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(506) 2223-1327               Published Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 209         E-mail us
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2009 holiday season approaching like a freight train
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The country is approaching the best season of the year. Not only is Halloween gaining a bigger foothold here, but so is Thanksgiving. And then there is Christmas, all with a veneer of the presidential election campaign. The climax is the Feb. 7 national elections, which also happens to be Superbowl Sunday.

Halloween always has been a rough night for the police. It's called Noche de Brujas here, and as with many innovations, the youth were the first to adopt the new holiday. But more and more strictly Tico organizations are celebrating the night. For example, the Costa Rican Tennis Club is having a Halloween dance for its upscale Tico members.

This year police have more of a problem. Halloween, Oct. 31, falls on a Saturday, so there will be more bonfires, more vandalism and more run-ins with officers. Trick-or-treating continues to be confined to North American enclaves.

Some of the bars and nightclubs are taking advantage of the day, as they have done in the past. Visitors to San José are likely to see some jaw-dropping costumes. The Sportmen's Lodge already has a small cemetery in the front reception area.

Thanksgiving is Nov. 26. Although this is primarily a U.S. festival, hotels and restaurants slowly but surely are breaking in their Tico customers to turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce. The day is a Thursday and not a holiday here, but each year the number of turkey feasts seems to grow.

Costa Ricans do not need Thanksgiving to kick off the Christmas season. That season started back about Aug. 15. Even now in the downtown, there are sales already promising 50 percent off on Yule decorations. Costa Rican Christmas is jump started by the payment of aguinaldos to workers. This is the so-called 13th month. Each worker is entitled to one-twelfth of the money he or she has earned since Dec. 1 the previous year. This is great for families, but employers are reeling trying to find the cash in a tight economy. But if they do not pay, legal trouble is likely.

Even the central government has expressed concern that it does not have money to pay its workers. But they will be paid. Not coming through with aguinaldo is like shooting Santa. At last report the central government was going to borrow the money to pay its workers.

By law, the money has to be paid by Dec. 15. Employees get the entire amount. The law exempts such payments from withholdings and deductions for the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social. Dec. 15 happens to be the same day that income filings and payment of taxes are required unless individuals and companies are on something other than an October to September fiscal year.

Technically the Christmas season officially begins on the last weekend of November. That is when the ox cart drivers, boyeros, gather in Parque la Sabana on Saturday and prepare for the Entrada de los Santos the next day, Nov. 29.

The ox carts provided the transportation from the Central Valley and elsewhere to the Pacific port of Puntarenas for the golden grain that thrust Costa Rica into the international marketplace. The coffee grains travel in more modern fashion now, but the carreta or ox cart lingers on with some use in muddy rural fincas. The boyeros may look rural as they lead their beasts up Paseo Colón and Avenida 2, but under those wide-brimmed hats there may be a lawyer or a physician or some
bull baiter
Municipalidad de San José photo
The Fiestas de San José features those Tico-style bull fights when allegedly sane individuals get in the ring with a fighting bull.


other professional. Keeping hungry bueyes can be an expensive hobby.

The brightly painted ox cart is a Costa Rican icon but most of the fancy work did not appear until the early days of the 20th century when an Italian in Escazú began to imitate the carts of his native country.

The santos or saints are the wooden representations of holy men, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. A life-size San José, the municipality's patron, usually takes the lead cart.

But for the really big parade, there is nothing that compares to the Festival de la Luz. Craftsmen and designers already are working on the floats for this year's parade Dec. 12. Government agencies and private companies invest thousands of dollars to create floats for a single trip form La Sabana up Avenida 2. It's all televised, and bands, members covered from head to toe with tiny lights, participate in the evening extravaganza. They come from all over the country.

The festival has been stained lately by drunken youth, so organizers have a special late afternoon pre-event for the benefits of families and the younger set.  Police cracked down last year to reduce the number of problems. Santa will attend this year as always.

