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These stories were published Friday, Oct. 21, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 209
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Tempers are simmering over ravaged roads
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Citizen anger is growing against what they see as an unresponsive government exemplified by terrible roads.

Taxi drivers and local officials in Jacó blocked a major highway there for nearly four hours Thursday morning and said they would be back today if highway officials do not show up to work on the pothole-ridden road.

Meanwhile, transport ministry employees said a major announcement would be forthcoming this morning when directors of the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad meet at the Centro Nacional de Emergencias in Pavas. There are but eight weeks until the start of the high tourist season.

For many Costa Ricans the condition of the roads really is an emergency. Even in the greater San José areas, some homes are unreachable by normal vehicles. And that situation is compounded nationwide by bridges and roads that have been destroyed or damaged by four weeks of hurricane-spawned rain.

Motorists are irked by a double governmental whammy: After driving along shattered roads and highways and doing damage to the suspension and other parts of their vehicle, citizens have to show up at a revisón tecnica inspection station where the slightest mechanical problem can result in rejection and big repair bills.

The Spanish-language television media are joining the outcry with show titles that translate into English as "Where is the money?" The program wonders what has happened to the money paid as part of the annual marchamo or road fee and where are the fuel taxes that have been earmarked for highway maintenance.

The short answer is that a cash-strapped government has spent the money on other parts of the national budget. The Sala IV constitutional court has ordered the national government to reimburse the national treasury for the money that the law says it was supposed to spend on roads. But that has not been done because there is no money.

The Consejo Nacional de Vialidad has its problems, too. This is the agency of the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes that takes care of the roads. And it has unexpected expenses due to the current and past flooding.
For example, the council is rushing to construct some dikes on the Ríos Tempisque and Bebedero to protect the Puente de Amistad constructed and paid for by the government of Taiwan.

The council has hired Constructora Sánchez Carvajal to build the dikes to prevent the river from undermining the pillars of the new bridge between the Nicoya Peninsula and the rest of Costa Rica. The work, worth nearly $1 million, began Aug. 22, but was hampered by the four weeks of rain and the raging rivers. The danger of erosion was identified in 2002.

A $10 million reconstruction job on the main Caribbean coast route from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola quickly was turned to rubble Jan. 9 and 10 by a major storm. Sixaola was, too.

Already planned are several jobs on the Costanera Sur between Parrita and Quepos, including a bridge over the Río Las Vueltas.

Bids are to be opened Nov. 11. That job may depend on construction needs nearby. The section from Parrita to Dominical was the area hard hit a month ago when up to 40 inches of rain came down in 36 hours.

The shortage of funds for road construction is no secret.  The ministry was supposed to get 30 percent of the estimated 181 billion colons raised in fuel tax in 2005. That is 38.3 billion colons, or about $82 million when adjusted for the changing value of the colon against the dollar.

The central government, instead, allocated 12.3 billion colons or about $26.1 million. And that amount was a 42 percent decrease from what was allocated in the 2004 national budget.

Some political figures allege that the Abel Pacheco administration deliberately allowed the roads to go to potholes to speed passage of the proposed new tax plan that still is in the Asamblea Legislativa. And no one counted on the extreme Atlantic hurricane season that repeatedly dumped water on the country.

The transport ministry also says that the central government only budgeted 65 percent of what the road agency was supposed to get for the annual road tax on vehicles.

Citizens also are not pleased that the road tax, payable by Dec. 31, will increase about 10 percent this year. The individual fees are based on the year and estimated value of the vehicle.


Protest in Jacó centers on condition of the roads and highways
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Disgusted with the bad conditions of the main road, taxi drivers and others set up a road block Thursday morning.  Because a main bridge is out as well, all north-south traffic through the town was shut down between 7 and 11:30 a.m., said tránsito officers. 

The local taxi agency estimated the size of the entire crowd at approximately 300 persons.
The Ministerio de Obras Publicas y Transportes promised an announcement today saying how it planned to repair the roads. 

The highways and roads throughout the country usually become potholed and flooded during the rainy season but this year, the worse-than-average hurricane season has given the roads a beating.  Some 13 bridges are down and roads throughout Guanacaste and the Central Pacific remain impassable. 


