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These stories were published Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 248
Jo Stuart
About us
A.M. Costa Rica photo
Holiday lights are up and blazing along Avenida 2 in the downtown.
Online casino based here pulls vanishing act
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The apparent failure of a San José-based online casino has customers unhappy because they had money on deposit with the firm.

The operation is Forty Plus Casino. The firm vanished from the Internet around Thanksgiving, and there has been no contact between the personnel of the business and customers since.

A betting customer contacted A.M. Costa Rica to report the demise of the firm. There is no report about how much money may be at risk. About the only information about the firm comes from an online newsletter about virtual casinos.

Bryan Bailey, operator of the newsletter, Casinomeister, said that "players got a little freaked" when they could not contact the casino. The casino has an administrative address in Curridabat, an eastern suburb of San José.

Bailey said he contacted the firm that licensed online gambling software to Forty Plus. That firm is Odds On Gaming Inc. Pierre Gagnon, Odds On CEO, told Bailey that workers at his company knew the operators and the people involved with the Forty Plus Casino, Bailey said, adding that most of them are ex-employees of other companies in the same industry, according to Gagnon. Odds On is headquartered in St. Johns, Antigua.

Bailey said in his newsletter that he thought Odds On should be more active in helping the betting customers exchange their debt for credit at other casinos. At the very least, the software company should put out a news release saying what happened to the firm, Bailey said.

The main contact individual at Forty Plus was a person who identified himself as "Alan" in online messages.

Some lawmakers want veto power on trade deal
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some national deputies want to have a look at any free-trade treaty with the United States before it is signed by members of the executive branch.

Typically, such a document would be signed by negotiators and then submitted to the Asamblea Nacional for approval. But Epsy Campbell, leader of the Partido Acción Ciudadana in the legislature, said Monday that lawmakers ought to get a copy of the agreement before it is signed so they can know all the details of what is being signed. 

Sigifredo Aíza of the Partido Liberación Nacional agreed, saying that the panicked faces worn by the treaty negotiators that appeared in the 

newspapers hint that even they are concerned about what they are negotiating. Ms. Campbell has been following the negotiations carefully and even was in Washington, D.C., last week to witness them first-hand. 

Lawmakers are concerned about U.S. demands for a chance for its private companies to compete in businesses that have been monopolies or nearly so. Among these are telecommunications and insurance. Both now are nationally owned firms.

U.S. negotiators are trying to get footholds in the industries for U.S. companies.

In addition, lawmakers are concerned about the effect on virtually every industry in the nation, from textile to agriculture.

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Bad weather claims
yet another victim

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Bad weather and high water took another life Sunday.

A 19-year-old man named David Calderón Rojas of Orosi fell from a makeshift bridge into the Río Reventazón about 4:15 Sunday afternoon. The river was swollen by rains that started Thursday.

Fuerza Pública officers and rescue workers located his body further down the river about 5:45 p.m., they said.

That was the most serious event linked to the continuing storms. Disaster officials maintained their alert for the Caribbean slope and the northern zone Monday, but any rainfall was expected to be much less than that which fell Thursday and Friday.

However, the danger of flooding still exists because a new low pressure area is building in the Caribbean.

Bandits beat up
brother of Arias

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three bandits broke into the Real Cariari home of Rodrigo Arias Sánchez Sunday night, tied him up, threw him to the floor, beat him and stole household items and $1,000 in cash. He is the brother of former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias Sánchez.

Arias was in his home west of San José shortly after 8 p.m. Only a female domestic worker was there, too.

Somehow the masked bandits managed to enter the home carrying large-caliber guns, according to police. Arias suffered an injury to his head.

Watchman murdered
for building materials

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A fellow worker found the slain body of watchman José María Salas Monday morning.

The murder happened at a construction site in Residencial Europa in San Rafael, Montes de Oca, east of San José.

Salas was tied up and appeared to have been beaten to death and dragged several feet. Some construction materials were stolen, according to a spokesman for the Judicial Investigating Organization.

Tovar signs agreement
with European Union

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica’s foreign minister and other Central American officials signed an agreement in Rome, Italy, Monday that may pave the way for a free-trade treaty with the European Union.

The diplomat, Roberto Tovar Faja, called the signing of the accord of cooperation an historic event that will solidify links between both regions.

Tovar is the minister of Relaciones Exteriores y Culto. He noted that the union will grow by 10 countries soon, going from 15 to 25, making it a major industrial and commercial power.

Big Christmas show
scheduled this week

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The old customs building will be filled with Christmas as of Wednesday. And the event will be free.

The Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deporte said Monday that a large exposition of Christmas displays will greet visitors. The event will run until Dec. 22 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Included are portals, the manger scenes.

In addition, visitors will find dancing, typical food and Christmas music.

The site is called in Spanish the Antigua Aduana. The building also is called the Centro Nacional de Exposiciones. It is on Calle 23 in Barrio California. The sprawling building is just east of the Atlantic train station.

The Roman Catholic Church, Banco Nacional, the Comisión Festejos Populares, Epson and Alimentos Jack‘s are cosponsoring.

The highpoint of the event is a Christmas pageant that will be produced Dec. 17, 18 and 19 at 8 p.m. The pageant is "Nace Jesús" or "Jesus is Born" in English. This also is free and involves some 78 artists.

The building was taken over by the ministry several months ago from the FERCORI management after a dispute over rent. Since then the bulk of the events have been free.

Terrorism panel says
momentum is slowing

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A special U.S. government commission on terrorism is warning that the effort to prevent future attacks inside the United States appears to be waning. The warning is part of a final report submitted to Congress and the public by a special commission set up four years ago to help make the nation safe from future terrorist attacks.

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is the commission chairman. He says the momentum to make the country safer after the 2001 terrorist attacks appears to be slipping.

