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(506) 2223-1327       Published Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008,  in Vol. 8, No. 229       E-mail us
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Costa Rica has economic stimulus plan of its own
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The world economy may be dragging, but Costa Rica will soon see a stimulus program of its own, a traditional one.

Fast approaching is the time when employers have
to come up with the aguinaldos for their workers. Some 1.7 million workers in private industry will share in 426 billion colons or about $774 million, according to an employer's group. That works out to about $467 per worker. Although the actual figure is based on the year's salary. Santa and money

The alguinaldo, the so-called 13th month's pay, is so enshrined in tradition and the country's labor law that there are few employers going around like Ebenezer Scrooge claiming "It's a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every 25th of December." There sill are a few employers who try to stiff their workers and end up in labor court each year.

George Bush distributed up to $1,000 to each U.S. taxpayer, and Barack Obama is considering another stimulus payment when he gets in the White House. The impact of aguinaldos in Costa Rica is far greater than anything seen with the Bush program.

Stores will raise their prices. Crooks will patrol the streets and automatic teller machines. But in
general everyone will have a happy face as they go Christmas shopping with the salary bonanza. Public employees will be getting their alguinaldo, too.

It was the Unión Costarricense de Cámaras y Asociaciones del Sector Empresarial Privado that estimated the alguinaldo payment this year based on the most recent household survey by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos.
 
The employer group said that alguinaldos will be about 3 percent more in real terms this year than in 2007. That is because there are  21,437 more workers this year, and the average income is up about 1.57 percent, the organization said.

According to the law, employers must make this payment in the first 20 days of December. The good news is that no social charges to the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social are levied on the payments.
 
Most employers have been planning for months by stashing cash. Nearly all work alguinaldo into their annual budget. Some who do not might be expats who employ just one or two workers in the home. Even part-timers are due their alguinaldo, and those who get meals or housing expect to be compensated for those benefits when the employer makes the payment.

The payments represent a boon for national tourism, which has been struggling lately. Many families invest the alguinaldo in a Christmas stay at the beach or in the mountains.



No response reported to letter-writing campaign
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some expats are expressing dismay at the reception, or rather the lack of reception, shown by Asamblea Legislativa lawmakers.

The expats are those who sent e-mails to a handful of lawmakers about the proposed immigration bill.

None reported getting a response, although several said the e-mail address provided with a sample letter Monday bounced. The addresses came from the Asamblea Legislativa Web site. Others reported no problem with the addresses.

Several certified their e-mails by programming a
 return receipt. One provided evidence that his e-mail was deleted without being read.

Costa Rican lawmakers serve just one term and have to sit out for at least four years before their political party puts them on the ticket again. Some return to private life but others accept other political positions outside of the legislature.

The expats wanted to protest with a form letter the proposal to jack up the financial requirements for pensionados and rentistas. The letter was drafted in Spanish.

Monday was a big day at the legislature because the president of China, Hu Jintao, visited briefly.


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Vehicle insurance hike
turned back by regulator


Special to A.M. Costa Rica

In one of its first acts as the temporary insurance regulator, Costa Rica’s pensions supervisor has refused a 14 percent increase in the obligatory vehicle insurance that is part of the annual registration. The increase was sought by the Instituto Nacional de Seguros to cover inflation and provide funds for its master plan on health insurance.

A new insurance superintendent will regulate the business when the market is fully opened to competition next year. However, the basic personal liability coverage that is part of the registration will remain with the Instituto Nacional de Seguros until 2011. It will continue to cover 3 million colons per person in personal injury and death benefits. For 2008, the insurance accounted for about 25 percent of the total marchamo registration fees collected.

Actual amounts vary according to the type of vehicle. At present there is no obligatory property damage coverage.
Information about the marchamo will be available soon HERE!


China trade talks planned
to start here in January

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica and the People's Republic of China will begin negotiations toward a free trade treaty Jan. 19, under an agreement formalized Monday between President Óscar Arias Sánchez and Hu Jintao, president of China.

The administration hopes to complete the free trade agreement before Arias leaves office in May 2010, said  Marco Vinicio Ruiz, minister of Comercio Exterior. Setting the date on the free trade treaty was the most important announcement to come out of Hu's 24-hour visit to Costa Rica. He met with Arias Monday morning.