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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Oct. 21, 2005, Vol. 5, No. 209


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Students jump the gun
with anti-trade protests


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Expats and tourists in Costa Rica ought to make contingency plans to deal with road blockades, labor strikes and a generalized protest.

President Abel Pacheco is expected to send the proposed free trade treaty with the United States to the Asamblea Legislativa soon, and opponents have vowed strong protests.

Two groups of students jumped the gun Thursday. Activists from the Universidad de Costa Rica in San Pedro and their counterparts from the Universidad Nacional in Heredia protested against the treaty.

The protests pale before the possibility of a general strike promised by leaders of the unions representing the state monopolies. Workers at the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, educators, the Instituto Nacional de Seguros and others feel threatened by the prospect of foreign competition.

In August 2004 strikes blocked major roads and brought the nation to a halt. Many tourists were caught up in the ensuing traffic jams and some spent several days on a bus. Communications workers reduced Internet service and a multitude of customer service duties.

The treaty stands a good chance of passage in the current legislature, which meets until May when the winners of the February election take office. The treaty is a hot election issue.

Pacheco is back from an extended visit to Spain for a summit of heads of state of Spanish-speaking countries. He is under increasing pressure to send the treaty to the legislature now that Costa Rica is the one nation of the seven nations in the treaty that has not ratified the agreement. Many in the manufacturing and agriculture exporting sector support the treaty.

Originally Pacheco said he would not send the treaty to the legislature until lawmakers passed a massive $500 million plan for new taxes. Now the executive branch has sent the assembly a proposed law said to strengthen the national telecommunications monopoly known as ICE.

The trade treaty was signed May 28, 2004, and Pacheco has been stalling since. He recently admitted he has a constitutional duty to submit the document for debate and a vote to the assembly. He has received a mixed report from a committee of respected citizens, including the Costa Rican-born U.S. astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz

Other nations involved in the treaty, besides Costa Rica and the United States are El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Top foosball player
wins second place


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Carlos Cespedes Martínez finished second at the 2005 World Foosball Championships, said his sponsor Bodog.com.  Cespedes also took third in the mixed doubles competition with partner Tommie Bagley.  

The Tico, who lost to Stephen Steighner of Colorado in the finals, competed in the mixed doubles, semi-pro, open doubles, and draw your partner competitions, all of which took place at the Hyatt Regency DFW near Dallas, Texas. 

Cespedes said he felt he had the championship in his hands, but when the stress, pressure and other conditions of the competition began to eat at him, he lost some confidence. As a result, many of his shots suffered, he said.

Still, Cespedes said the overall experience was extremely thrilling and that he was happy he gave it his best effort.

“We are excited to be backing Carlos. For most of us, foosball is a fun pastime but when you see it played at its highest level – as Carlos plays it – you gain a higher appreciation for the game,” said Bodog.com's CEO and founder, Calvin Ayre.

The 38-year-old Cespedes, who has five children, has been playing foosball since the age of 13 and began competing in tournaments 10 years ago. In 2003 he won the World Championship of Foosball.

“Foosball is a sport about demonstrating and not talking, and people or friends who watch you play will be in charge of letting the others know your ability,” Cespedes said.  

Bodog.com is an online gambling company in San José.

Foosball, or minifoot as it is called here, is very popular with Costa Ricans  Foosball is the table game with plastic soccer players on poles that players spin to try to score on their opponent.  Tables can be seen in bars, arcades and pool halls throughout the country. 

Cocaine smuggling ring
said to be broken up


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Agents with the Judicial Investigating Organization said Thursday that, after a two month investigation, they busted a gang of Nicaraguan drug smugglers based in the
Central Valley. 

Officials say the gang crossed into Nicaragua over land with approximately 441 pounds of cocaine per month.

Saturday, officials said they arrested a 56-year-old Costa Rican resident of Nicaraguan nationality as he attempted to board a bus bound for Los Chiles.  This man, who was the leader of the gang, was carrying 22 pounds of cocaine in a briefcase, agents said. 