 "The focus is elsewhere," he said. "There is a tendency, according to the commission's thinking, that there is a break in momentum, that there has to be a continuing effort to put together an entire framework and that that framework must include state and local people."

The commission was set up by Congress following the 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The panel consists of federal, state, and local officials who are involved in preventing and responding to terrorist attacks. The commission was scheduled to disband two years ago, but was extended following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The report released Monday is the commission's final summation and also includes a caution that any attempt to make the country more secure from terrorism should not come at the expense of curtailing civil liberties.

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Monterrey agenda will be a full one, diplomat says
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Special Summit of the Americas, scheduled for Jan. 12 to 13 in Monterrey, Mexico, will focus on the themes of economic growth, social development and democratic governance in the Western Hemisphere, said John Maisto, U.S. permanent representative to the Organization of American States.

At a seminar Monday at the Department of State here, Maisto said that the special summit will provide the hemisphere's 34 democratically elected leaders an opportunity to discuss concerns in the region over withering democracy and frustration with the results of economic reforms. 

Maisto indicated that the special summit would also provide a forum to take stock of efforts to implement the agenda agreed to at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec, Canada, but added that the focus of the summit would be on "specific areas that go to the heart of what is bothering the countries in the hemisphere." 

The ambassador identified economic growth, social development and democratic governance as the three themes for the special summit. 

He said that the hemisphere's shared interest in advancing an economic growth agenda will focus, in part, on creating jobs by fostering small and medium-sized businesses. 

Maisto noted that approximately 80 percent of economic activity in Latin America and the Caribbean is carried out by micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises. These enterprises, he added, also employ upwards of 57 percent of the region's workforce. 

Despite the importance of these businesses, Maisto said, the World Bank has found that starting a business in the region takes longer than in any other region in the world. To remedy this, one of the objectives of the special summit will be to 

achieve a commitment to "reduce substantially the amount of time it takes to start a new business," he observed. 

Since surveys indicate that the lack of access to credit is the largest single obstacle to starting or expanding businesses in the region, another focus in Monterrey, Maisto said, will be to get a commitment from hemispheric leaders to ensure lines of credit to small and medium-sized enterprises. Much of this effort, he added, will require collaboration with international financial institutions. 

The development of effective property-rights systems in the Americas will also be an important economic theme at the special summit, Maisto said. 

Another theme of the special summit will be democratic governance. In this area, Maito noted that the World Bank has identified corruption as the "single greatest obstacle to economic and social development in the world."

Maisto added that the World Bank calculates that corruption can deprive nations of approximately 1 percent of gross domestic product growth each year. Moreover, he said, corruption has consistently been shown to be a major barrier to greater investment.

He noted that polls show that 80 percent of Latin Americans in 2002 cited corruption as a significant problem, while only 25 percent expressed confidence in their governments' willingness or ability to address the problem. Maisto said he hopes leaders at the special summit will commit themselves to enhancing transparency and curbing corruption.

"The notion is a commitment to transparency," he said. "The notion is the commitment of leaders to do what they have to do in order to modernize, reform, and break through the obfuscation that exists in democratic governments throughout the hemisphere."

Peru's Toledo swears in new prime minister
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LIMA, Peru — President Alejandro Toledo has named a new prime minister after the first woman to hold the post resigned over alleged scandals.

Toledo Monday swore in Carlos Ferrero as prime minister, three days after asking then-Prime Minister Beatriz Merino and the entire cabinet to resign.

Ms. Merino served as prime minister for six months and had become one of the government's most popular members. But she was accused of 

corruption and of being a homosexual, a controversial subject in conservative Peru. The former prime minister said the allegations were part of a campaign by political opponents to smear her reputation. The allegations against her were reported by local media. 

Toledo moved to reshape his cabinet in the wake of the scandal and after opinion polls showed his popularity had plunged to around 13 percent. Ms. Merino was credited with helping lift President Toledo's low approval ratings during her tenure as prime minister.

EU's failure to draft constitution stalls streamlining
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BRUSSELS, Belgium — European Union leaders have ended a two-day summit here after acknowledging their failure to agree on a new constitution for the bloc, soon to have 25 members. Negotiators were unable to bridge deep differences over how many votes each country should have in the EU decision-making process.

In the end, it came down to how much power individual countries would wield, after the EU takes in 10 new members next May.

The sticking point was always whether national votes should reflect population size. That is what Germany and France wanted, and that is what the constitutional draft provided for. But Spain and newcomer Poland held out for the generous voting rights they received under a complicated mathematical formula at another EU summit three years ago. That arrangement gave each of them virtual parity with the EU's big countries, and they refused to give up their disproportionate influence.

Diplomats say the refusal by Spain and Poland to budge from their position was not the only reason for the failure of the talks. They say Germany and France were equally recalcitrant, and refused to even consider the compromise proposals offered in last-ditch attempts to resolve the impasse.

Still, Germany and France had the support of most other EU states, which were hoping to get a deal at the summit that would allow the EU to prepare itself for its expansion from 15 to 25 members next year. 

The bloc needs a more streamlined decision-making process than the one it has now, which was drawn up when it had only six members.

The constitutional negotiations have now been officially postponed and could resume next year, when Ireland takes over the EU presidency. 

EU watchers say the failure to agree on the constitution could paralyze an enlarged bloc, and lead to a two-speed Europe, with the union's original members, led by France and Germany, moving on a fast track toward deeper integration and shared policies, while the others lag behind. Indeed, the six founding members were preparing to issue a call for such a move after the collapse of the summit.

A Dutch diplomat who has attended many EU summits says he does not think the bloc will fall apart. But he says the fierce haggling on display here and the failure to put the union's interest above national interests, will surely hurt the EU's credibility in the eyes of its citizens.

Jo Stuart
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