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(506) 223-1327          Published Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006, in Vol. 6, No. 218        E-mail us    
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China's growing Latin presence raises some concerns
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire services reports

China is rapidly expanding its economic activities in Latin America, raising some concerns about its presence in what has been traditionally the American sphere of influence.

The growth of influence puts pressure on Costa Rica which traditionally has supported Taiwan, a country China considers a breakaway province.

The president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, notes that economic activity between China and Latin America has multiplied in recent years.

"Exports to China increased by 20 from 1990 to 2005, from just under $1.3 billion to over $26 billion," he said. "Chinese exports to our region exploded by 30 during the 1990 to 2005 period, from just under $650 million in 1990, to over $22.7 billion in 2005."

He spoke recently at the bank's headquarters in Washington, where he gave the keynote address at a first-of-its-kind meeting held to examine the connections between Asia and Latin America.

Latin America, largely because of its exports of oil, natural gas, agricultural products and minerals, enjoys a trade surplus with China.

China also has a strong interest in Panamá and its canal which is a lifeline for the Asian country.

Carolyn Bartholomew, of the congressional advisory body, the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission, says China's trading patterns raise concerns about the country's intentions.

"There is a growing unease in Latin America, and I think in some places in Africa, about is this essentially just a new form of colonialism, that it is essentially about resource extraction, and it is not about development," she said.

On the security front, Anthony Harrington, former U.S. ambassador to Brazil and president of consulting company Stonebridge International, says Washington should not view China's growing presence in Latin America as a threat.

"I would say most observers, and I would agree, do not see this phenomenon as China's looking at Latin America as a base for projecting military and security interests, but rather for trade and investment focus," he said.

Some Latin leaders see China's interest in the region and its need for resources in a positive light. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez visited China in August and began steps to sell the country some 500,000 barrels of oil a day within five years.

Still, U.S. trade and investment in Latin America dwarf Chinese economic activity there.

"And there are the natural advantages of geographic proximity and the associated transportation costs," Harrington said. "There is the cultural relationship,
and the enhancement of that relationship through the large quantity of migration that occurs in the region. So, the ties that bind are rather strong."

At the same time, Harrington says the U.S. government should spend a little more time in the region and pay a little more attention to its own "back yard."

Singapore's ambassador to the United States, Heng Chee Chan, agrees that as China expands its activity in the Western Hemisphere there will be legitimate concerns.

"I think there is some competition between the United States and China in Latin America," she said. "Whenever a country begins from zero and someone is there, a status quo player will see the new entrant as a competitor."

But she said the spotlight on China is as passing as was the focus on Japan some decades ago.

"There was a period in the 1970s and 1980s, and up to early 1990s, that Southeast Asia was very taken with Japan," she said. "And the world was taken with Japan. And this goes on for awhile, until some new player comes up and attention shifts."

There was an uproar in conservative U.S. circles in 1999 when the United States turned over control of the canal to Panamá and a Hong Kong company with close ties to China ended up in control of ports at either end. China has continued to increase its economic holdings in the strategic spot.

Chile's Ambassador to the United States, Mariano Fernández said the competition between the United States and China is not a Latin American issue.

"You know, this is an American discussion," he said. "It is an American discussion if China is playing a key role in Latin America, or not."

Fernández said his country seeks to maintain good, neighborly relations with the United States, while at the same time, develop better ties with China.

"We are adding new complexity, nuances," he said. "And we will emphasize that our relation, developing a good relation with China and with Asia, have nothing to do, in my opinion, with creating an alternative to United States. No, it is just that we are developing, and the world is globalized."

He said China's growing presence in Latin America is still a relatively recent development.

Costa Rica has benefited from many gifts from Taiwan, including road construction and the Puente Amistad over the Río Tempisque in Guanacaste. In addition, the salaries of a number of key employees of the Costa Rican central government has been subsidized for years by a local foundation that gets all its funds from Taiwan.

Two weeks ago the Fuerza Públic got $2 million from Taiwan to buy much-needed police vehicles.

In exchange, Costa Rica has backed Taiwan in international forums, like the United Nations.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 218

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Gunmen kill driver
and wound passenger

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two men on a motorcycle killed the driver of a car and badly wounded his passenger about 5 p.m. Wednesday at a traffic circle in Zapote in east San José.

The gunman or men wanted to be sure so at least 23 bullets were pumped into the two men.

The dead man is Diego López, who moved here two years ago from Colombia. His passenger was Roy Lindo Calvo, a resident of the Provincia de Limón. Lindo was on his way to a bus station when the killing took place.

Policía de Tránsito officers were nearby but said they did not see the crime because of heavy rain. The shooting took place at a period of peak traffic, the start of the evening rush hour.

Police said they found a substantial amount of money in the vehicle and other evidence that the crime was drug-related.

Robbery on bus ends
with death of suspect

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two men posing as passengers tried to stick up the driver of a bus bound for Heredia Tuesday night, but one of the passengers was a law enforcement agent who carried a gun.

The Judicial Investigating Organization agent killed one man and critically wounded a second.

