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(506) 223-1327         Published Monday, Dec. 3, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 239               E-mail us
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Flirting with death: Bad weather boat ride in Bocas
By Bryan Kay
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The ominous signs were there as soon as we opened the hotel room curtains in the morning. The rain was thundering down, and there were no shades of blue poking through the clouds over northeastern Panama.

We’d agreed to abandon our plans to take a boat tour around the increasingly popular archipelago of islands located in Bahia Almirante just off the Caribbean coast of northeastern Panama, part of Bocas del Toro, the province that borders Costa Rica. The weather was foul, and we figured time was on our side.  It was only our first full day there.

What we hadn’t counted on, however, was the brilliance and duplicity of the street salesmen in Bocas del Toro city on the principal island of the archipelago, Isla Colón. The weather would break, insisted Eric, our very own expert who had the tones of an effective used car salesman. “Believe me,” he said. “I’ve been working these tours for 15 years, and I can guarantee you it will clear and the sun will be shining by 12 noon.”

Ultimately, it was our own eagerness that clinched the deal. We were so willing to believe the tale — however unlikely — that the sun would be splitting the skies, lighting up the promised treasure chest of natural beauty possessed by Bocas. There’d be dolphin, clear waters showing beautiful coral reefs, deserted beaches and a lush national park, we were told.

But the weather didn’t clear and just 10 minutes out to sea we were being whipped up in the midst of a storm. Our small motorized lancha was riding waves far too dynamic for its thin, wooden hull. A dozen clichés rushed to the fore. The most apt emerged as “We’re lambs to the slaughter.” I yelled that to my friend Gadiel who had accompanied me on the trip to Bocas.

Moments later, we were struck broadside by what seemed like a massive wave. The lancha was tipped almost vertical. I grabbed onto a pole holding up an awning that was supposed to protect us from the driving rain. Other passengers were flailing in the water. Somehow the boat stayed afloat.

I did a rough count. The 11 adults and three children were all still inside. The children were screaming and the passengers who had casually straddled their life vests over their knees proved a match for the wave’s force, as they threw on the life-saving devices as quickly as their hearts were beating. The rain was falling relentlessly amid a fairly strong wind. It was at this point Gadiel and I looked at each other. No words were required. The message was written across both of our faces: What have we done? 

Shortly after the near miss, the "captain" with a slight smirk painted across his face remarked, “I lost control. The only part of me that wasn’t in the water was my feet.”

Two U.S. citizens in front of us began to scream at him to slow down. He appeared to be trying to counter the sea’s ferocity by tearing head-on into the waves, steering a straight path in the direction in which we were headed. It wasn’t working and his actions depleted what little confidence remained among the passengers.

The nearest landfall was far in the distance. With every wave confronted afterwards, I told myself, "Just a little bit further. We’re nearly there.
angry wave
A.M. Costa Rica graphic

We’re going to make it." It was mere words. I sincerely believed there was a chance we wouldn’t make it.

Somehow, we did make land, though I think the success was achieved through pure luck.

One of the Americans, Ben Snyder, of Cincinnati, Ohio, said later, “I can’t believe how stupid we’ve been taking one of these trips off the streets. The guy driving the boat obviously had no idea what he was doing. At one stage, he had his hand splayed in front of his face to stop the spray of water from the sea from blocking his vision. There’s no way he could see properly. All it would have taken was the right combination of waves, and we may have been gone."

Just how stupid we had been was underlined after we arrived back on Isla Colón.

A spokeswoman for the Panamanian Tourism Institute said they warn tourists not to use the trips offered by street touts.

She said visitors should use registered local companies “because the guys in the street play with the price.” Not to mention lives.

When asked about the safety record of the services offered by street vendors, the spokeswoman admitted there had been some concerns but claimed not to have heard of any serious incidents.

However, experienced local boatman Santiago Baker said there have been deaths in the past.

He cited one incident where two lives were claimed after a packed boat ran into difficulties in bad weather. He claimed there had been either no or an insufficient number of life vests on board.

Baker, who says he has 23 years experience organizing boat trips around the islands, said he took the decision to cancel his tour the same day we, Snyder and Feller had the lucky escapes. “Many of these guys are irresponsible,” he added.

In August, 2006, the dangers of the area were illustrated when two medical professionals died while traveling in a boat from Rio Chiriquí headed toward Chiriquí Grande south of the archipelago, according to media reports.