Early Thursday morning, agents said they captured two more members of the ring in San Joaquin de Flores as they drove towards the Nicaraguan border.  The two Nicaraguans were driving a red Isuzu Rodeo with 97 pounds of the drug stashed in various compartments of the vehicle, agents said.

During the two arrests, agents said they seized a total of 119 pounds of cocaine, four celular phones, $1,402 in cash, two checks worth $5,000 and $2,500, and approximately 500,000 colons ($1,022) in cash.      
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The joy of finding that something goes as expected
One of the small pleasures for an expat in a country where language and customs are different is to accomplish successfully some bit of business or bureaucratic procedure without getting frustrated and thwarted.  This is a pleasure even in one’s native country, but you rather expect smooth sailing there.

I had a chance to experience that small pleasure this week.

This week my social life began again with vigor.  It actually started Saturday when I attended an open house get-together in the rancho of two new friends, Bettsy and Louis.  (A rancho is usually a covered patio open on three sides – a great place to entertain in Costa Rica).  Their home is in San Antonio de Belén.  I had looked around there when I first came to Costa Rica.  It is a nice little town with a couple of cheese factories.  Today it is the home of a Marriott hotel and Intel.  I learned that Intel is the second biggest employer in Costa Rica. The first is the government. 

Tuesday was my writers group, which  meets in Escazú.  We had a hiatus for awhile, so it was nice to get together again.

Wednesday I attended the Women’s Club book club at Mavis’ who also lives in Escazú, high in the hills, and on Wednesday we were high in the clouds and pelted by rain, evidently the side effects of Hurricane Wilma.  Wednesday night was a perros calientes meeting, once again in Escazú.  Sandy discovered some new Zar hot dogs that we all voted the best.  There are plenty of things for an expat to do in this country.

All of these activities caused me to rather ignore the telephone call from ICE telling me that I was overdue on my payment and they would soon be cutting off my phone.  I ignored it because I had gone into ICE in August to do the proper paperwork to change the automatic payment by my bank to my new phone number. But when, on Wednesday there was the same message on my answering machine, I decided I had better check it out.  This was not a big problem because I am just about four blocks from the central ICE building, not much of a walk, even in the rain.  
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart
jostuart@amcostarica.com


I asked the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad guard there if customers could pay their bills here and he said yes.  Once inside I discovered in the large hall, not only desks and cashiers for ICE but the same furnishings for the Bank of Costa Rica – my bank.

The guard, who graciously switched to English when I got bogged down in my explanation, directed me to the bank area to take care of the matter.  I explained my problem to the bank cashier who referred me to one of the desk people.  A charming young woman listened to my rather garbled explanation that I thought I had made arrangements with ICE for automatic payment by the bank back in August.

She checked my account and said that somehow they had canceled payment on my old phone but had not made the change I had requested.  She did this now, but then I had to go to the ICE side to pay this month’s bill in cash since it was past due.  I mistakenly went to the desk section and when my number came up was told I had to go to their cashier.

There were few people in ICE (unlike the office in Central San José where the lines are always long) so I accomplished all of this in a half-hour’s time and was on my way home.  It all had gone more smoothly than expected, and I had discovered that there is a Banco de Costa Rica just four blocks from me!  And what pleased me even more was that I didn’t feel – or act – indignant that somehow the man at the other ICE had screwed up. 

This was partly due to the fact that everyone was so nice, and it wasn’t their fault so how could I be annoyed with them?  Somewhere the Ticos have learned the secret that being very nice and helpful is very disarming.



For the frugal, there are some decent places to eat
EDITOR'S NOTE; Not every expat in Costa Rica has the resources for full-scale restaurant meals. So Dr. Lenny Karpman gives us a rundown of bargain eats for Gringos.


Delicias Caribenas de Mami in Heredia was reviewed in detail. Just a reminder that this Caribbean haven in Heredia, a few doors down from the Red Cross, serves typical Limón-style food in large portions for less than ¢ 2,000. The take-out counter offers even cheaper savory meat turnovers (patis) and coconut pies for picnics or football games.

Huaraches offers basic tacos, burritos, flautas and tostadas Mexican style, but milder for Tico tastes on Avenida 22 between Calle 5 and 7 and on the main La Garita road that runs from Alajuela to Atenas. The San José site is lively and popular. The La Garita location is often sparsely attended, but the menus are reputedly the same bargains and preparations.