The crime of robbery on a bus is not unusual. The Judicial Investigating Organization said Wednesday that 101 such incidents have taken place already this year. Most crimes happen after 6 p.m., and the robber has a gun.

That was the case Tuesday when the bandits made their move as the bus passed through La Uruca on the Autopista General Cañas. There were some 26 passengers on the bus when the pair started pistol whipping the driver. The judicial agent was sitting near the driver and fired at both men.

The dead man fell from the bus into a ditch. His companion tried to get away but collapsed not far from where the bus stopped.

The Judicial Investigating Organization released the bus statistics at the request of newspeople. They show that so far there were 49 bus stickups in the Provencia de Limón already this year and 47 in the Provincia de San José. The Provincia de Heredia had only three cases. The robbery attempt Tuesday is listed as a San José crime because of where it took place.

Some 69 holdups took place between 6 p.m. and midnight and 82 involved guns, the statistics say.

In the Provincia de San José, 19 robberies took place in the central canton of San José, 13 took place in the Cantón de Goicoechea to the north and five in Desamparados to the south.

Riot police reopen part
of downtown Oaxaca

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Mexican police have reopened a central square in the city of Oaxaca after clearing out protesters demanding that the state governor resign.

Witnesses said federal police cleaned up trash and painted over graffiti left by activists who launched the protests five months ago.  Some foreign tourists also returned to the popular vacation spot on Tuesday.

Protesters, however, remain in control of many other parts of the city.  And organizers say they will not quit the protests until Gov. Ulises Ruiz resigns over corruption allegations. At least nine people, including a U.S. journalist, have been killed in the crisis in recent weeks.

A United Nations human rights expert says he has received reports of abuse by paramilitary groups in the crackdown. He urged Mexico's government to investigate the claims of murder and arbitrary detention.

Trafficking in ballplayers
charged in Florida case

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A Los Angeles-based sports agent has been charged by U.S. federal authorities with smuggling Cuban baseball players into the United States.

Gustavo Dominguez and four other defendants were indicted Tuesday in a federal court in the southern U.S. state of Florida. They are charged with conspiracy to bring aliens illegally into the United States, transporting them in violation of the law, and concealing and harboring them from detection.

The five men allegedly tried to smuggle Cuban ballplayers into the U.S. in July 2004 aboard a boat that was intercepted by authorities at sea. Prosecutors say they successfully smuggled 19 Cubans into Florida a month later, and eventually transported them to California.

Truck had rich cargo

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Judicial agents and prosecutors stopped a truck driver at the Penas Blanca border crossing and said they found nearly $2 million in cash in the container he was transporting.

The early morning arrest left the man, identified by the last names of Montenegro Vega, facing allegations of money laundering related to drug trafficking.

The man lives in San José, and agents said the truck destination was Costa Rica.

Crash takes pilot's life

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A morning plane crash took the life of the pilot Wednesday. The crash happened in a rural area near Monteverde about 5:40 a.m.

Dead was Jaime Argudo. He was alone in the six-passenger plane that he was flying from Juan Santamaría airport in Alajuela to Liberia.

There was no immediate reason for the crash but some type of mechanical failure is suspected.
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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 218

New traffic law proposal too tough and not tough enough
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Arias administration proposed revamp of the highway laws needs to get a hard look in the legislature.

The specifics reported Wednesday include a top fine of 280,000 ($538.50) for violations like drunk driving and engaging in drag races. Lesser violations, like not using a seat belt would cost 180,000 colons ($346.15). There also would be a system of points. 

A driver who loses all his points to violations also would lose the driver's license for a while.

An A.M. Costa Rica editorial

Costa Ricans say that the fines are too steep to pay. The result would be to suspend licenses which would then mean more fines for driving on the suspended list. And these fines would not be paid either.

In a country where immigration officials cannot keep track of legal foreigners, there is a very low probability that the complex system announced by the Arias administration would work. Plus the penalties are too light for serious violations and too heavy for others.

The new laws also fail to take note that the state itself is a major killer. Officials built highways without shoulders and forced rural residents to walk on the asphalt.  Those yellow hearts painted on the highway surface not only mark the location of a road death but where the state failed a citizen.
By simply moving a bus stop a few hundred meters, officials eliminated the need for bus passengers to cross the high-traffic Autopista Próspero Fernández at Multiplaza in Escazú. But how long did it take to make
this decision? How many hearts are on the highway?

And didn't it take a Sala IV constitutional court decision to get the government to construct some pedestrian bridges over busy highways?

The Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transporte seems to be a home for persons who love to make strict laws. Frequently the result is overkill. These are the folks who brought the citizens revisión técnica and the Rube Goldberg machines that shake and rattle a car to see if it is sound. And now there are 80,000 vehicles running around without safety approval from revisión técnica because the tests are too tough.

The transport ministry bureaucrats have hatched a license for Policía de Tránsito officers to be secure in their old age. Will the driver without a seat belt give the officer 20,000 colons or accept a fine for 180,000 colons ($346.15)? Of course, there will be a tougher law against bribing a policeman. The fine would be 280,000 colons and a new internal affairs unit would be set up to police the police.