According to reports, their boat struck a coral reef after a strong wave smashed into it broadside, emptying the seven occupants into the water.  There were no life vests on board and the two persons perished before rescue workers could reach the stricken party.


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Teatro nacional portal
A.M. Costa Rica/Elise Sonray
Visitors get a good look at the portal or nativity scene at the Teatro Nacional. The display is much simplier this year.

Country begins gearing up
for Christmas season

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Christmas was officially welcomed with the inauguration of the nativity scene at Teatro Nacional Saturday night.

During the day Sunday, many families gathered to look at the nativity scene and take pictures. The Salazar family, originally from Colombia, said they come every year to enjoy the portal or manger scene. They took pictures as their three children enjoyed the sunshine and the view of baby Jesus.

More choirs sang Sunday night to welcome in the Christmas season. The children's choir from Escuela Buenaventura Corrales, although quieter in tone than the other groups, drew a slightly larger crowd. They performed “Jingle Bells” in Spanish and Elder Joseph Brackett's “Simple Gifts” in English.

As the Christmas choir sang outside Teatro Nacional, another crowd was gathered just meters away. This was a somewhat typical evening crowd watching one of San Jose's favorite street performers juggle through his act. To an onlooker, the applause from the two groups may have measured nearly the same.

Festival Navideño came to an end Sunday night at Centro Nacional de la Cultura, but few seemed to notice. Although it was advertised in Spanish-language newspapers, not many people came, said candle vendor Laura Vanessa González Quirós. “It was a beautiful event though,” she added.

The week of Festival Navideño was full of arts and crafts from the Association de las Artistas de Curridabat as well as music and entertainment performances.  Rodolfo Rodríguez a tote-bag craftsman and vendor said the festival did not draw much money because no one has received their aguinaldo or Christmas bonus yet.

Public employes are supposed to received their so-called 13th month's pay this week, and private employers have until Dec. 15 to pay their workers.

choir sings at teatro nacional
A.M. Costa Rica/Elise Sonray
This and many other musical groups will be at the Teatro nacional this week and next.


U.S. knows you're coming,
thanks to new airport system


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Uncle Sam will know you are coming now even before your plane takes off at Juan Santamaría airport.

The Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería said Friday that the Advance Passenger Information System has been extended to all the airlines that fly out of the airport. This is the first time that this information will be available in real time, said the immigration announcement. Until now the system was three months behind because all the data on passengers had to be entered into computers by hand, said Mario Zamora, immigration director.

The Advance Passenger Information System had been mandated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Even before a passenger aircraft has its wheels up, data about those onboard is being transmitted to U.S. officials at the arrival point. This is supposed to increase the security in the United States.

Zamora also said that 15 new immigration agents will be stationed at the airport to speed the flow.

That didn't happen Saturday when a glich in communications caused delays in departures of five flights and delays in landing by five others. Immigration workers said the problem was a one-time event.

Some 15 more immigration employees will bring the workforce up to 130 in January when they report for work. The airport is expected to have more arrival and departure lounges by then.

The Advance Passenger Information System has been a pilot project at the airport until Saturday.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Dec. 3, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 239




Mistaken identity? No such thing, says new exhibition
By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica is a land of volatile volcanoes, orchids, coffee fincas, Catholicism and Ticos.

Or you could say it's a country of wide seashores, football stadiums, fast food restaurants and beach towns overtaken by Gringos.

Some are clichéd symbols of a tourist nation, while others are part of the country's changing culture, but all are involved in Museo de Arte Costarricense's new exhibition that challenges viewers to reconsider their own perceptions of the nation.

It is not new to propose that identity is an insecure,
many-faceted thing that shifts with each person's viewpoint, but the concept is explored very effectively by the interactive "Las posibilidades de la mirada" (the possibilities of the glance).

A fat, Hawaiian shirt-clad, red-faced Gringo, lifting his hand to guard his eyes from the tropical sunlight, greets the museum's visitors at the entrance.  

He stands next to a placard that describes the exhibition as a consideration of cultural identity and national territory, encouraging people to think about the way ideas of Costa Rica are formed and to see that interpretations of identity are endless and open.

Images of empty, undulating seas beneath soft clouds contrast with pictures of people living in houses piled one on
gringo at 175
A.M. Costa Rica/Helen Thompson
'El conquistador' by Leda    
Astorga Mora 
top of the other, eating at sodas and crammed into tiny cars.

In one painting Ronald MacDonald sits on a bench in a manner very similar to Colonel Sanders outside San Jose's KFC outlets, and the faces of those around him are all painted with the same grim Macdonald's smile.