Although Christmas is generally a family day in Costa Rica, the following day is the traditional day for the gigantic horse parade through the city. The Tope Nacional, as it is called, brings horses and their riders from all over the country. Since 2010 is an election year, politicians of all skill levels will be managing their animals through the parade trying to show their kinship with the national traditions. The event is related to the week-long Fiestas de San José that opens Christmas day at the Zapote fairgrounds..

At the same time many families head for beach or mountain resorts, possible in part because of the several-week vacation many government workers get.

For those who have not had enough fiestas, the one in Palmares opens Jan. 13 this year and runs until Jan. 24. The event is popular with Central Valley residents and Tránsito officers who manage to snag dozens of drunk drivers each year with their checkpoints on main highways.

Presidential candidates who manage to survive the horse parade are on the ballot Feb. 7. There are a lot of candidates, and none with overwhelming dominance, so a runoff might be the result. That date happens to be Superbowl Sunday, too, and local bar owners are cheering because the new election code eliminated the ban on liquor around elections that cut into expat football frenzy.


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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 209

Costa Rica Expertise
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At last, key city street
to be reopened to traffic


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Since August motorists and bus drivers have been forced to detour in northeast San José, sometimes dodging trains and sometimes not dodging them successfully.

Today is the official inauguration of a new concrete roadway along the north side Parque Nacional. The street is Avenida 3, but it also is known as the Paseo de los Damos. The street also runs by the Biblioteca Nacional.

The way the road network is constructed, motorists will again be able to enter the downtown from the northeast and bypass the San José Heredia rail line. At times during rush hour, vehicles have been backed up from Hospital Calderón Guardia to five or seven blocks west on Avenida 9, thanks to an abundance of traffic detoured to that street.  Avenida 1 also got an overload of traffic.

The project was 1.3 billion colons, some $2.25 million. Construction workers also blocked many side streets making driving in that section of the city difficult. The project also included some $500,000 in sidewalk work.

The new roadway runs from east of the Estación al Atlántico, which is near the new Heredia line station, to Parque Morazán.

Municipal employees promise that the rebuilt road will be open today after the 9:30 a.m. ceremony with Mayor Johnny Araya. The mayor is expected to announce yet another road construction project that will start in January.


Slain agent identified
as third arrest made

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Judicial Investigating Organization has identified the agent killed Tuesday night as Ronny Javier Sojo Chacón. He died in a shootout with robbers about 7 p.m. in Sabana Sur.

The 40-year-old agent was part of a police effort to catch four suspects after robbers tried to break into a home. Two men were detained there, and a third man was detained in a raid Wednesday night.

The men are believed to be the same group that sacked a condo complex in Guachipelín Oct. 10. Then five men, armed with shotguns and pistols, confronted a guard and tied him up. They also grabbed two residents who were entering the condo area about 6:45 p.m. Eventually they ended up on the floor of a guard shack. In all some eight residents were held hostage as bandits went door to door in the complex.

The men escaped in a victim's car. But they did not know that the man had installed a security device that kept track of the vehicle's location. One resident said that agents watched as suspects took the car for a joy ride two days later. The men are also believed to be part of a larger gang that has been invading homes for months in western San José.

The locater device appears to be the way that the agents Tuesday night knew where the robbers were entering a Sabana Sur home. The judicial agent suffered a wound from a shotgun blast in the confrontation.

He will be buried today from the Iglesia Cristiana near Hatillo. Burial will be in the Pavas cemetery. The Judicial Investigating Organization conducted a wake for the agent in the central headquarters Wednesday. Hundreds of coworkers passed by the coffin to pay their respects.


U.S. dollar strengthens
slightly in three days


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The U.S. dollar has put on some value against the colon in the last three day. The dollar hit a recent low point where it would bring 567 colons Tuesday, according to Banco Central figures. The same day an individual would have needed 576.74 colons to buy a dollar.

For today the numbers are a little more favorable to the dollar: A dollar will fetch 572.12 colons, and 581.66 colons needed to buy a dollar. That is an improvement for the dollar of slightly less than 1 percent.