Legislators should seek other solutions than just fines and loss of driving points and let the punishment fit the crime. A $50 fine (not $346.15) sends a message to wear the seat belt. But drunk drivers and those who engage in drag races should go to jail at least for 60 days. They should not be able to walk for $538.50.

Arias administration delighted with 38 votes on treaty issue
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Arias administration is interpreting a 38-18 vote in the Asamblea Legislativa as an indication of how lawmakers will vote on the free trade treaty with the United States.

The vote came Tuesday on a procedural matter, but 38 represents two-thirds of the lawmakers, and most constitutional authorities have said that two-thirds is necessary to pass the treaty.

Rodrigo Arias Sánchez, the minister of the Presidencia and the brother to the president, said Wednesday that five political parties united to free the treaty from being hostage to a committee. There were his Partido Liberación Nacional, Movimiento Libertario, Partido Social Cristiana, and Unión Nacional and Restauración Nacional.

The measure is being studied in the Comisión de Asuntos Internacionales and some in the executive branch, including Rodrigo Arias, think the study has gone on long enough.

Technically, the vote Tuesday in the assembly was to reject an appeal by treaty opponents. They wanted to set aside an edict by Francisco Antonio Pacheco, the assembly president that gave the committee until Dec. 12 to report the free trade treaty out for discussion in the full assembly. So 38 lawmakers sided with Pacheco and voted no.
The committee has held some 50 hearings with those in favor and against the free trade treaty. But treaty opponents wanted to hear more witnesses. But the committee has cut off outside testimony and began this week discussing the treaty among the members, a necessary step for a final vote.

Rodrigo Arias also said that the executive branch considers the free trade treaty the most important piece of pending legislation and will put it No. 1 on the agenda for the so-called extraordinary session that begins Dec. 1. During periods not specified in the Constitution for the legislature to meet, the executive branch can call lawmakers to convene and set the agenda.

Rodrigo Arias also said that legislation to implement the free trade treaty also would be at the top of the list. These include a measure to strengthen the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, one to open the insurance monopoly to outside competition and several other legal changes required by the treaty.

The use of the extraordinary session raises the possibility that the legislature may vote on ratification of the treaty before Christmas.

Meanwhile, the  Comisión de Asuntos Internacionales has decided to add extra sessions to its deliberation so it can meet the deadline.

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Panamá emerges as the compromise candidate for U.N. seat
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Venezuela and Guatemala have ended their battle for an open U.N. Security Council seat from Latin America. Both countries agreed to withdraw in favor of Panamá.

The breakthrough came late Wednesday, after talks between the Venezuelan and Guatemalan foreign ministers.

The struggle for the two-year Security Council seat had dragged on in the U.N. General Assembly for more than two weeks and 47 ballots. Guatemala held a substantial lead over Venezuela, but not enough to secure the necessary two-thirds majority.

Venezuela, however, refused to concede defeat. Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez had portrayed the race as a struggle against U.S. dominance in the region. Venezuelan diplomats described Guatemala as a U.S. stooge.

Washington had openly backed Guatemala, arguing that a Chavez-led Venezuela would be a disruptive influence on the Security Council.

After agreeing to withdraw his country's candidacy, Guatemala's Foreign Minister Gert Rosenthal said American
backing had been a mixed blessing. "Their support was a double-edged sword, in some areas it probably damaged our campaign, in other areas it helped, but it really was not the main theme. We believe this was a contest between two Latin American states for one vacancy. We would like it to be perceived as such. This is not about the United States, it's about Latin America's seat in the Security Council," he said.

Rosenthal said Guatemala had withdrawn despite its clear lead in the balloting because Venezuela clearly had enough committed support to prevent a Guatemalan victory. He vowed to try again. "We would have preferred for our competitors to step down so that we could take the seat. They didn't opt for that solution, so instead of dragging this on for another month or two, we felt the time had come to step down and let a sister state take the role of the Latin American group," he said.

The choice of Panamá must still be endorsed by the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries, and then approved by the General Assembly. But both are considered a formality.

When elected, Panamá will replace Argentina on the council for a two-year term beginning Jan. 1. Peru holds the other elected Latin American seat on the 15-member Council.

Police station attack in Colombia leaves 16 officers dead
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Colombian police say leftist guerrillas killed 16 officers and injured several others in an attack on a police station.

Officials say rebels used homemade mortars in the attack, which also damaged nearby buildings in the northern town of Tierradentro.

Military officials deployed aircraft to help troops restore order following the attack early Wednesday.
Government forces recently returned to the area, after right-wing paramilitaries agreed to hand over control and open peace talks.

Leaders of the rebel Fuerza Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia have rejected calls from President Alvaro Uribe to open talks to end decades of fighting.

Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict involving rebels, paramilitaries and Colombia's armed forces.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 218


These members of a Toronto, Canada, bike club were fresh off the plane Wednesday at Juan Santamaría airport ready to warm up for the La Ruta de Los Conquistadores race that starts Friday morning in Jacó. Participants who finish end up in Moín, Limón, Sunday.

The airport is full of baggage handlers wrestling with ample  plastic and cardboard boxes containing bikes worth more than the editor's car.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas

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