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These stories were published Friday, Nov. 7, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 221
Jo Stuart
About us
Those suburban malls represent a tradeoff
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Yet another mall went into operation last week, and there was a big turnout of political and business figures.

Terra Mall is to the east of San José. It is not the first. Mall San Pedro, Cariari Mall and Multiplaza welcome shoppers seven days a week.

What no one is talking about is the likely effect of these malls on downtown San José and the very real life cycle of any mall. 

Analysis on the news

When malls open, it is inevitable that they also will close, and that usually happens with a lot of official hand-wringing and injection of public money.

The big loser in the equation is San José downtown if events elsewhere can be used to predict what will happen here. Johnny Araya, San José mayor, has embarked on a downtown cleanup, but the goals are modest when one considers the traffic jams, substandard housing and the crime there.

They say Costa Rica is behind the times. It is as far as suburban flight is concerned. Many still see downtown as the commercial center of the metropolitan area. But on the fringes there are slums. Even Avenida 2 has some seriously substandard structures. Parking is a fight, and 
some of the major downtown stores already have their locations in the malls.

Eventually the malls will take more and more from the central business districts. Conservative Ticos are loath to invest even in properous businesses. When colons become tight, downtown facilities will go downhill rapidly.

The life of a mall depends a lot on population shifts. Today’s upscale neighborhood and mall soon will be trumped by yet a fancier mall a few miles away. There is a lot of money in building malls, perhaps more than in leasing them.

Malls eventually lose tenants to more affluent competitors. Investors look for a way out, and sometimes the idea is to dump the place on the municipality. Once-prosperous malls in the United States have become urban renewal areas. Some become offices. Others are just torn down.

The decline usually takes place in secret because news outlets depend on the advertising from malls and fear upsetting customers.  There also is the influence of major real estate owners who aggressively try to protect their investments.

The situation is not final in Costa Rica. Some U.S. cities have downtowns that amount to nothing more than governmental and ceremonial centers. Costa Rica can still maintain a healthy, viable business district.

The way to do that is with a strong merchants’ association that forces its members to advertise regularly and provide strong customer service. Also needed is a municipal government with foresight. What are the chances?

Supermarkets still have a ways to go 
When I first came to Costa Rica I became acquainted with essentially three groceries. The AutoMercardo, Periferico and the Mas x Menos. The AutoMercardo seemed to be the largest and to carry the greatest variety of products (and, important for an expat, they kept importing new items not made here). 

There were others, of course, like the Munoz y Nanne in San Pedro, and Saretto’s in Escazú, both of which were special markets with interesting imports. But neither was convenient to me. Yaohan’s was a Japanese-owned supermarket at the beginning of the Autopista to the airport.

Mas x Menos took back seat to AutoMercado in terms of choice of products produce and attractiveness, and even size.

That is no longer true. It began with the opening of a huge supermarket in San Sebastian called, appropriately, HyperMas. Besides all of the regular market items, there is a restaurant and a section with all kinds of household products including appliances.

The other day I visited the new Mas x Menos in what was once the Yaohan market in La Sabana. It, too, is huge and has the largest selection of meats I have ever seen in a store. Each type of meat and poultry has several cases devoted to it. There are even cases of ready-to-cook marinated meats and poultry. I saw a delmonico-cut steak weighing about three-fourths of a pound for 1,182 colones (about $2.88). There is also a case devoted to free-ranging chicken products.  Large shrimp, even with the U.S. ban on them, are still $29.14 a kilo.

The Deli department is mind-boggling. You can even buy capers and tiny cocktail type onions in bulk. I priced four good sized smoked pork chops at 1,516 colones ($3.69). I walked around the store, making observations, like Evervess seems to have taken over the soda and quinine water franchise, which is unfortunate because I find them anything but effervecent.

The bakery section is a store in itself and has something I haven’t seen before —  a really gooey cinnamon roll ring. Although the girl said they bake on premises, I saw a lot of Pillsbury pastries. 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

Along with all the foodstuffs, of course, are all sorts of household items and paper goods. The store is overwhelming, and walking down the walls of supplies of everything, I felt overwhelmed. 

I was dismayed to see that from the produce department to the bakery section just about everything was pre-sliced and pre-packaged in plastic. Mr. Robinson, or whoever it was who said "Think plastics," was certainly right. On the other hand, at the cafeteria-style restaurant food was served on flimsy paper plates.

At this point I asked an employee for directions to the ladies’ room. It was on the other end of the store and she not only led me to it, she checked the stalls, I guess to see if there was paper there. 

