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Saturday  10 January  2004

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Nicaraguans Flood Consulate
Costa Rican Authorities Pleased
Medical supplies
FTA with the Caribbean
Smuggling Figure Used Aliases
Nicaragua's National Assembly
Venezuela describes Powell's remarks as impertinent

Nicaraguans Flood Consulate
Daily, some 1,000 Nicaraguans apply for admission to Costa Rica at the Tico consulate in Managua.

Most of them had been working in Costa Rica, but went home for Christmas and New Year and are now trying to return and, in order to do so, must secure a visa.

The Costa Rican Consul in Managua, Gerardo Zuniga, confirmed that the applications for visas have trebled, from 200 to 300 daily to the current 1,000 or more.

On the other hand, Immigration authorities are keeping an eye on the border passes between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, since it is expected that thousands of illegal immigrants who also went home for the seasons will try to get back by illegal means.

Costa Rican Authorities are Pleased with 2003 Tourism Numbers

Costa Rica's travel industry appears to be putting past hard years behind after closing the year 2003 with an 8 percent increase, a couple of percentage points above the previous 6 percent estimate.

Tourism Minister Rodrigo Castro said that nearly half the total of visitors coming to the country hail from the United States for a double-digits growth in 2003, while the number of European tourists rose by 17 percent.

According to Mr. Castro, the good numbers stem from the implementation since early last year of a comprehensive tourism development plan that intends to notch a 6.6 percent annual average growth over the next ten years. A considerable chunk of the results is owed to the strategy of drawing more flights to the country, as many as 65 over the past 18 months.

In the same breath, the overshoot of travelers has egged on foreign investors to pour money into Costa Rica's hotel industry.

That same all-embracing plan also includes the building of some 19,000 hotel rooms over the next decade, a move bound to generate 50,000 new full-time jobs in the business, Mr. Castro pointed out.

As to hoteliers complaints over heavy taxation, Mr. Castro explained their grumbling is completely groundless, chiefly taking into account that the country averaged a 55 percent occupancy rate. That proves taxes are not shooing travelers away, he said.

Though the figures put up in 2003 give enough reasons for celebration within the sector, Mr. Castro believes this year could close with even bigger numbers.

In achieving that goal, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) has started building a huge international conference center bankrolled by Taiwan - and is embarked on improving infrastructure at the country's two major seaports, one on the Pacific coast and the other on the Caribbean.

Medical supplies
The exports of medical supplies remain in an upward trend.

According to analysts, during the first nine months last year they increased by 34 percent, as compared to the same period in 2002.

Baxter and Abbot are among the corporations with plants in Costa Rica that account for a large chunk of these exports, but other firms are likely to join them soon, according to Tomas Duenas, chairman of the Costa Rican Coalition for Development Initiatives.

FTA with the Caribbean
The chances of Costa Rican farm products to enter the Caribbean markets free of duty will become effective as of next month, when a free trade agreement (FTA) is to be signed by Costa Rica and the Caribbean Commonwealth (CARICOM).

The FTA will be fully effective in the largest Caribbean economies: Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Guyana, Jamaica and Barbados. With the other CARICOM nations - such as Antigua & Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Monserrat, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines -, the agreement will be only partial.

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Smuggling Figure Used Aliases

A central figure in an international adoption scandal involving baby smuggling has as many as seven Social Security numbers, and perhaps 20 different names, child welfare officials say.

Rolf Levy, a one-time Miami man who is now an international fugitive, was allowed to arrange the adoption of infants and children throughout South and Central America - under the authority of a licensed Florida adoption agency. He was listed as a ''foreign program coordinator'' and ''adoption consultant,'' for International Adoption Resource in Coral Springs.

The investigation involves authorities in Florida, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Colombia. The Florida Attorney General's Office has subpoenaed records from the agency. Administrators with the state Department of Children & Families are concerned that the adoption agency, which was relicensed by DCF in January 2003, gave Levy authority that he may have used to smuggle babies across borders.

''There are too many red flags not to be concerned about his relationship with IAR, and the fact that IAR should have known some of this information prior to his employment,'' said Jack Moss, DCF's district administrator in Fort Lauderdale.

''This is not like hiring a retail salesperson or clerical worker,'' Moss added. ``There are special obligations required in dealing with children.''

Michael B. Cohen, a Fort Lauderdale attorney representing the adoption agency, said Levy was not an employee of International Adoption Resource, but more like an independent contractor.