In all, the two men signed 11 agreements, including the free trade memorandum. Others included:

- the donation by China of 10,000 soccer balls and 1,000 mountain bikes for children in poorer neighborhoods with the goal of keeping them away from crime and drugs;

- a contract for Costa Rica to participate in the Expo Shanghai 2010;

- an agreement in which Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo and the Chinese CNPC International Ltd. would enlarge and modernize the Costa Rican refinery at Moín. Also involved is development of a lab and training center;

-an agreement whereby the government of China would donate $10 million more to construction of a soccer stadium in Parque La Sabana;

-an agreement to cooperate with the Universidad de Costa Rica and its new Instituto Confucio in the teaching of Mandarin;

-an agreement where China would give the Banco de Costa Rica and Banco Nacional de Costa Rica lines of credit for $40 million each. Both banks have been suffering from a lack of liquidity caused by the international financial crisis;
 
-an agreement for cooperation economically and in technology between the two countries;

-an agreement to create a business council between the two countries;

Hu also visited the Asamblea Legislativa Monday morning where there was nothing but praise of China and the diplomatic recognition engineered by the Arias administration.

"Before we established relations with China our world was in some sense incomplete," gushed Francisco Antonio Pacheco, president of the assembly. "From now on we have a friend, an ally that is of fundamental importance in the world, and we are very satisfied with this."

Later, however, Cristiana Lorena Vásquez, leader of the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana in the legislature, said that any trade agreement should include regulations of quality over the products that China sends.

Trade between the two countries is not new and has been going on for 30 years, she noted. China has sent products of varying degrees of quality during that time, she said.

Rodrigo Arias injures knee

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Rodrigo Arias Sánchez, the minister of the Presidencia, injured his right knee doing exercises at his home over the weekend. That is why he is using a cane, said a Casa Presidencial bulletin. He will undergo arthroscopic surgery and will be taking a short period off, said Casa Presidencial.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 229

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Costa Rica is 10th as destination for U.S. students abroad
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica hosted 5,383 U.S. students in 2006-2007, a slight drop from the previous year, according to statistics available on the Web site of the Institute for International Education.
 
U.S. student participation in study abroad was up 8 percent in 2006-2007 from the previous year to a new record total of 241,791. The number of Americans studying abroad has increased more than 150 percent during the past decade. The figures, covering academic year 2006-2007 for U.S. students abroad, were just released by the Institute in its annual Open Doors survey.

Costa Rica was in 10th place as a destination for U.S. students. The United Kingdom was in the top spot. That is where 32,705, some 14.6 percent of the total, chose to go.

Spain was in second place with 27,831 U.S. students, followed by France (12, 233), China (11,064, a 25 percent increase over 2005-2006), Australia (10,747), México (9461), Germany (7,355) and Ireland (5,785).

The Costa Rican totals were down 2.4 percent from the
previous year, although Latin American in general attracted a steady 14 to 15 percent of all U.S. foreign students over the last 10 years, according to the survey.

Europe gets more than half, 57.4 percent in 2006-2007, out of the total of 241,791 students.

Open Doors 2008 found that American students are more frequently choosing non-traditional study abroad destinations, said the institute. The number of U.S. students studying in China, Argentina, South Africa, Ecuador and India each increased by more than 20 percent over the previous year, it reported.

This increase is fueled in part by an increase in new program opportunities, partnerships between higher education institutions in the United States and abroad, and a range of fields and program durations to accommodate the needs of an increasingly diverse study abroad population, the organization said.

According to the survey, the top three major fields of study of Americans abroad are the social sciences (21 percent), business and management (19 percent) and humanities (13 percent).


Living conditions, food suspected in illnesses at hotel site
By Elyssa Pachico
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A mysterious illness that has struck over 200 workers constructing a hotel in Guanacaste is likely caused by poor living conditions and tainted food, said the health ministry, and it may cost the hotel its building permit.

About 1,500 workers – the majority of them Nicaraguan – were contracted to build a branch of Riu Hotels, a Spanish chain, in Playa Matapalo. Friday, a 26-year-old worker, Manuel Peréz Sánchez, died in the Sardinal clinic from dehydration, as a result of a four-day struggle with diarrhea and vomiting.

The death sparked panicked rumors of an even bigger pandemic among workers, said Carlos Céspedes, director of the health ministry in Carrillo, Guanacaste. Over the weekend, more than 200 workers sought treatment at the Filadelfia and Sardinal clinics. Most complained of treatable respiratory problems, but a select few were critically stricken with an undiagnosed digestive illness, said the director.

“About 70 percent of patients were suffering respiratory problems, which we believed were caused by some of the living conditions they experienced onsite,” said Céspedes.

The construction workers were crammed into dormitories where there was no walking space in between beds, said Céspedes. The health ministry requires at least 40 centimeters in between beds, in order for contractors to meet national regulations.