Still the dollar is down about 2 percent from its highest point recently. That was Sept. 23 when a dollar would have brought 584 colons and 593.72 colons were needed to purchase a dollar.

The numbers of the Banco Central are an average of the activities in the marketplace. Exchange rates at banks and other retail outlets can be slightly different. For example the Banco Nacional de Costa Rica has the dollar listed for today to be worth 569 colons. The cost to buy a dollar is 578.5 colons there, according to the bank Web site.


Medical providers in Houston

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rican medical professionals are going on a field trip to Houston, Texas, under the auspices of the Promotora del Comercio Exterior today and Friday.

The goal is to speak with providers of medical services and tourism who handle international patients. They also will be meeting with insurance companies. Among those going are representative of the Colegio de Cirujanos Dentistas de Costa Rica.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 209

Arias orders aides to break strike at key docks in Limón
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
 
President Óscar Arias Sánchez has ordered his representative in Limón to break the dock workers' strike by whatever means possible. Fuerza Pública officers have appeared on the docks at Limón and nearby Moín.

Although the five dozen of so members of the dock workers' union claim they are striking so that the government will pay them what they are owed, central government officials report that the extra pay already has been approved and a circular to that effect has been distributed to the union members. The additional payments are about $2 million.

Arias acted at midday after a cruise ship with 1,900 passengers did not dock at Limón because of the strike.
                                                     
Marco Vargas, minister of Coordinación Interinstitucional, called the strike and its consequences an attack against the well being of the people of Limón. Many depend on cruise ship passengers to purchase their crafts, buy their food and make use of their vehicles.

The union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Japdeva, periodically conducts strikes or slowdowns. The last major strike was in September and October of 2006. Eventually the government got a judge to declare that strike illegal because it hurt a needed public service.  The docks are operated by the Junta de Administración Portuaria y de Desarrollo Económico de la Vertiente Atlántica, a government agency.

The administration appears to be expecting trouble. A meeting of the country's Consejo de Seguridad was supposed to be held today in Limón where officials would discuss responses to criminality in the region. However,  
Casa Presidencial announced late Wednesday that the meeting would be held in San José instead.

The announcement said that the executive branch did not want to distract the port officials from the job of bringing services back to normal after stopping the strike.

Pay issues aside, the leadership of the dock workers' union oppose an Arias plan to privatize the docks and lease them in concession to a major company that would install needed improvements. Vargas said that a majority of the union members are sick of the strikes and slowdowns orchestrated by the leadership.

Three years ago Fuerza Pública officers actually operated the equipment on the docks to unload and load ships.

The nation's business chamber said that five ships are at the Moín and Limón docks waiting to be loaded or unloaded. More than 245 tractor trailers are lined up to leave their cargos on the docks for shipment.

The chamber, the Unión Costarricense de Cámaras y Asociaciones del Sector Empresarial Privado, estimated that only 53 of the 1,300 dock workers were on strike.
The twin ports are where much of the banana, pineapple and other produce to North America and Europe are loaded.
 
Efficiency at the docks is a key element of the Arias plan to improve the economy of the province of Limón.

The business chamber noted, citing a report, that the cost to ship a single container from Limón was the highest in Latin America at $1,190 compared with an average of  $456 in the most efficient world port, Singapore.


Centro de Patrimonio prompts plan to save Pursical church
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Once again a movement is afoot to save and restore the damaged Roman Catholic church in Puriscal. The church has been vacant since it was hit with a series of earthquakes in 1990.

Last August, the Ministerio de Salud issued an order that the structure be demolished to protect the safety and lives of residents. But this week more than 100 persons met to consider the possibility of restoring the structure.

They met under the jurisdiction of the Centro de Investigación y Conservación del Patrimonio Cultural of the Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes.

The church was saved from demolition by a similar citizen movement in the early 1990s. But then there was no effort that followed to rebuild the church, which was constructed in 1936.

