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(506) 223-1327             Published Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 216                  E-mail us
Jo Stuart
Real Estate
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More lights at public parks are supposed to enhance citizen security
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Officials celebrated the installation of more lights at local parks with a ceremony in Parque España Tuesday at dusk.

Some 33 ornamental lamp posts have been set up in the east side of the downtown park. Each is 3.5 meters (about 11.5 feet) in height with 150-watt bulbs. Similar setups have been installed in seven Central Valley parks, including around the central lake in Parque La Sabana and in Parque Central de Alajuela. Nine more parks will get additional lighting.

The theory is that better lighting will increase citizen security. Parque España, bordered on the north by Avenida 7, in an area that is favored at night by transvestite prostitutes. One was murdered there earlier this year.

The valley-wide lighting scheme cost some 400 million colons, about $770,000. The European Union donated half of the money, and the remainder came from the government.
Johnny Araya in park
A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
 Johnny Araya, San José mayor, at left, strolls  
 in the park under new lighting.

Traditional answer to U.S. Halloween is Día de la Mascarada
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Residents will don their devil masks and march through the streets of Frailes, in Desamparados, Sunday as part of the Día de la Mascarada, Costa Rica's traditional answer to October's Halloween festivities.

Children will be encouraged to forget mass-produced Halloween costumes in favor of traditionally made masks, and to take part in cultural activities that have roots in their nation's history. The mascarada, which dates back to the colonial period in Central Valley, will see a procession of characters including giants and elves making its way through the town, which lies about an hour south of San José.

The event became an established part of the calendar a decade ago, in an effort to steer the focus away from the Americanized but originally Celtic holiday of Halloween.

Oct. 31 was officially made el Día de la Mascarada in 1997, and it has been a colorful annual celebration ever since.

With more and more children heading out to trick or treat their neighbors in recent years, Halloween is gaining an increasing foothold in Costa Rica under the name of the fiesta de brujas, but the residents of Frailes emphasize the importance of observing the nation's original day of the supernatural.
Carlos Solis, a regional promoter for the Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes, said that the annual festival brings citizens closer to their national traditions and also recognises the artistry of the mask makers.

This year Frailes will stage the celebration Nov. 4, a few days after the official date.

The parade will end up in the communal salon of Frailes, where community groups including those from Coronado, Curridabat and San Cristobal, will make musical and dance presentations from 1 p.m.  The festival will be rounded off with a concert led by singer Carlos Guzman at 3 p.m.

In Asserí, it's tonight

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Residents of Aserrí will mark the  Día de la Mascarada Tradicional tonight with a celebration that begins at 6:30 o'clock. Some 250 masked participants, musicians and folkloric dancers will parade through the community to the Palacio Municipal de Aserrí.

The Asociación Cívico Cultural Aqueserrí is sponsoring the event. The community is south of San José in the mountains. Participants also are expected from San Antonio,  San Rafael Arriba and San Juan de Dios, all Desamparados.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 216

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Reports say home prices
continue to fall in U.S.

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A new report says U.S. home prices continued to fall in August, declining 5 percent over the past year. Tuesday's report from Standard & Poors and Case-Shiller tracks home prices in cities across the United States.

The housing sector's problems have been made worse by defaults among subprime borrowers. That has prompted investors to avoid lending even to well-qualified borrowers.

Economists tell journalists that they are worried falling home prices will make homeowners curb spending. Consumer demand drives about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, so declining consumer spending raises the risk of recession.

The risk of a shrinking economy is one of many things that top officials from the U.S. central bank, known as the Federal Reserve, are considering as they decide whether to cut interest rates to boost the economy. They are scheduled to announce a decision today.

Our readers' opinions
U.S. property market mess
a lesson for owners here

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:
Thank you for the recent article regarding Blue Sky Drunks as well as today's article on property valuations.  Hopefully it will instill a sense of caution into the real estate investors, flippers, etc. 

If anyone still thinks the sky's the limit, please look at what is happening to the real estate market in the U.S.  The whole mortgage meltdown mess, new articles everyday on major financiers taking huge writeoffs.  South Florida where I live is one of four areas being hit the hardest in the U.S.  Also Las Vegas, California, and Arizona.  All desirable places to live like Costa Rica. 

Many developments, whether they be condos or complete large scale subdivisions, sit half or more empty.  Just read the many articles in the daily papers of each of these metro areas as a clue as to what will come in C.R. if this rapid escalation continues.  A large percentage of empty investor units is a key indicator to look at. 

The Miami condo market was going sky high a year and a half ago with 2/2s in average areas going for up to $600K.  Now that same unit sold in auction for half, and we are going to see more and more of this.
D. Fenton
West Palm — Miami, Florida

Local real estate  outside
reach of most Ticos

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Costa Rica’s real estate boom is driving up by pure speculation, and it’s unsustainable.

"Current American history shows tangible proofs that the speculation beast, once freed by greed and deception, will sink its fangs into both men and nature, swallowing the whole landscape.  As a result, our world could be awfully transformed in a gloomy realm of negative equity and amortization.  But reckoning days are coming!"