Hotel contractors also housed workers in dormitories that were three stories high, instead of the requisite two stories. The result was an overwhelming lack of breathing room, the director said.

“There were about 900 workers living in rooms that were designed for 600,” said Céspedes. There were also several workers who slept outside in the open air, he added.

As for the workers suffering from an unknown digestive illness, clinicians have already ruled out the possibility of bacterial meningitis. Further test results will not be known until later this week, which makes some locals nervous.

“There's a lot of panic here in the community,” said Gadi Amit, a community organizer in Sardinal. “People are very worried about what's going to happen.”

A Monday inspection of the Riu construction site by Céspedes, María Luis Ávila, the minister of Salud, and the Costa Rican ambassador to Nicaragua, found that the mysterious ailment is most likely caused by unqualified food service workers, the director reported.

The construction workers are served food cooked in three separate kitchens, each one staffed by 15 cooks. Céspedes said that in each kitchen, about six to seven cooks were found to be unqualified to be handling food in a sanitary way.
“It could have been a problem with the salads, it could have been a problem with badly cooked rice,” said Céspedes. “We're awaiting results from lab tests to see what, exactly, in the food could have possibly caused the epidemic.”

Food service workers must take an exam through the health ministry before they have been properly vetted. A July inspection of the Riu construction site also found that many food workers were unlicensed, said Céspedes. The problem, however, remained unaddressed until now.

Céspedes also said that contaminated water did not cause the ailment. All water treatment services are provided privately by hotel contractors, as the national water treatment company, the Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados, does not administer any pipelines in the region. A lack of running water meant contractors were responsible for providing workers with drinking water.

“According to unofficial information, the workers bought bottled water off trucks,” said Rolando Alvarez, an engineer from water company's office in Liberia.

Alvarez said that his company did not know to what extent did hotel contractors treat human wastes in Playa Matapalo.

“That's under the administration of the health ministry,” he said. “I would imagine in a worst case scenario, it would get dumped in the water or in a river. But that's something we absolutely don't know about.”

Céspedes said that the hotel contractors use a private well to provide workers with drinkable water. Contractors must test for water quality every three months and share the results with the local health ministry. The last report, which Céspedes said was presented to the health ministry in early October, showed that everything was normal.

Céspedes said that hotel contractors kept a water treatment plant on the construction site, in order to process wastes. Both the water treatment plant and the well were inspected Monday, he said, and were functioning as normal.

“The water is clean,” said Céspedes.  “Apart from the situation with the rooms, all of the conditions on site are fine.”

After Monday's inspections, hotel contractors will have to fulfill three conditions within the next 15 days, or else lose their permit. The construction site must undergo a thorough sanitation inspection, and all food service workers must take a sanitation course through the health ministry. Additionally, either more sleeping dormitories must be built, or more personnel must be fired.

“Basic standards have not been met here,” said Céspedes. “But if these requirements are fulfilled, people will be back to work. If there is no collaboration, then the project risks being shut down.”

Workers, who were given the week off, are expected to resume construction next Monday, if all inspections go well. The five-story hotel will have 701 rooms.


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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 229


Faith in democracy here takes a dip, Economist poll reports
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Costa Ricans’ opinion of democracy fell sharply in the last year, according to the Latinobarómetro poll commissioned by The Economist magazine. The passage of a referendum in favor of the Central American free trade treaty with the United States, in October 2007, was the only significant political event in the intervening time span. The poll was taken in September.

The number of those agreeing with the statement “democracy is preferable to any other type of government” fell 16 percentage points to 67 percent, the biggest decrease among the 18 countries surveyed. “Under certain circumstances an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one” attracted 14 percent favorable reactions, up from 5 percent a year ago.

Paraguay was the big winner this year, with a 20-point increase to 53 percent favorable following the election of an opposition president for the first time in the country’s 
 history. Despite its turmoil, the people of Venezuela have the highest regard for democracy at 83 percent. This follows the defeat of a referendum that would have increased President Hugo Chaves’ powers.

Costa Ricans have a higher regard for the functioning of their democracy than the citizens of most other countries of the region, elsewhere, though a majority of respondents in all countries are dissatisfied with the fairness of democracies.

Still, only 45 percent approve of the job the Oscar Arias administration is doing, one of the lowest presidential approval ratings in the region. Paraguay’s new president Fernando Lugo is first at 83 percent. Brazil’s Luiz Inácio da Silva and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia also rate highly with their people.

Costa Rica was also the second highest in supporting Barack Obama’s candidacy of those polled, with 43 percent in favor. Only the Dominican Republic was higher.