Like the HyperMas, this supermarket is super . . . and feels it. I rather wish that others would take the lead of a supermarket that, believe it or not, opened in my hometown of Jamestown, New York, a town that seems to be frozen in time. (In the wintertime, literally). 

As to this market, which I think is called Wegman’s, I haven’t seen the design elsewhere. It, too, is huge, but each department seems to stand alone and have its own character. 

The feeling shopping there was like walking a street in Paris in the food district. The fresh produce area looks like a farmer’s market, the little restaurant like a sidewalk cafe, the liquor and wine department was a combination of grape arbor and wine cellar. There were no high walls of products threatening to fall on you. 

My understanding is that Mas x Meno is now owned by a Dutch company. Perhaps it will take a Tico company which understands small (although the Dutch certainly should) to come up with a different idea for a supermarket.

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Schoolgirl missing
after leaving school

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica has another case of a missing child. Police began an investigation Thursday when an 8-year-old girl disappeared on the way home from school in El Carmen de Río Cuarto de Grecia.

The girl was identified as Ana Isabel Chamorro. She vanished about midafternoon, and police are taking the case very seriously because the girl’s shoes, her backpack and some of her clothing were found about 1,000 feet from her home.

The girl left school with a friend, but the pair split up before the site of the apparent abduction, said police.

Police from the Ciudad Quesada detachment and the Fuerza Pública dog unit were on the scene last night in the rural area.

A similar case July 4 turned into a murder when the 8-year-old girl’s body was found a week later in a neighbor’s basement in San José.

Big business confab
planned here Monday

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Business leaders plan a big conference Monday centering on free trade and development.

Among those sponsoring the event is the Cámara Costarricense Noreamericana de Comercio, known as Amcham. Also sponsoring is the Asociación de Cámaras Americanas de Comercio, which is headed by James Fendell, a well-known businessman here.

Among the many who will speak at various panels is Anabel González, Costa Rica’s chief negotiator for the Central American free trade treaty with the United States.

Former  President José María Figueres Olsen is on the program, too. He is now with the World Economics Forum.

The event will be at the Costa Rica Marriott west of San José.

U.S. Reps. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and Calvin Dooley (D-Calif.) also are scheduled to attend.

Veterans  Day
celebrated Tuesday

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Tuesday is Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada and the United Kingdom. The date is the day that World War I guns fell silent.

The U.S. Embassy will be closed, officials said Thursday.

The day originally was called Armistice Day and became a U.S. national holiday in 1926.  In 1954 after World War II and the Korean conflict, the U.S. Congress gave the day its present name.

Sunday, the second of the month, is Remembrance Sunday in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Services are held in many churches.

The poppy is the symbol of the fallen servicemen and comes from the John McCrae poem "In Flanders Field" that speaks of the crosses "row on row" in a field covered with poppies, a plant that grows and blooms quickly in disturbed soil.

Despite the significant number of war veterans present in Costa Rica, no announcement has come of ceremonies to mark the day.

Peace Radio plans
to move equipment

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The embattled Radio for Peace international will try to move some of its equipment out of its station over the weekend.

The shortwave radio station is on the campus of the University for Peace, but the last three months have been anything but peaceful.

Finally Wednesday university employees cut off utilities including electricity.

James Latham, chief executive officer,  maintains a vigil at the station, but university police and barbed wire surround the facility. Latham and volunteers have been afraid to leave because they thought they might never be able to return.

Friends have been bringing Latham food by crawling through a hole in a fence. A statement on the station’s Web site said that radio programs might be reborn as an Internet station.

The campus is west of Ciudad Colón. Efforts to engage the university in court are made complex by its international status.

The university is a United Nations-sponsored facility. The Radio for Peace International is a separate, non-profit organization that raises its own funds and built its own building on the university campus. On July 21, the university asked it to leave. All agree the radio station owes the university money.

In mid-August both sides agreed to negotiate. The first public sign that the negotiations had ended unsuccessfully came when the utilities were cut Wednesday.

Poverty statistics
cheer president

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco is taking credit for what appears to be a slight decrease in the number of Costa Ricans living in poverty. That number dropped about 2 percent to 18.5 percent for 2003.

The figures are based on a survey done by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censo which  interviews some 13,000 residents and compared their status with economic indicators to see if they were in poverty or not.

Reducing poverty is one of Pacheco’s key goals.

Theater group seeks actors

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Little Theatre Group plans auditions Saturday for some cast members of the December production of "The Candy Coated Castle's Catastrophe."