Costa Rica’s real estate prices have been driven up purely by speculation. Panamá, Mexico and certain areas in Nicaragua and Honduras are following a very similar trend. Commonly, one in 10 buyers is a real end-user and around 90 perccent are housing flippers, the same street-smart species that caused the doomed U.S. housing bubble in closed association with greedy developers and restless mortgage bankers.

There are two local markets: one for the well-off foreigners and another for locals. Costa Rica’s GDP per capita has grown up to U.S. $406 monthly in 2006, third in the region, less than Honduras ($409) and Panama ($411), as per the most recent statistics available at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Average salaries are far less than US $500 monthly here!

U.S. housing bust and credit crunch, caused by subprime and ill-rated AAA bonds backed by mortgages, have been denting the baby boomers wealth in an unprecedented manner. How many of them will be prone to buy overpriced condos and houses in Central America? The local and regional construction boom does not correlate with the amount of North Americans or European foreigners applying for permanent residency in Costa Rica, Panamá and Central America.

Considering living standards and building costs, suitable properties are actually over-valued. Profiteers are surreptitiously trying to convince foreigners that it is possible to own a share of “paradise” for a bargain.  Compared to what, Miami Beach or Côte d'Azur? 

Low purchasing power keeps most Ticos out of this deceptive equation while the wealthy among them are just too smart.  Considering the huge income gap in infrastructure, security and average earnings between U.S.A. and Costa Rica, real estate properties are ridiculously overpriced and totally out of touch with Costa Rica’s living standards.

Another concern, directly affecting economic sustainability, arises from the construction boom leaving behind most locals.  They benefit neither from better housing nor from the wealth does it create.  A low monthly average income around $411 makes most locals totally unfit for mortgages ranking from $150,000-$300,000 in any suitable dwellings.

Lacking in local buyers support, Costa Rica’s housing boom relies almost absolutely on foreign demand.  Consequently, if boomers fail to show in big numbers, there will be trouble in this so-called “paradise,” which pollutes its rivers with 97 percent of raw wastewater and has actually some popular beaches polluted with high levels of fecal bacteria.

In a recent report analyzing Central America’s housing boom, The Financial Times warned about the fact that the median sales price of new condos is actually getting higher than the median sales price of existing single-family homes in America!

According to the London’s newspaper, the “baby boomers” could start to lose interest in buying a second home or a two-bedroom apartment that could be bought for the same or even less in America!
Ann Hench

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 216

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Azucar restaurant

Pity the pigeons

The poor pigeons at the Plaza de la Cultura had to fend for themselves Tuesday.

Workmen closed off the popular plaza to fix leaks into the museums below, and there were no visitors to throw corn to the birds.

Vacant Plaza de la Cultura
A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas

Law enforcement official faces allegation of accepting bribe in murder probe
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Judicial Investigating Organization said Tuesday that agents had detained a law enforcement officer who accepted a bribe to hide clues in a murder investigation.

The man was identified by the last names of Chavarría Vargas but his exact agency was not disclosed. He was described as an administrative officer.

The judicial police said the case started July 5 at the scene of a murder in the Residencial Los Jardines in Alajuela. According to the allegation, Chavarría made overtures to the principal suspect in the case and offered to help him by
making evidence disappear.

The suspect initially paid the law officer 75,000 colons, some $144, according to the allegation. When the law officer sought 50,000 more, some $96, the murder suspect contacted investigations who staged a sting with marked money, they said. The law officer was detained when the money changed hands Tuesday, they said.

The Judicial Investigating Organization did not say what murder was the origin of the case. But the only such crime reported July 5, according to news archives, was that of a homeowner who chased down and shot dead a man who tried to break into his home.

Legislative commission takes step to free Correos de Costa Rica from restrictions
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A legislative commission Tuesday sent to the full Asamblea Legislativa a measure that would free Correos de Costa Rica from budgetary limitations and allow it to compete with private enterprises on an equal footing.

National budget laws that apply to state agencies prevent the postal service from making certain contracts, representatives of that agency have said. Among other
enhancements, the postal agency wants to offer couriers, messengers and similar services.

Correos also would have more freedom in setting salaries.

Right now if a new opportunity presented itself, the postal service would have to cut through lots of red tape in order to obtain budget approval to do the work, lawmakers were told. The measure was in the hands of the Comisión de Gobierno y Administración.

Polish donations result in the delivery of three church bells to town of Upala
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The northern Costa Rican town of Upala is getting three bells for its Catholic church, thanks to a donation from the people of Poland.

And Casa Presidencial interceded to make sure that customs officials did not levy an import tax on the three bronze bells, officials said Tuesday.

The town won't hear the bells for awhile. The church belfry is in a deteriorated condition and has to be fixed up, representatives of the church said. The town is close to the border with Nicaragua.
Andrzej  Braiter, the Polish ambassador, was among those at Casa Presidencial Tuesday to participate in a ceremony transferring the bells to the Upala church.

The Polish donors did not know Upala, but officials in Casa Presidencial had the job of finding a rural church outside the metropolitan area in need of bells.