The artworks span from the early 20th century to the present day, and simple oil portraits are displayed in the same room as collages made
of fake donuts and empty coca-cola bottles.

This contrasting demonstrates the growing pre-occupation with Americanization and encourages people to realize that the significance of historic artefacts change over time, losing old meanings and adopting new ones, making it impossible to base identity in history.

Traditional symbols of identity, such as the flag and maps are inverted and twisted to suggest that they are man-made and really have little to do with the country.

A traditionally painted picture of Costa Rica's national flower, the guaria morada orchid, placed beside a video installation of things that look like flowers but are not, reminds visitors that the realist portrayal of an orchid is as little like a flower as a gas ring that takes a flower's shape.

Monge Blanco's sculpture of the praying Virgin Mary may look fairly normal, albeit blue, until one realizes that the entire thing is made of soap.

The artists break down the symbols to show that there is no relation between a symbol and a concept given it. If people give it meaning they can take it away, meaning that the significance is imaginary.

After destroying traditional perceptions, the curators ask visitors to sit down and create their own new symbol.

the swarm
A.M. Costa Rica/Helen Thompson
'Enjambre' (the swarm) by Rafael Ángel Garcia Picado

Scrap books and craft materials are laid out in the hope that visitors will be inspired to come up with their own personal interpretations of the nation's identity.  Jigsaw puzzles of blocks with pictures on all sides that cannot be made to fit together, and rotating plastic wheels that change the colours of artworks all challenge perceptions of the acceptable and unalterable viewpoint.

Children can be kept entertained with the interactive components while adults appreciate both beautiful works such as wood carvings and cubism-influenced oils, and the more shocking works that will make them think about the images of Costa Rica that they take for granted, and the interpretations of its identity that have eluded them.

The exhibition was displayed in the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Santiago, Chile, prior to its inauguration in San Jose Thursday, and were made for the project "Costa Rica. Naturally Art," supported by the Ministerio de Cultura y Juventud. The exhibition will be on show at the Museo de Arte Costarricense in Parque la Sabana until March.

donuts challenge reality
A.M. Costa Rica/Helen Thompson 
'La historia oficial' by Victoria Cabezas Green


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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Dec. 3, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 239

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Chávez constitutional reforms defeated in squeaker election
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire service reports

Venezuelan voters in a referendum Sunday narrowly defeated the 69 constitutional reforms proposed by President Hugo Chávez.  The margin was 50.7 to 49.3 percent, according to newspaper reports.

Chávez went on television before an audience of his supporters and said that the vote showed that the country is a democracy. He had been criticized for the authoritarian changes proposed for the country's 1999 constitution.

Chávez told those who opposed the measures that they should celebrate their victory. But he said that he would continue his effort to build socialism within the framework of the existing constitution. The president said he had rejected advice that he bring the referendum results to the country's high court on technical grounds.

The results were not made known until after 11 p.m. Costa Rican time, which was after 1 a.m. Caracas time. The Consejo Nacional Electoral still had not updated its Web site with the results by midnight, but the totals had been reported by one of the rectors of the council, Tibisay Lucena.

The difference was just 187,196 votes in an election where more than 9 million voters went to the polls. Abstention was 44.11 percent because some 16 million had the right to vote.

Chávez said in his talk that he would have no trouble sleeping after the election results came in. He pointed to the international press from some 50 countries and said that international observers also witnessed the vote. He drank from a tea cup before a portrait of Simón Bolivar, the Venezuelan who liberated much of Spanish South America.

Chavez noted that Bolivar had his political troubles, too, in that The Liberator presented a constitution to the new nation of Bolivia. The document, presented in 1828, never was enacted. Speaking to reporters after he voted earlier in the day, Chávez said he would accept the results, whichever way the vote goes.

Among the proposed changes to the constitution was an end to term limits on the presidency. If voters approve, the Venezuelan leader said, he was prepared to stay in power until 2050, when he would be 95-years-old.

The changes would have granted the government sweeping new powers in case the president declares a national emergency. They also would have reduced the workday in Venezuela from eight hours to six hours, and extend social benefits to more workers.

Thousands of people staged demonstrations in Caracas last week, both for and against the proposals.
Venezuelan embassy
A.M. Costa Rica/Elise Sonray
About 200 Venezuelans voted at the country's embassy here Sunday, officials said.