The Centro de Parimonio said that more than 100 persons showed up at the meeting Monday. Many were architects,
María Luisa Avila, the health minister, was not represented but she is reported to be open to any plan that would restore the church. Experts say that both towers of the church were badly displaced by the quake, as were portions of the exterior walls. The structure has been a pain for the local police because the homeless have been known to live in the structure despite security fences. Vandals have painted Satanic symbols in the interior.

The group Monday seemed to conclude that restoration was technically possible. Olman Vargas Zeledón, executive director of the Colegio Federado de Ingenieros y Arquitectos de Costa Rica, chaired the meeting, and it appears that his organization would be interested in providing funds, the culture ministry reported.

The centro has had experience in restoring churches, including the Iglesia de La Merced in San José that just got a face-lifting. The centro also has helped restore the Ruinas de Cartago, which coincidentally happens to be dedicated to the same religious figure as the Puriscal church: St. James, the Apostle, known as Santiago in Spanish. The Cartago church also was the victim of an earthquake in 1910.


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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 209

   
Arenal Volcano Cabin Retreat is to create the perfect blend of Adventure, Discovery, Tranquility.
Enjoy Incredible Beach Sunsets and  Sunrises. With the Pacific Ocean on the awesome mountain behind.
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Central America leads world in non-political crimes

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Central America has become the region with the highest levels of non-political crime worldwide, with an average murder rate of 33 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, three times greater than the global average, a new United Nations report warns, noting that crime threatens the region’s development.

Some 79,000 people have been murdered in the region over the past six years, but despite these heightened levels of violence, solving the problem of insecurity is possible within the framework of democracy, according to the U.N. Development Programme Report on Human Development in Central America 2009-2010.

“Apart from its economic costs, which are concrete and indisputable, one of the main reasons why this is a crucial issue is that violence and crime are affecting the day-to-day decisions of the population, making insecurity a clear hindrance to human development,”  said the program's regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“One of the most difficult costs to quantify is that of lost freedoms,” she added. “No aspect of human security is as basic as keeping the population from being victimized by fear and physical violence.”

Security involves intelligent diagnosis, a real political will and an integrated system for adopting and executing short-
and long-term actions, the report says.

“Security is everyone’s right, and the State has the duty to provide it,” said Hernando Gómez Buendía, the general coordinator of the report. “Without security, there is no investment. Without investment, there is no employment, and without employment, there is no human development. Security is an essential part of the development strategy of nations and cities.” He added:

Security requires a very hands-on management of the problem, and an intelligent citizen security strategy for human development would not be complete without the participation of local governments, according to the report. This assumes direct knowledge of the problem, proximity, decentralization and flexibility on the part of national and local authorities.

Both the strong-arm and the soft touch approaches have failed and must evolve toward a “smart” strategy of citizen security for human development with a new comprehensive strategy that includes preventive and coercive actions, congruence with the justice system and respect for the values of civility, it adds. Real political will, clear leadership, and continuity from one government to the next are crucial.

The overwhelming bulk of the murders in Central America happen in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras where youth gangs are well organized and active.


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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 209

Casa Alfi Hotel

Colombian rights activists
seek stronger U.S. role


By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Human rights groups are urging the Obama administration to work to ensure that Colombia's government protects activists in the country. Rights organizations and Colombian activists told a U.S. congressional panel that the situation in Colombia has deteriorated with activists facing increasing threats, including physical attacks and assassination.

Kelly Nicholls, executive director of the U.S. Office on Colombia, a Washington-based non-government organization, referred to a surge of threats against human rights defenders.

Appearing before the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, she said Colombian government officials have made public statements designed to discredit human rights activists, while threats are virtually never investigated.

The United States, Ms. Nicholls says, must send a clear public message of support for human rights defenders. "Senior U.S. government officials should continue to send a clear public message of support for human rights defenders, condemning any attempts by the Colombian government to stigmatize them," she said.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe recently announced the disbanding of the administrative security department, a powerful presidential intelligence agency, which activists allege illegally and systematically spied on Colombian human rights defenders.