J & M, San Rafael de Alajuela, is in the first block on the main road, east of the church. It is a typical coffee root-burning rotisserie restaurant that basically serves chicken and ribs for ¢ 850 and
¢ 1,050 respectively. The chicken platters are quarters with crispy skin and moist centers very well seasoned. The ribs are small Tico-style bites. Both platters come with cabbage slaw, pickled plantains and tortillas.

Manolo's is the middle of everything, minutes away from Teatro National, the Grand Hotel and Casino, the Gold Museum, Central Park and the Metropolitan Church. If you stand at Avenida Central and Calle Central and face west toward Calle 2, Manolo's is on the left before the corner. The fare is decent typical Tico at bargain prices. The service is fast and friendly.

Pan y Vino, any of the chain, serves pastas, calzones and thin-crusted pizzas that are a little better than average and cost competitive with the competition. The best bargain on the menu is a superb antipasto for one that we usually share and the complimentary six-piece rosemary-flavored focaccia (¢ 2,100). The antipasto and focaccia are more than enough for a tasty meal for one.

Pollos Del Monte in Belén is a larger version of J&M, and only a little more expensive. It has a much more extensive menu and can serve well over 100 patrons, which it does on Sundays. Its roaring fire and massive rotisserie are quite the sight to introduce visitors to the a la lena style. Where the road from Panasonic corner heads east toward Belén, it forms a Y. In the crook of the Y sits Pollos Del Monte.

Soda Mariscos Numero Uno (seafood luncheonette number one), in the Alajuela Central Market is a little challenging to find. If you enter any of the entrances and turn immediately to follow the large perimeter passageway, you will find the one and only potato chip maker sooner or later. At that point, turn 90 degrees away from the street into the center of market. A few feet down the aisle, you will run into its tiny stools and counter. Ceviche of mahi mahi ( large ¢ 550, small ¢ 450) is probably the biggest seller. All rice dishes e.g. shrimp, seafood, fish, Cantonese are ¢ 950 as are the two casados
Dr. Lenny Karpman

On 
the 
food
we eat

 

(blue plate specials). Coffee and fruit drinks are ¢150, and the most expensive large plates are ¢ 1,200. The marlin fillets are very tasty.

Soda Tapia is hard for me to understand. There is always a traffic jam out front as the parking guard struggles to squeeze one more car into the lot in front of impatient 18 wheelers and smoke-belching buses heading north across the road from the east side of Parque la Sabana, a block before the origin of Paseo Colón.

Unlike the rest of our country, this spot is often orchestrated by testy car horns. The two rows of small outdoor tables are nearly always full. Waiters leave small paper menu-checklists and a pencil, then collect your orders five or 10 minutes later. The food and prices are average for a Tico soda. The waiters have to hustle to keep pace. When breezes blow out of the west, across the park and over the roadway, diesel fumes may be bothersome.

Soda X has no apparent name. It is in the back of the work yard of Auto Pits on the Santa Ana-to-Belén road near the backside of the Forum. Despite the explosion of new restaurants along that road, the blue collar hordes head for this simple cafeteria-like soda for the cheapest eats outside of central markets in the land. The floors and tables are kept clean, and food preparation appears to be healthy, but use a little care when choosing silverware or water glasses from the counter. I often grab a bite there when my car is being serviced and usually ask if the counter man has miscalculated because the bill is so cheap. Coffee is free. Looking for charm? Go elsewhere.

Subway sandwich specials are posted in the window of every outlet every day. The other sandwich chains seem to be struggling as Subway prospers. Their standard menu of sandwiches on three kinds of loaf bread and salads is a reasonable value, but the daily sandwich special is usually one of their better offerings such as roast beef, teriyaki steak, Italian or ham and cheese for about ¢ 850 for the half loaf size, as opposed to the usual cost of ¢ 1,500-1,600,

Vishnu is a chain of cheapo vegetarian places. Currently there are five different locations including San José, Plaza Mayor and Heredia. Good salads and large inexpensive daily specials make it attractive to students and health-conscious diners.