A spokesman said the group needs a teenage male who can sing, a 20ish, athletic, attractive female, two teenage or elementary age boys and one male age 20 or older.

The auditions will be at the theater in Bello Horizonte at 2 p.m. Saturday.

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U.S. tries to tie hemisphere together with digital tv 
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Commerce is providing funding for a hemispheric digital television initiative that the agency says will help stimulate more than $7.8 billion in U.S. exports to Latin America over the next decade.

Commerce Deputy Secretary Sam Bodman said Thursday his agency has awarded almost $400,000 to the Advanced Television Systems Committee  Forum for the initiative. Bodman said that in addition to helping Latin America, the initiative will create nearly 156,000 jobs for U.S. workers by 2014.

Bodman said the U.S. partnership with the ATSC Forum "reflects the Bush administration's commitment to opening new markets, creating and sustaining high-quality jobs, and encouraging the right conditions for American businesses to innovate, compete, and prosper."

The ATSC Forum educates broadcasters, manufacturers, government policy-makers and others regarding digital television services. The Forum advocates for adoption of ATSC standards regarding digital television.

The new initiative, said Bodman, will help increase exports from small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S. television industry, such as the manufacturers of software, transmission equipment, receivers, and semiconductors.

The Bush administration has advanced what it calls the "One Hemisphere" initiative to create common markets for North and South America by promoting uniform standards in the region for the next wave of technological upgrades. Such upgrades are expected to be seen in the hemisphere's free over-the-air broadcasting infrastructure. Digital television promoters say the new technology can dramatically expand and improve on the variety of programs being shown to viewers.

Nancy Victory, head of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said in a July 2002 speech that her agency has worked with the ATSC and the U.S. State Department to promote a single digital television initiative standard throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Developing a single standard was "key to supporting our manufacturing and technology industries, as well as to supporting employment," Ms. Victory said. "We will continue efforts to realize a common hemisphere standard" for the digital television initiative.

The Commerce Department said the funds for the digital initiative will help give the ATSC Forum the maximum leverage in encouraging policy-makers and industry leaders in Latin America to adopt advanced television-system standards. Decisions on those standards are expected in Brazil, Mexico, and Chile in late 2003 or early 2004, said the Commerce Department.

The department said the new digital initiative stems from U.S. industry concerns that foreign standards and technical regulation issues are among the greatest obstacles to U.S. exports.

With that in mind, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. announced Oct. 21 that it was establishing a $150-million support facility to help the Brazilian information technology sector. The facility will enable U.S. firms to access loan guarantees and political risk insurance for communications and information technology projects in Brazil.

Peter Watson, president of the Overseas  Investment Corp. said in making the announcement that the economies of the Americas are closely linked. Brazil and the United States, he said, can help the region achieve superior performance by working together to create common hemispheric standards through practical business partnerships. . . "

Mexican high court opens way for delayed justice
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEXICO CITY, México — The Mexican Supreme Court has opened the way for prosecution of officials who participated in the country's so-called "dirty war" against political insurgents and activists during the 1960s and 1970s. But some members of victims' families are still doubtful that justice will be done.

The court ruling Wednesday concerned the case of Jesus Piedra Ibarra, who disappeared in the northern city of Monterrey in 1975. The court ruled that there is no statute of limitations for cases in which the victim is still missing. 

The ruling sent the case back to a court in Monterrey, where two police officers could now face trial for the abduction of Piedra Ibarra.

Human rights activists hailed the ruling as a major step toward resolving the hundreds of cases of alleged torture, abduction, and murder that took place during that turbulent time. The ruling was also seen as a victory for President Vicente Fox, who appointed a special prosecutor to look into the cases.

But the mother of Jesus Piedra Ibarra, Rosario Ibarra, says she is not yet ready to celebrate.

She says this was an essential step, but that it comes very late. She says she wants to see all the officials responsible for the illegal actions against activists go to jail, and she also wants to know what happened to her son and other victims of the dirty war. She also expresses fear that some other legal action will occur to block the court's ruling.

There is speculation here in Mexico that the court ruling could lead to further prosecution against former police and military officials. There is also the possibility of legal action against former President Luis Echevarria and other government officials from that time.

Many of the victims of the Mexican dirty war were political activists who opposed the one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ended with the July 2000 election that Fox and his party won.

But many of the victims, like Piedra Ibarra, were members of communist insurgent groups that were involved in bank robberies and other violent acts. 

Human rights activists say it is important that the current government and justice system pursue these cases in order to show that there is no justification for official actions that violate the law and international human rights standards. 

Jo Stuart
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