Mariángela Ortiz, in charge of the social welfare office of the Presidencia, noted that bells are important to Catholic ritual, sounding for times of festival, emergency and times of mourning. The bells are valued at $5,000, and the money comes from funds collected by Missionaries of the Divine Word in Poland.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 216

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U.S. Congress close to dumping diversity visa lottery
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The United States is now accepting entries for its annual visa lottery, which has brought more than 500,000 immigrants into the country since 1995. But the lottery faces an uncertain future. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have approved a bill to eliminate funding for the program.

Foreign nationals in pursuit of life in the United States can now apply online for the 2009 Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. The deadline for filing applications is Dec. 2. 

Each year, the State Department program awards 50,000 permanent residency visas, known as "green cards," through a random lottery. In the 2007 lottery 18 Costa Rican residents were named as winners. That number is similar to results in previous years.

The lottery was created in 1990 and designed to bring in people from nations that have not had large numbers of emigrants to the United States.

Though controversial in the United States, the visa lottery is immensely popular around the world. Last year's drawing attracted more than 6.4 million entries — the majority from Africa and Asia.

"Congress created the diversity visa program in order to expand the diversity of the immigrant population in the United States. It's designed to allow immigration from countries where there aren't traditionally a lot of immigrants to the United States," said Tony Edson, deputy assistant secretary for visa services.

Diversity visas are distributed according to geographical region, with more going to areas with lower rates of emigration.

Natives of countries that sent more than 50,000 emigrants during the previous five years do not qualify for the program. This year's lottery has about 20 ineligible nations, including Mexico, India, China and Russia.

Applicants to the visa lottery must have either a high school diploma or at least two years work experience in a field requiring at least two years of training.

But Bryan Griffith of the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent research institute, says those requirements are not enough. "There is no guarantee that they will contribute well for society or economically. It takes a little more than a high school degree for the most part to be able to compete well in this country in this age," he said.
The lottery's minimal requirements also make it vulnerable to fraud. The State Department keeps secret the names of winners, so there is no way of knowing the circumstances of those who won.

A report by the Government Accountability Office last month uncovered widespread use of fake documents, such as marriage licenses and passports. The office also found that people posing as visa facilitators prey on lottery entrants by charging large sums of money to help them.

Critics say the program's potential for fraud poses a national security threat, opening the door for terrorists to enter the country.

In 2003, the State Department's Inspector General raised concerns that people from countries labeled state sponsors of terrorism can apply for diversity visas. About 9,800 such people have come to the United States.

Edson says these concerns are being addressed. "We certainly provide extra scrutiny to applicants from countries that are designated state sponsors of terrorism, but we feel that the scrutiny we're giving to these applications, the care with which they're screened and interviewed, are adequate to ensure the integrity of the visa process and the security of our borders," he said.

Washington D.C. Immigration attorney Glen Wasserstein has worked with people who came through the diversity visa program. He says the immigrants the lottery helps are not criminals or terrorists, but ordinary people with a dream. "A lot of good people that have gotten here on the lottery had no other means to get here, so I do believe that it sort of gives the chance of the American dream to millions of people who have no other traditional chance," he said.

But they might not get the chance much longer. The House of Representatives passed a bill in June which would eliminate funding for the program. The Senate approved the same bill in September. It now goes to a conference committee of senators and representatives to work out differences. In 2005, a bill to abolish the lottery passed in the House, but did not pass in the Senate.

Diversity visa winners are only a small part of the immigrant flow. The Department of Homeland Security reports diversity visas accounted for just 3.5 percent of the more than 1.2 million green cards issued in 2006.

Most immigrants come to the United States through programs that allow entry for those with family ties, employment sponsors or refugee status.

Former U.S. diplomat here presents credentials as ambassador in Venezuela
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The new U.S. ambassador to Venezuela has met with President Hugo Chávez in Caracas to discuss ways of improving relations between the two countries.

The ambassador, Patrick Duddy presented his credentials to Chávez Monday, two months after arriving in the Venezuelan capital. Photographs showed both men smiling as they chatted.  Duddy once served in Costa Rica.

A Venezuelan television network, Globovision, quotes Duddy as saying he and Chávez discussed a wide range of issues, including their determination to cooperate in fighting drug trafficking.

Earlier this month, senior U.S. diplomat Thomas Shannon met Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro in New York for talks Venezuela described as "very cordial". Shannon said he expressed an interest in visiting Caracas.
Diplomatic contacts between the U.S. and Venezuela are infrequent. Washington accuses Chávez of being a destabilizing force in Latin America, while the Venezuelan leader is a fierce critic of the Bush administration.

Duddy most recently served as deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs under Shannon. He has also served as the U.S. consul general in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia.

In addition to Costa Rica, Duddy has served at U.S. embassies in Chile, the Dominican Republic, Uraguay and Panamá.

Originally of Bangor, Maine, Duddy received his undergraduate degree from Colby College and a master's degree from Northeastern University. He is also a graduate of the National War College where he received a master's degree in National Security Strategy.

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