Got a favorite cheapo place to eat? Let us know: editor@amcostarica.com




 

Effect of hurricane diminishes but not the heavy rain
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Though forecasters with the Instituto Meteorológico Nacional said that the endangered areas of Guanacaste and the Pacific coast are mostly in the clear, that doesn't mean the rain has stopped. 

The institute determined Thursday morning that light rain and satellite photos showing sun blotches in Guanacaste meant that conditions had finally improved. 

However, the institute predicted 15-35 mm. (up to 1.5 inches) of rain Thursday for the province, the Central Valley and the central Pacific Coast, though the rest of the country was supposed to stay relatively clear.   

But today, that was supposed to change.  The institute expected heavier rain in the troubled areas and light rain for the rest of the country.  The heavy rain should occur this afternoon. 
Although Hurricane Wilma was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded for a brief time Wednesday, by Thursday evening it had weakened to a Category 4 of about the same size as Katrina and forecasters were hoping that it may weaken to a Category 3 by the time it makes landfall in southern Florida. 

Thursday evening, the storm was still centered south of the Yucatan Peninsula and the popular tourist destinations of Cancún and Cozumel.  Wilma was moving northwest at 6 mph and had sustained winds of 150 mph. 

Forecasters with the U. S. National Hurricane Center are predicting now that it will hit Florida sometime between Sunday and Monday.  After that, the storm should pick up speed substantially as it travels northeast parallel with the East Coast of the United States.  By 7 p.m. Tuesday, the hurricane center predicts the storm should be at the same latitude as Maryland. 


Encounter has a goal of boosting theatrical arts
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Costa Rican theater industry has existed for about 50 years. Small, independent groups of artists began projects to develop a taste for the dramatic arts in the public.

For many years the arts have had successes, but recently the public has been losing its tastes for traditional culture and budgets have been cut, according to those in the business.

That's why the I Encuentro Nacional de Teatro or first national theater encounter is being prepared to fortify and give a boost to the theatrical arts. The event will run from Nov. 7 to Nov. 20. The schedule is full of panels, disucssions, training and a series of dramatic events for the public.

Amalia Chaverri, acting Cultura minister, said that one of the biggest problems in the theater industry of Costa Rica is that there are no strong troupes.

Theater group directors said in a press conference Thursday that the government has been decreasing the obligarory financing designed for the Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes.  Although the ministry received 1.3 percent of the national budget in the past, now the amount is less than 1 percent: .33 percent.
“The theater movement needs groups, if there is no groups, there is no projects and without them, there are no opportunities to participate in Latin American theaters,” said Luis Fernåndo Gomez, director of the Compañía Nacional de Teatro.

The increase in awareness of the public is one of the objectives of this first theater encounter. Throughout two weeks in November, some 10 shows are scheduled to draw in the public.

Five of those are in the Teatro Melico Salazar and five more are in the Teatro 1887 at the Centro Nacional de Cultura, the ministry complex near the Instituto Nacional de Seguros. Most of the spectators are likely to be students. The shows will take place between Nov. 7 and Nov. 20.

In addition, the encounter will include panels and discussions and invited experts, such as actor Sergio Mercurio and Lucero Millan, an actress in a Nicaraguan theater group.
   
There also will be art competitions, some theater studios, and other kinds of events, like a presentation of “Otelo,” which will be staged in Spanish at the Teatro La Aduana, Barrio Escalante, starting tonight and then Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. until Dec.  4. Information is available at 257-8305.  


Three men arrested at roadblock after delivery truck is hijacked
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Fuerza Pública officers arrested three men Thursday in Alajuelita who officers said hijacked a truck operated by the distributer Importadora Monge. 

Three hijackers threatened the two employees with firearms and ordered them to switch routes, officers said.  When the police learned of the incident they closed several streets in the town and, a few minutes
later, were able to arrest the suspects, they said. 

Officers matched two of the suspected hijackers, identified by the last names Arias Zúñiga and Vargas Cerdas with police archive photographs though neither man was carrying identification, police said.  The third suspect was identified by the last names Sáenz Morales, officers said. 

Polcie said they confiscated two .38-caliber revolvers.


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