After several public-opinion surveys reported public sentiment was tipping away from the president, Chávez raised the possibility last week that the United States could interfere with the election. Officials in Washington, D.C., repudiated his comments, but Chavez followed up by threatening to cut off oil shipments to the United States if he saw evidence of any interference.

A prominent member of the U.S. Senate, Carl Levin, also rejected allegations by Chávez. The American lawmaker said Sunday that the United States is not seeking to destabilize Venezuela.

In response to warnings by opposition parties, human-rights groups and Venezuela's Roman Catholic leaders said that passage of the referendum would amount to an unprecedented concentration of power in the president's hands, Chávez had argued that it is necessary to revise the constitution to strengthen the people's voice in government.

Chávez is a friend of Cuba's Fidel Castro, whom he mentioned in his lengthy television talk. He also has befriended socialist regimes in Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia and has used Venezuela's growing oil wealth to help these nations and to buy influence elsewhere.


Costa Rica entices Texas couple to start a Lutheran church
By Elise Sonray
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Like many first-time visitors, Thomas Thierfelder and his wife, Yolanda, were enamored with Costa Rica. “We took hundreds of pictures,” said Thierfelder. “We fell in love with the people and country.” When the couple decided to move here however, it wasn't due to a get-rich-quick scheme or an elaborate retirement plan, it was a calling to serve, said Thierfelder. It was to start a Lutheran church.

The new Water of Life Lutheran Church is near Plaza Mayor in Rohrmoser and hosts worship services every Sunday at 4 p.m. Services are in the traditional liturgical style complete with an organ, said Thierfelder. As of now, all services are in English, although the minister said someday he'd like to preach in Spanish. His wife is fluent, and he is taking classes.

The church shares the building with a German Lutheran Church and receives funds purely from members and offerings. All the hymn books were donated from Texas, said Thierfelder.

The Thierfelders, previous residents Garland, Texas, sold their belongings and moved down to Costa Rica just months after their first visit last April. Ironically, Mrs. Thierfelder was offered a job in development from a man they had met on the ferry from Puntarenas.

The couple, who had already been thinking about moving, jumped at the opportunity, Thierfelder said. Although moving to Costa Rica meant “giving up a great salary and benefits, a home, friends, move away from our newly married children,” said the minister. “We could not say no to what our hearts were telling us.”  In addition to Texas, Thierfelder served in Washington State.
New Luthernan mininster
The Rev. Thierfelder and three newly baptised Costa Rican youngsters.

Eventually said Thierfelder, he'd like to begin a Spanish service. The first service, on Nov. 11, had an attendance of 24 and included the baptisms of three Costa Rican children. Thierfelder said he and his wife hope that the church will grow slowly but surely. Their goal, he said, is to found a Lutheran church with Spanish services and plant more churches around the country.


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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Dec. 3, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 239


Castro again nominated in first step to remain Cuba's leader
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro has been nominated as a candidate for the National Assembly, paving the way for him to remain head of state.

Castro's name was put forward Sunday by municipal representatives in Santiago de Cuba, where he has traditionally been nominated.

Castro must be re-elected to the National Assembly in order to serve as a member of the country's top executive body,
the Council of State.  The president of the 31-member council is Cuba's head of state.

The Jan. 20 election will take place almost 18 months after Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery and handed power to his brother Raúl Castro on a provisional basis.

The 81-year-old Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since the July 2006 operation.  But he has appeared in official photographs and videos and regularly is credited with essays on international themes.  Details of his health are a state secret.


Starbucks to help Ethiopia improve marketing, competitivity
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The giant American coffee shop chain Starbucks is opening a center in Ethiopia to help coffee farmers improve productivity and profitability. The establishment of the center follows a dispute in which Ethiopia had accused Starbucks of blocking it from trade-marking the names of distinctive Ethiopian coffees.

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz traveled to the birthplace of coffee to announce the opening of a center that will work with Ethiopian farmers and exporters to boost the quality of their product. He was joined in a news conference by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, signaling that their public argument about trademarks that had gained international headlines is history.

Last year Starbucks refused Ethiopia's request for a licensing agreement giving the African country rights to the names of three Ethiopian regional coffees, even in countries where they are not trademarked. Starbucks' position was widely portrayed as denying royalties to impoverished Ethiopian farmers.

The dispute was resolved earlier this year. Details were not disclosed, but Starbucks has agreed to recognize Ethiopia's ownership of the three names and not to block Ethiopian attempts to win trademarks for them.

Shultz said the issue was never about royalties.

