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(506) 223-1327         Published Monday, Dec. 24, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 254               E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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kid with present and girl with pinata
A.M. Costa Rica/Helen Thompson
Santa came early to the isolated community of Quezal on the Cabecar Reserve near Turrialba. The volunteers with donations in hand were supported by a mission, the British Embassy 
and others. They made a long trip. But the local participants made even longer trips, mostly on foot.
See our story HERE!

A message that never grows old
In the fall of 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon of 115 W. 95th St. wrote a letter to The Sun in New York.  The response, written by newsman Francis P. Church, is as valid today in Costa Rica as it was then in New York City. We take pleasure in printing this message today.

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.  Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.  Papa says, "If you see it in THE SUN it's so."  Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

—Virginia O'Hanlon   

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

From the archives of the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Dec. 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 254

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Contraloría hits politicos
on security of citizens

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Contraloría de la Republica has issued a criticism of the last four administrations and said that none had an effective and integrated policy to ensure citizen security.

The criticism came from the Área de Servicios Públicos Generales de la División de Fiscalización Operativa y Evaluativo. The Contraloría said the findings were based on a study.

Although the last four administrations, including the current one with Óscar Arias Sánchez as president, have made citizen security a priority, none has had an effective, integrated and sustained impact on the criminal element, said the report.

The failing comes in the face of citizen demands for effective action, said the watchdog agency.

The Contraloría specified weak coordination and cooperation among the branches of government, the lack of action by the  Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Pública and limited generation of trustworthy information to measure criminality and violence.

The Contraloría is the latest of a number of agencies to speak out on the issue of security. The director of the Judicial Investigating Organization, Jorge Rojas Vargas, said that he was retiring because of lack of resources provided for his investigating organization.

Rojas was making a point because his retirement had been expected for the last six months. But nearly everyone agrees that his department gets far more complaints each year than agents can handle.

The organization that Rojas is leaving is supervised by the courts. The prosecution is handled by the free-standing Ministerio Público whose director, the fiscal general, is picked by the Corte Suprema de Justicia.

The Arias administration and others have responsibility for budgets but their control of the court agencies is limited. The Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública supervises the Fuerza Pública, immigration police and anti-drug units.

The Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad is supervised by Casa Presidencial. The Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes supervises the Policía de Tránsito, and the Ministerio de Hacienda supervises the tax police.

At the same time, the immigration department has been unable to handle routine day-to-day duties, and reports on individuals entering the country have been delayed. The agency also has been ravaged by corruption.

Most police agencies blame the courts for freeing repeat offenders and for levying light sentences.

Laura Chinchilla, the nation's vice president, has unveiled the administration's plan to reduce criminality, but the proposals seek to attack the roots of crime, such as poverty and education. The most concrete proposal is to provide sports equipment to occupy the time of youngsters.

The effort to keep track of crime is hampered because many victims do not report crimes because they do not believe that any action will be taken. Local prosecutors are believed to be under orders to pursue only major crimes. For example, a street criminal robbed the editor of A.M. Costa Rica Nov. 16, 2005, and the editor was able to engineer the arrest of a fleeing suspect. However, there has been no word from prosecutors since. This is a typical story.

More optical readers
are installed at airport

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Immigration officials say they have obtained 39 optical readers to check passports and other documents at Juan Santamaría airport. The agency said that each machine costs $1,400 and that a total of $54,600 was spent.

The Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería experienced troubles last week when only nine of the exit stations at the airport were in operation. The new departure area has twice that amount of stations.

Passengers reported delays of up to 30 minutes, and immigration got bad press in the Spanish-language newspapers. One of the excuses was that extra agents to staff the exit lines had not been fully trained. A release from the agency Friday did not say how that problem was to be solved.

The optical readers are able to scan documents and make entries into a central computer.

Phone rates are reduced
for Christmas holidays

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The telephone company is cutting by as much as 44 percent the cost of overseas calls, it said in a release.

The reduction took place Sunday and will run until 7 p.m. Jan. 2, said the agency, the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad.

Although not mentioning Christmas directly, the agency said that the reductions were designed to strengthen family ties and links among loved ones. Per minute charges for calls to the United States have been cut form 27 cents to 15 cents, and calls to Nicaragua dropped from 42 cents to 28 cents.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Dec. 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 254

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School with flag
Flag flies over Quetzal school.
bridge over river
It's one vehicle at a time.
fording the river
And maybe there is no bridge at all.

Santa came a bit early to the Cabecar Reserve near Turrialba
At the very end of a very long dirt road, the convoy of trucks and four-wheel drives came to a halt in front of a wooden schoolhouse with the Costa Rican flag flying above its yard.

Hundreds of people were already filling the field, watching the cars arrive with tired faces and waiting for the gifts to be unloaded before the party could begin.

“Some of these people have walked for five hours to be here this morning,” said Ginnee Hancock, as she and other visitors shut the dust-encrusted car doors, and began to unload home-made Spanish rice. “That’s why we had to start so early — they have to walk all that way back before it gets dark.”