Rebecca Thurmond, the agency's executive director, had no way of knowing all the details of Levy's background, and certainly would have not involved him in the agency's business had she known he had done anything wrong, said Cohen, a former state and federal prosecutor.

''If this guy Levy was a bad [guy], my client did not know anything about it,'' Cohen said.

Acting on a tip, Costa Rican police in September 2003 raided a house in a middle-class neighborhood of San Jose. They found nine Guatemalan babies, the youngest two months old, allegedly brought to Costa Rica by a child-trafficking ring. Authorities said the babies were to be put up for adoption by foreign nationals.

A month later, Thurmond submitted an application to DCF's Fort Lauderdale office to be relicensed as an adoption agency. In the application, Rolf Levy is listed under ''staff'' as an adoption consultant and program coordinator. The Herald obtained the application Thursday from DCF.

A staff directory Thurmond provided to DCF listed a Social Security number for Levy that, records show, belongs to a Mission Viejo, Calif., teacher named Kenneth McBee. ''I never had signs that it had been used improperly,'' McBee told The Herald. ``I haven't gotten any bills I didn't ask for. But this is all strange to me.''

The adoption agency hired Levy in June; he applied for a job in April, records show. A mandatory FBI criminal background check reported no arrest record, said DCF senior attorney Deborah Guller.

The application shows the agency reported a total income of $1.1 million for the one-year period ending Sept. 30, 2003.

The application was still pending when, last month, the Costa Rican government -- which has said it wishes to steer clear of the baby-smuggling scandals that have plagued nearby Guatemala -- issued an international arrest order for Levy, alleging he smuggled children bound for adoptive homes in America.

The arrest order, which has been given to the international police agency Interpol, also states that Levy -- identified as ''Rolf Salomon Levy Berger,'' is wanted by the Colombian government for his involvement in ''kidnapping and trafficking in children as well as homicide for lack of medical attention of one of the children that he offered for sale,'' in Colombia.

DCF suspended the adoption agency's license Dec. 5, in a letter that said IAR had lied about its connections with another suspected child smuggler, Costa Rican attorney Carlos Robles, who was acting as an intermediary for the agency. Robles was jailed in September by Costa Rican authorities on suspicion of child trafficking.

Nicaragua's National Assembly elects new President
The National Assembly of Nicaragua held a special meeting on Thursday to form a new Board of Directors, and the Liberal Constitutionalist Party was proclaimed the winner.

Two legislators in the majority liberal party, Carlos Noguera and Wilfredo Navarro, were elected as the Assembly's president and the first vice-president.

The Board of Directors consists of seven members. The result ofthe Thursday's meeting was that the liberal party got three seats, an alliance formed by elements in the liberal party and the conservative party got three, and a third party, Camino Cristiano Nicaraguense, got the last seat.

The 38 legislators of the nation's main opposition Sandinist National Liberation Front (SNLF) quit the meeting soon after it opened, protesting that American officials were manipulating the election behind scenes, former First Vice-President Rene Nunez, who is an SNLF member, claimed.

New President Noguera denied reports of American involvement. He told a news conference after the meeting that US ambassador to Nicaragua Barbara Moore had facilitated the negotiations among the democratic parties.

Venezuela describes Powell's remarks as impertinent
United States Secretary of State Colin Powell's remarks on Venezuela's referendum are "impertinent," Venezuelan Vice President Jose Rangel said on Friday.

Powell indicated on Thursday that there will be a referendum vote against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez if signatures are approved to activate the consultation.

Rangel referred to the issue on his arrival at Caracas Hilton Hotel, where Bloque Cambio representatives, who back the government, met to analyze priority issues of the legislative agenda for this year.

Asked by the press whether Powell's remarks were an intervention in the internal affairs of Venezuela, Rangel said: "It is an impertinency.

"Powell says a very interesting thing -- if the signatures are gathered there will be a revocation referendum. Obviously yes. Anyway, it is not up to Mister Powell, the US State Department or the United States, but (to) the National Electoral Council of Venezuela to decide."

The revocation referendum is the third try by Chavez opponents to oust him, after a failed coup in 2002 and a two-month general strike ending in February 2003 which crippled crude exports of Venezuela, the fifth largest oil exporter in the world.

The opposition needs to gather the signatures of 20 percent of Venezuela's almost 12 million registered voters to request the revocation referendum. The result of the referendum can decide whether Chavez will remain in office or not.





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