"Much has been written about the concern that existed between the government's position and Starbucks' position," said Schultz. "But candidly, I think a lot of that was misunderstood, and I am thankful to say it is behind us."

He says Starbucks will continue to use the three names in
marketing Ethiopian coffee in its more than 15,000 stores worldwide.

The prime minister praised the agreement as a win for Ethiopia's coffee farmers. He says that last year's campaign against Starbucks was only aimed at helping producers earn a greater share of the profits.

"Let me say that when we launched the campaign, we did not do it on behalf of the government," said the prime minister. "We did not do it to get royalties for the government. We did it to make sure that our farmers get better prices."

Schultz said the support center being built in Addis Abba will not attempt to teach Ethiopian farmers how to grow better coffee. Ethiopia already produces some of the world's finest coffee beans, and local reporters were skeptical that Starbucks would have anything to teach about coffee growing. But the prime minister said that the center would offer modern production and marketing techniques that will make these superior coffees more competitive on increasingly complex and sophisticated world markets.

"We have been growing coffee since time immemorial, but not in the front ranks of scientific research," he said.

Neither the prime minister nor the Starbucks chairman would reveal how much coffee the company is buying from Ethiopia. But Schultz said during the past four years, Starbucks increased its purchases of Ethiopian coffee by 400 percent, and would double that amount during the current two-year period.

Starbucks buys 300 million pounds of coffee a year at prices higher than what farmers get on the open market. Most of it comes from Latin America.


Kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt says she is not well in video
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A former presidential candidate held by leftist rebels in Colombia says she no longer has the same strength and struggles to keep hope after nearly six years in secret rebel camps.

In a letter released by her family Saturday, French- Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt said she is the only woman among several male captives. She writes that she is not well physically and that she is losing her hair and appetite.

Colombian officials seized the letter along with videos of rebel-held hostages during an arrest Thursday of three suspected members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia.

Officials say the images had a time stamp of Oct. 24 and
indicate the captives may still be alive.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe says the images indicate that Ms. Betancourt, who was kidnapped in 2002, has been subjected to torture.

In the grainy video, a long-haired Ms. Betancourt appears gaunt and sad, staring blankly at the ground. No images of her had been seen since 2003.

The videos of Ms. Betancourt and other captives were released days after Uribe ended Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's role as mediator in talks to swap prisoners for hostages held by the rebels. Chávez responded by cutting diplomatic relations with Colombia.

The hostages' families have welcomed the latest development but expressed frustration at the lack of progress toward the release of their loved ones.


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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Dec. 3, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 239



U.S. tennis team brings home David Cup for 32nd time
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The United States has clinched its record-breaking 32nd Davis Cup tennis title by taking an unbeatable 3-0 lead in the best-of-five match final series. Bob and Mike Bryan scored the decisive point with a victory in doubles in Portland, Oregon.

The world NO. 1 ranked Bryan twins assured the United States of its first Davis Cup title since 1995 by beating Russia's Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Andreev, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 in Saturday afternoon's doubles match.

Team USA won the opening set 7-6 in a tie-breaker, then built on that momentum by breaking Russia's serve in the opening game of the second set. The Bryans never lost their serve during the match and went on to win the second set, 6-4, before breaking the Russians twice and winning the final set, 6-2.

Andreev said the Americans were just too strong. "They are much better doubles players," he said. "So we could do well sometimes as we did in the first set, played till tiebreak. But then every service game was harder to keep our serve. So the early break in the second, that is what changed all the games."
A raucous crowd filled every one of the 12,400 seats at a packed Memorial Coliseum, loudly cheering every point as the Bryans moved closer to a seemingly certain victory. Mike Bryan talked about getting the chance to clinch the victory.

"To see these guys go out there and handle it so well, Andy looked so relaxed out there and just stepped up, and then James played phenomenal and put us in the position to go out there and clinch it," he said. "A dream for us to win the final match and have the guys rush out and come jump around with us. There's nothing like it."

Andy Roddick and James Blake put the United States ahead 2-0 Friday with singles victories. Roddick dominated Dmitry Tursunov, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 while Blake downed Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6. Roddick says winning the Davis Cup was a true team victory.

"To be here and to bring the Cup back to the States is just an amazing feeling," said Roddick. "But more importantly, just to share the journey with these guys. It's just been so much fun. For us to have our moment, I feel like we really do deserve it.

"We've been the ultimate team and it's just been a blast and it's been an honor to be a part of that."

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