmosphere outside Casa Presidencial.

In addition to Chang, the commission included the academic Gabriel Macaya Trejos, Rodrigo Gámez Lobo, the director of INBio, the diplomat Alvar Antillón Salazar and a priest, Guido Villalta Loaiza. All spoke Tuesday outlining various areas of the report.

The primary concern of union members is the opening of the government monopolies in telecommunication and insurance. Workers fear they will lose their jobs or other benefits from their positions.

Here are some key points in the report summary
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Some final points of the free trade report by the committee of five translated and paraphrased:

• The treaty has the potential to help or not help and contribute or not contribute to the integral development of the country. All depends on the capacity, will and commitment of Costa Rica to implement profound changes in its political, social, commercial, judicial and administrative structures, in modernizing its infrastructure, to facilitate the process of making decisions and visualizing the future in the long term.

• Without these changes, linking Costa Rica to a free trade treaty as the one negotiated would be like connecting a half-inch hose to the strong outflow of a hydrant.

• The free trade treaty doesn't mean the automatic reduction of poverty or an increase in employment. These changes are very much beyond the free trade treaty and depend more on the strengthening of the institutions and the development of binding mechanisms, as in the case of a fiscal reform that implies an increase in the tax burden consistent with the principles of equal taxation and just distribution,
paying heed to better collections and a deep
 examination of the public expenditures, their efficiency and priorities.

• The country ought to assume the collection of crucial decisions for its future. More than the approval or disapproval of the free trade treaty, these decisions ought to be taken immediately. The so-called complementary agenda of the free trade treaty, which was sent to the Asamblea Legislativa, is a collection of methods that this commission, although recognizing their importance, considers insufficient before the challenges of national development.

• The commission has seen a profound and disconcerting national polarization . . .  [that] has paralyzed the capacity to take decisions in many branches of the government. In addition, the lethargy and difficulty of taking decisions and implementing policy as in the legislative process, little by little strangles the country.

• The commission makes a firm call to all the political and social actors involved to abandon the sterile polarization of the debate, the excessive simplifications. realizing the political decisions that are necessary to adopt and seeking a national political accord that brings the country on a different route than it has followed up to now and leads to fundamental decisions to reach the goals of human development that everyone longs for.

An analysis of the news
Expectations by Chávez may be more than possible

By the A.M. Costas Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Since 1999, Venezuela's self-avowed socialist president has arranged for thousands of Cuban doctors to tend to his country's neediest, launched a campaign to stamp out illiteracy, sought to boost access to higher education, and promised new homes for the poor. Yet enormous poverty remains and by some measures has actually

grown worse under President Hugo Chávez, despite record oil revenues that have financed a boom in government expenditures.

In the sprawling "January 23" neighborhood of Caracas, a profusion of ramshackled tenements surrounds dilapidated apartment buildings. Once a
hotbed of social discontent and a frequent target of repression by Venezuelan authorities, the neighborhood now stands as a budding showcase for President Chavez' programs for the poor.

Yorlin Mais cradles his infant son, José, who has a fever, at one of several free clinics operated by Cuban doctors in the neighborhood. He says now, for the first time ever, he has access to health care.

"If you go to a hospital, they demand payment and they have nothing to give you," he says. "Here, they treat you promptly and provide medication. They [the doctors] are close to the community and the care is good."

Up a hillside, Augusta Méndez beams with pride. At age 60, this mother of five and grandmother of 11 is learning to read under a new literacy program.

The person who does not know how to read is blind," she says. "But the person who reads can deal with situations, whatever comes up."

Ms. Méndez says there is one person she would like to thank.

"Our president," she says. "All these programs started under Chávez. Previous governments did nothing."

But not everyone is cheering. On the other side of town, Dr. Gustavo Villasmil, a medical advisor to the Caracas municipal government, says Cuban doctors have never had to demonstrate their qualifications to practice medicine, nor their competence to do so. He accuses President Chávez of hijacking Venezuela's public health system for political purposes.

"The presence of Cuban medical missions has one clear objective: to use medical attention to help construct a Venezuelan political mechanism for social control," he says. "To know who you are, what you do, who you are married to, where you work and what you think of the government."
Not so, according to President Chávez, who in a recent appearance on state-run television insisted he only wants to provide for his citizens' basic needs.

"The right to have food: when have you ever seen international institutions or human rights groups dominated by capitalism advocate for the right to be fed? The right to health, to education," he said. "[These rights are seen] least of all under the imperialist system."