Photos and story by
Helen Thompson

The visitors were throwing a Christmas party in the middle of a muddy field, giving presents and food to the Cabecar Indians who live in the high mountains around Tuis, Turrialba.

A three-hour, ever-ascending drive from Tuis had taken the group through rivers, over rickety bridges, past little-visited communities on jungle-covered slopes, to Quetzal, the last village of all.

But even before we set out — at a yawn-inducing 6 in the morning, 100 Cabecar started their far more arduous journey on foot to meet the people who have been helping their village for the past three years.

Some came wearing their best clothes — little girls in their favorite flowery dress, men in freshly washed shirts — and some in clothes already dirty from several-days’ wear. But every outfit was coupled with a pair of rubber Wellington boots, muddied from constant use.

Tubs full of rice, cake, beans and other treats were unloaded to be served in the shade by groups of volunteers from Tuis, and children played games in the hot sun while they waited for their lunch.

Of the approximately 10,000 people who live in the Cabecar Reserve, one of several areas set up in 1977 where Indians have the right to live in self-governing communities but not to own the land, only a small amount benefited from the games and donations brought by Hector and Daniel, the leaders of the Voz Que Clama Mission, Tuis, Friday.

It is, however, arguably one of the communities in greatest need.

Of the village’s population, only about 40 percent speak enough Spanish to communicate, as their mother tongue is the Cabecar language from which they get their name. They make the journey down the mountain only at times of great need, such as for medicine and hospital visits. Some never leave the village.

Living in the cold mountaintops, on the far side of the monstrous Río Chirripó that routinely sweeps people away and destroys paths to the village, they remain cut off from outside communities and services, and are often forgotten by government and charities alike.

“When I first went up there, I was shocked at the poverty they live in,” said Hector Soto Rojas, a 31-year old Tico who came to Tuis five years ago to set up Voz Que Clama, and who makes the five-hour hike to the otherwise-inaccessible Cabecar village once every two months.

“They have nothing in their huts, only a fire and some pots.

“I kept thinking: ‘These are Costa Ricans like me. Why do they not have the same services and facilities that everyone else enjoys?’ There’s a government office for everything else, like child abuse or for older people, but there’s nothing for these people.”

“It’s like something out of National Geographic up there,” added Daniel Montoya, his 29-year old friend and co-founder of the mission. “It’s so remote and completely dark at night. When we first arrived they were incredibly kind to us — they gave us the best hut in the village to sleep in, and gave us coffee to drink — something which is very important in their culture.”

It still took a couple of years for the chief of the tribe to accept them, and to believe that they would keep coming back to help.

Initially intended to be a community church, Voz Que Clama has become a non-denominational mission, a residency for disabled people rejected by the tribe, a half-way house for traveling Cabecars, an outreach program providing aid to remote populations, and a language school for foreigners whose school fees help fund the projects.

After they arrived, the two young men soon noticed the stigma that surrounded the Indian people who occasionally came down from the surrounding mountains.

“People would say to us ‘Why do you want to work with them?’” Montoya said. “‘They smell of smoke and they aren’t clean.’ They accused them of being thieves and taking advantage of people, probably because of things that happened back when Tuis was one big farm, and they would come down here to find work.”

Deep-rooted prejudices seem to be changing, and the morning of the party saw the mission packed full of local people bringing home-made dishes and donations, and a truck was needed to carry all the children who wanted to make the trip to Quetzal.

Soto said that attitudes have gradually changed since the men brought their first patient, a boy who suffers from cerebral palsy, down from the mountain to care for him in the mission house.

“Now we have 150 people coming to us on Sundays for our services, and people are always asking what’s going on in that yellow house on the corner. It’s like an auditorium to show the locals that the indigenous are humans too, and now they want to help out as well.”

The word has spread outside Tuis, and outside Costa Rica. The Christmas party included several Americans, British and Canadians who are students at the school, helpers at the mission, or who heard about the charity through friends.

America has a Voz Que Clama non-profit of its own, run by

Daniel Montoya serves lunch to kids
Daniel Montoya serves lunch to youngsters.
broken pinata
Volunteer helps produce candy from the piñata.

clothes donation
Clothes must be sorted before the big rush.

little girl awaits fiesta
Girls await the start of the fiesta.

Herb and Beverley Liberman in California, which raises money to support the mission and each year, brings Soto and Montoya, both good musicians, to California to play in local churches and raise awareness in San Francisco.

The British Embassy donated enough hot dogs to feed the whole party, and students from Uganda and Bolivia studying at EARTH university came with a box of rubber boots and bags full of clothing donated by students clearing out their closets at the end of the year.

But there are still people who are unwilling to help.

“I know one guy who gets shipments of clothes each year and gives out the hot-weather stuff in the coastal areas,” said Ms. Hancock, an American who has been supporting the mission since she and her husband Felipe bought a finca in nearby Esperanza over a year ago.