Google says it can track outbreaks of flu with search engine
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Every day, millions of people around the world go to the search engine Google to look for information. When they're sick, they look for information about their illnesses. Now Google says all those searches can help predict when flu epidemics are happening — maybe even sooner than public health officials can learn about them using traditional data gathering.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a surveillance system which talks to doctors across the country every week. The doctors report what percentage of their patients that they have seen have symptoms of the flu. Then epidemiologists combine all this data and are able to survey how widespread the flu is.

Meanwhile, Google software engineer Jeffrey Ginsberg said Google noticed that during flu season, searches about the flu and its symptoms increased sharply. So he compared five years of Google's data with five years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We compared this week by week, region by region, and we found that there are some themes which occur whenever flu season is popular," he said.
"Effectively, by counting and measuring how relatively popular these things are, we can make accurate estimates of how much flu there is in every state across the U.S.," Ginsberg says.

Not only did the Google data match that of the CDC's, but it tracked flu trends in a more timely manner.

"It takes about a week or two for all of the doctor reports to trickle in. And so by the time they are collected, another week or two has passed," Ginsberg said. "Because we make our data available so quickly, we were able to detect the start of flu season one to two weeks before the CDC's own data."

Using this concept, Ginsberg and his co-workers created an application called Google Flu Trends. At www.google.org/flutrends,

Americans can see whether lots of people in their communities are searching for information about the flu — and get a clue as to whether influenza has come to town.

Ginsberg says Google plans to gather U.S. data for a year or two. Then he wants to expand the application to help predict flu trends in other countries, too.


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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 229



A.M. Costa Rica
users guide

This is a brief users guide to A.M. Costa Rica.

Old pages

Each day someone complains via e-mail that the newspages are from yesterday or the day before. A.M. Costa Rica staffers check every page and every link when the newspaper is made available at 2 a.m. each week day.

So the problem is with the browser in each reader's computer. Particularly when the connection with the  server is slow, a computer will look to the latest page in its internal memory and serve up that page.

Readers should refresh the page and, if necessary, dump the cache of their computer, if this problem persists. Readers in Costa Rica have this problem frequently because the local Internet provider has continual problems.

Searching

The A.M. Costa Rica search page has a list of all previous editions by date and a space to search for specific words and phrases. The search will return links to archived pages.

Newspages

A typical edition will consist of a front page and four other newspages. Each of these pages can be reached by links near the top and bottom of the pages.

Classifieds

Five classified pages are updated daily. Employment listings are free, as are listings for accommodations wanted, articles for sale and articles wanted. The tourism page and the real estate sales and real estate rentals are updated daily.

Advertising information

A summary of advertising rates and sizes are available for display and classifieds.

Statistics

A.M. Costa Rica makes its monthly statistics available to advertisers and readers. It is HERE! 


Contacting us

Both the main telephone number and the editor's e-mail address are listed on the front page near the date.

Visiting us

Directions to our office and other data, like bank account numbers are on the about us page.


New U.S. Web site gives
information on adoptions


Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The U.S. State Department has launched Adoption.state.gov, a new Web site devoted exclusively to intercountry adoption.

Last year alone, Americans adopted more than 17,000 children from abroad, the department said. Adoption.state.gov will provide adopting parents with the answers and information they need, and the site includes step-by-step instructions for adopting a child from another country, and a new publication for adoptive parents, “Intercountry Adoption from A to Z,” the department said.

Adoption.state.gov provides a central resource for adopting parents, adoption agencies, and others involved in the intercountry adoption process. Prospective parents will find country specific information and background about the Hague Adoption Convention on the Web site, according to the State Department.

Adoption.state.gov also includes information such as who is eligible to adopt, from which countries Americans adopt children, what protections the Hague Adoption Convention provides families, when an organization needs to renew its accreditation, and advice to prospective parents about selecting an accredited adoption agency. The site also provides information for foreign citizens who are interested in adopting American children.

The site was launched now to mark National Adoption Month.

Taxi drivers being trained
to give first aid, HIV info


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The nation's taxi drivers are being recruited to provide first aid in case of emergencies and to be a source of information on disease prevention.

The Cruz Roja said it already has provided training to some 200 drivers from Fenacotaxi, Coopetaxi and Autotransportes San Jorge. Another session with 150 drivers is planned for Wednesday.

The Cruz Roja reported that the taxi drivers frequently are the first at the scene of an emergency and that they also are uniquely positioned to provide information about diseases, primarily HIV and similar.

The training involved four workshops and those completing the course are provided pamphlets to hand out to passengers on the topic of disease prevention. Similar projects have been started in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, said the Cruz Roja,


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