Even the critics of Chávez admit that the president has focused on Venezuela's staggering poverty like no other leader in the country's history, and that the effort may be beginning to bear fruit.

But economist Orlando Ochoa says any gains have been minuscule relative to enormous public expenditures, and are likely unsustainable. Venezuela's oil resouces are finite.

"When President Chávez came to power in 1999, the economy fell and poverty increased," he says. "From 2000 to 2004, poverty increased further. Now the statistics are showing an improvement, thanks to the spending of oil revenue. But if the Venezuelan economy lacks a stable base, this current reduction in poverty will be temporary."

Analysts say President Chávez has made sweeping promises to the poor, and that impatience is beginning to show.

"The [government's] capacity to meet the expectations is very low," says Public opinion pollster Alfredo Keller. "For example, in housing, the government has only completed 15,000 homes this year. But the demand for homes stands at six million.

"And last year everyone dreamed of getting their new home. When we have asked about President Chávez in polls, what is most criticized, and criticized considerably, is that he speaks a lot but does very little."

But the government makes no apologies for an ambitious agenda. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel says considerable progress has been made in combating illiteracy and other social ills, but that patience is required.

"Poverty cannot be overcome overnight. It is a slow process," he says. "We have suffered decades of poverty and neglect, and you cannot expect that to be erased in five or six years, especially when there have been crises to deal with, like the 2002 national oil strike."

Perhaps recognizing the need for time, President Chávez has said he would like to stay in power until the year 2030 to oversee his nation's transformation to socialism. Voters will have their say in presidential elections next year.

China's growing Latin influences concern U.S.
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Members of the U.S. Congress are monitoring the growing influence of China in Latin America. Some lawmakers are concerned Beijing may be seeking to erode Washington's influence.

According to Sen. Norman Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, who chaired hearings on the issue Tuesday, China's imports from Latin America increased six-fold between 1999 and 2004 and its exports more than tripled. He noted a number of high-ranking Chinese officials have made trips to the region, including two visits by President Hu Jintao.

Coleman said 20 senior Chinese defense officials visited Latin America last year, and China sent 125 peacekeepers to Haiti, the first military operation in the Western Hemisphere with Chinese troops.

The senator also highlighted China's growing need for natural resources, particularly oil. He noted recent agreements secured by Beijing that would increase oil imports from Venezuela.

Although Coleman said China's influence in Latin America does not appear likely to supercede that of the United States any time soon, U.S. Latin America trade is 10 times greater than China-Latin America trade, for example, he said the situation warrants monitoring:

"China's staggering economic growth and its insatiable need for natural resources, particularly energy, is a global phenomenon that will have an effect in the United States, and one that certainly merits our attention. At a minimum, we must find ways to ensure that American influence in the Western Hemisphere is not diminished by an increasingly active China," he said.

A key State Department official says much of China's interest in Latin America is economically motivated, with Beijing seeking access to natural resources — including oil — to meet the demands of the country's booming economy.
Charles Shapiro, principal deputy secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, offered a positive assessment of China's role in Latin America. "We support China's engagement in the region in ways that create prosperity, promote transparency, good governance, and respect for human rights," he said.

Shapiro said countries in the region also stand to benefit. "To the extent that that trade is taking place in an open manner with a level playing field, to the extent that Latin American countries are wealthier from selling their exports to China, those countries are going to be more stable and they are going, in turn, to be better trade partners for the United States as well," he said.

But Roger Pardo Maurer, deputy assistant Defense secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, is more cautious.

 "We must remain mindful that China has its own set of political, economic and military interests, requiring us to carefully distinguish between legitimate commercial initiatives and the possibility of political or diplomatic efforts to weaken the democratic alliances we have forged," he said.

On the issue of China's military cooperation with Latin America, Pardo said there is no evidence that Beijing is interested in establishing a continuous military presence in the region. Nor, he says, is there evidence of Chinese military activities in the Western Hemisphere, including arms sales, that pose a direct conventional threat to the United States or its allies.

But he says there are concerns. "In particular, we need to be alert to rapidly-advancing Chinese capabilities, particularly in the fields of intelligence, communications and cyber-warfare, and their possible application in the region. We continue to be concerned about China's capabilities or activities in these areas," he said.

Pardo, who has family in Costa Rica, made similar comments at a House committee hearing on the subject earlier this year.

Jo Stuart
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