“I asked him to give us the warm clothes for the mission, and he didn’t want to, because these people are not Christians. It’s not like people won’t be allowed to have a sweater if they’re not a Christian!”

Voz Que Clama’s Web site emphasizes the deep Christian conviction that drives the project, but Soto and Montoya insist that they are inclusive in their outlook.

“After we went to Canada for eight months, we decided to come back to our own country as missionaries — a bit strange since missionaries usually go to other countries — but we knew that there are places in Costa Rica that still need help,” said Montoya.

“The indigenous are already Christian because other missionaries were there before us, but they practice a mixture of their own religion and Christianity. We don’t go up there to preach. Our mission is to take them out of the misery in which they live, and improve their quality of life.”

This is the third year that the mission has organized the Christmas party, and it gets bigger every year.

Indians people who live near Quetzal swelled the numbers of the Cabecar from the reservation to more than 250, joining in the lines for food and sitting in groups on the ground to eat.

Two red Santa piñatas were produced after lunch, bringing smiles to the children’s faces as they took turns to smack the Santa with a wooden stick.

Finally, clothes were handed out to anyone who wanted them, initially in an ordered manner according to size and need, but soon men were trying on women’s sweaters, girls were taking outsized mens shirts, and one guy was sporting a tottering fuzzy purple cap.

“It doesn’t really matter — anything that will keep them warm at night is useful,” said Ms. Hancock.

With their bags full of clothing, and with their children toting presents twice their size on their shoulders, the families set off back up the mountain in the early afternoon, just as the clouds were coming down to promise rain for their hike.

Soon Hector Soto, Daniel Montoya and a group of volunteers will make the journey to visit them again, spending three days in the village to help with projects from constructing new buildings to teaching the children how to brush their teeth.

It is obvious that there is still a long way to go before the Cabecar can have the advantages enjoyed by other Costa Ricans, but the men are realistic about what they can achieve.

“We’re not planning to create a utopia,” says Soto. “But we want to change people’s mindsets so they realize that the indigenous are here, in our country, and they need help.”

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Dec. 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 254

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Ex-president Rodríguez questioned in insurance investigation
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Prosecutors called in former president Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Friday for formal questioning involving the diversion of money from the Instituto Nacional de Seguros.

Rodríguez was called after the man who headed that agency in his administration was detained. He is Cristóbal Zawasky. A report from a British insurance company said that a number of persons received payments involving the reinsurance operation of the institute. The payments were believed channeled through corporations in Panamá.

Insurance companies routinely obtain reinsurance to protect them from excessive risk. The allegations here is that the firm kicked back some of the premiums to politically connected individuals. Rodríguez served from 1998 to 2002. He already is facing investigation on the allegation that he received a kickback on the purchase of cell telephone equipment from Alcatel. An Alcatel official has pleaded guilty in the United States in this case.
The Poder Judicial said that a judge ordered Zawasky not to leave the country and to sign in with prosecutors every 15 days. The amount involved in the latest case is at least $1.4 million.

On the political front, the Partido Acción Ciudadana said it wanted a legislative investigation of the persons that the British firm said were involved in the case.

Leda Zamora, a lawmaker associated with the party, said that those named should appear before the Comisión Permanente Especial de Control de Ingreso y Gasto Público. She also wants the current head of the agency, Guillermo Constenla, to appear to explain what he is doing about the case.

She reported that the law firm of Freshfields Brukhaus Deringer, representing PWS, had listed individuals and corporations that were involved in the kickback scheme.  One of these is Inversiones Denisse that she said was linked to Rodríguez.

Anti-drug patrols in Pacific force marijuana smugglers to dump boat and flee
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rican and U.S. patrols drove a boat to land over the weekend, and officials estimate that it was carrying 4.4 tons of marijuana.

Costa Rican officials are calling it the biggest confiscation of marijuana in the nation's history.

As officials tried to tow the 48-foot launch to storage in Golfito, the boat sank, according to a report from the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.
The crew appears to have fled inland after beaching the boat when patrol boats came close. That was between Punta Burica and Punta Banco near the Panamá border.

Costa Rican officials are assuming that the boat and its cargo came from Colombia. They estimated that on the U.S. market that much marijuana would bring $106 million retail.

A seagoing shipment of this kind of marijuana is unusual. Fastboats of the type confiscated by the Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas usually carry cocaine and heroin.

Japan said it will not hunt humpback whales this year in seas off Antarctica
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Japan said that it will suspend its plan to target humpback whales during this year’s whaling program that is under way in the seas off Antarctica.  The International Whaling Commission announced the agreement Friday. Japanese ships left for Antarctica on Nov. 18.
Japanese officials said they would postpone the harvest of humpback whales at least until after the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission slated for June.

This year, Japan had planned to target 50 humpback whales for the first time in its Antarctic program along with 50 fin whales and up to 935 minke whales.

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