Reinaldo Villalba Vargas, a prominent Colombian human rights lawyer, said the agency conducted a massive intelligence operation against human rights organizations with a special task force assigned to obtain strategic intelligence to restrict and neutralize activities of organizations or persons opposing the government, discredit human rights organizations, and carry out psychological war.

Andrew Hudson represented Human Rights First, which is among the groups working to protect human rights activists in Colombia. "Colombian activists are subject to the full gamut of human rights violations, ranging from killings to torture, threats, misuse of state intelligence, systematic stigmatization, unfounded criminal proceedings, and impunity," he said.

Hudson welcomed President Uribe's statement in September voicing support for human rights activists. But he said the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress must exert more pressure.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Colombia, Margaret Sekaggya, a lawyer from Uganda, said that during her visit to Colombia in September, President Uribe and other officials detailed steps taken to protect human rights protections.

But Ms. Sekaggya said that clearly much remains to be done. "The government should investigate and prosecute whoever is carrying out these threats, because it has become almost a culture in a country where there are threats, and death threats, to almost everybody, including supreme court judges," she said.

Ms. Sekaggya says illegal activities of the former presidential intelligence agency must be investigated, wiretaps of human rights defenders stopped, intelligence archives purged of information on activists, and new emerging paramilitary groups dismantled.

Also appearing before the commission was Gabriel Gonzalez, a Colombian student activist who was given a visa to accept a human rights award this week in New York.

Gonzalez faces charges in Colombia where authorities accused him of being a guerrilla leader. In 2007, the U.S. State Department called his prosecution an example of the Colombian government's attempts to harass human rights defenders.


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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 209


Latin American news
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Tourism official warns
of climate change effects


Special to  A.M. Costa Rica

Rising sea levels could inundate coastal holiday spots while melting snow caps could spell an end to ski resorts, the United Nations World Tourism Organization has warned, as climate change threatens tourism, a lucrative industry for the world’s poorest nations.

Tourism is what fuels the economy and drives people in poor countries, said Geoffrey Lipman, assistant secretary general of the organization.

Nearly one third of the $735 billion generated by tourism in 2006 went to developing nations, with the industry serving as one of the major export sectors for poor countries.

From 2000-2007, international tourism, the main source of foreign exchange in nearly all of the nations classed as least developed countries recorded 110 per cent growth in these nations.

Although many people look at tourism as a “sort of flippant activity,” they often do not realize that the industry constitutes 5 per cent of economies, having a catalytic effect on a further 5 per cent, Lipman noted.

As a result, “anything which affects the industry has a big spin-off effect on the economy,” he said, pointing to the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom where the “biggest hit came from the reduction in tourism revenues.”

Developing countries, Lipman underscored, are often “unspoiled and undeveloped,” pointing the way towards a new form of ‘green’ tourism.

The industry accounts for 5 per cent of global annual greenhouse gas emissions, most of which can be pinned on air, car, rail and other forms of transportation.

Air transport, in particular, has been targeted for its emissions, but, like other sectors, it has the potential to become more sustainable through implementation of more efficient engines and experimenting with biofuels, among others, Lipman said.

The solution, Lipman stressed, does not lie in curtailing long-haul flights which could hurt the economies of developing nations which rely heavily on tourism for income.

For their part, governments must not consider taxes on travelling as a cash cow and must also not “cynically impose heavy taxes just so they can detract people from flying,” he said.

Climate-induced environmental changes – including water availability, biodiversity, and coastal erosion – will have an impact on tourism, according to a report produced last year by the tourism organization, along with the UN World Meteorological Organization.

For example, changes in agricultural production could hurt wine tourism, while increases in temperature are forecasted to hurt ski resorts in the European Alps, Eastern and Western North America, Australia and Japan. As a result, adaptation to climate change is vital tourism, according to Lipman. Poorer nations must be provided with the necessary technology and financing “to create jobs, not just helping foreign tourists have a good time.”




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