Piedad Cordoba talks Colombia peace process in Costa Rica

Piedad Cordoba (in red) greets González de Perdomo and Clara Rojas upon their release from years of captivity at the hands of the FARC. Photo by Bernardo Londoy.

Piedad Cordoba (in red) greets González de Perdomo and Clara Rojas upon their release from years of captivity at the hands of the FARC. Photo by Bernardo Londoy.

Colombian senator Piedad Cordoba was briefly in Costa Rica this week and met with legislators and former president Rodgrio Carazo, saying she sought to “establish alliances for a political and negotiated end” to the ongoing conflict in her home country.

One official she didn’t meet with: Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who in 1989 was awarded an often-touted Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the the Central American Peace Accords. Lilia Solano, a Colombian peace activist who spoke with Cordoba at Costa Rica’s Universidad Nacional, said that the university had requested a meeting with Arias more than a month earlier, but was not granted one.

Contrast that with a meeting Arias held in August of 2006 when he hosted the heads of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), an umbrella group for right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia, declared a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. At his Casa Presidencial, Arias sat down with AUC spokesman Antonio Lopez (who was shot to death while eating lunch in Medellín last year) and others, including the infamous Carlos Mario Jimenez, a.k.a. Macaco, Ramon Isaza and Ivan Roberto Duque. Arias said then that he would be willing to lend a hand with peace negotiations in Colombia — which involve the Marxist-Leninist FARC guerrillas and the ELN (both also listed as terrorist organizations), and the Colombian government — but only if all the actors agreed. Arias visited Colombian President Alvaro Uribe the following week, but no role for Arias in the peace process ever materialized.

Speaking to a small group inside Universidad Nacional’s Social Sciences building earlier this week, Cordoba said that despite an era of unprecedented connection, and instant global communication, “very few people have a deep understanding of what is going on in Colombia.”

Cordoba’s visit comes on a return from the United States, where she met with the notorious paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is awaiting trial on an assortment of pretty heinous charges. The visit also comes as controversy swirls in Colombia over President Uribe’s refusal to allow Cordoba to negotiate the release of Colombian soldier Pablo Emilio Moncayo from more than 11 years of captivity at the hands of the FARC. The guerrillas have said Cordoba’s presence is a prerequisite for his release.

Colombia’s Inspector General is currently investigating Cordoba’s ties to the FARC after the Colombian government said it found emails between the rebels and the senator on a laptop belonging to FARC’s number two commander Raul Reyes.

The (shaky) view from Pelican Island.

On a recent trip to Panama, I shot this during a visit to Isla Pelicano, an island in the San Blas archipelago off Panama’s Caribbean coast. It’s my first stab at video (shooting and editing), so be forgiving.

Friedman does Costa Rica

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman paid Costa Rica a visit recently, and decided to take the chance to pen a column lauding the country’s forward-thinking environmental policies. His information seems to have come entirely from a conversation he had with former environment minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, who — I am inferring — painted a pretty nice picture of the environmental situation.

Being on vacation, Friedman apparently couldn’t be troubled to apply the same level of critical thinking to these claims as he does the praise espoused by U.S. politicians when speaking about their own work.

No doubt, Costa Rica is doing a much better job than most of its neighbors in the hemisphere in protecting its natural resources. And many in the private sector, particularly tourism businesses, have stepped up to the plate in making their business practices more sustainable. But then, it pays to be green when you operate in a country known for eco-tourism — a country, it’s worth mentioning, where the vast amount of sewage is untreated and ends up dumped in the rivers (the Health Ministry recently acknowledged it has not had a functioning waste treatment plant for years in the populous Central Valley, which includes the capital, leaving the companies that pump septic tanks to dump their sludge in fields and rivers). Another good amount of waste is piped directly out to the ocean, in some cases at top tourist beaches.

The country’s national park system, when created, was revolutionary and a good chunk of Costa Rica is now under some type of protected status (though the 25% figure he cites is debatable). But these areas are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Manuel Antonio National Park — the second-most-visited national park in the country — is now biologically isolated, as all surrounding forest has been cleared either for agriculture or tourism and real estate development. Its famous populations of monkeys are falling ill or critically endangered, depending on the species. The park was recently threatened with closure when it was discovered that the decrepit and abandoned public bathrooms were seeping sewage into the environment, among other problems.

Friedman also praises Costa Rica’s Payments for Environmental Services program, which is widely cheered, but its real impact has been questioned. While the country has been able to first stop, then reverse deforestation, it is a combination of both sound policies and good luck. The collapse of Costa Rica’s beef exports went a long way towards allowing pastures to regenerate.

The government has also been pushing carbon-neutrality left and right, though most of that work is being done by private businesses while even the Environment Ministry’s offices have yet to switch to energy-efficient light bulbs.

Friedman said Costa Rica “did something no country has ever done: It put energy, environment, mines and water all under one minister.” Roberto Dobles, the President’s second cousin and former telecom exec (telecommunications was also put into the same ministry), was the head of that ministry for the past three years, finding himself on the business side of a series of environmental conflicts (like this one over an open-pit gold mine). In March, he was forced to resign after it became public he signed a mining concession connected to his family and business associates, much to the joy of many in the nation’s environmental movement.

The same Carlos Manuel Rodríguez that spoke with Friedman for yesterday’s column gave me a much more critical view in an interview in January:

What are the greatest environmental challenges that Costa Rica is facing in the coming year?

Rodriguez: Without a doubt, the greatest challenge is the lack of environmental leadership on behalf of the government, which has demonstrated little environmental commitment and a lack of coherence between political discourse and actions. The government has expressed an unconditional support for the economic sector without considering environmental costs. The isolation of the protected areas, the opening to mining and oil exploration… are examples of these circumstances.

While there are many things being done right in Costa Rica, nobody wins when the real story is glossed over, as my friend Patrick put it. This present administration running Costa Rica has taken considerable heat for talking a nice game on the environment but failing to really do anything to back it up, and uncritical praise from such a tall podium like a New York Times column only inflates egos while giving little pressure to enact truly progressive policies.

I would love to see the United States using much, much more renewable energy and putting environmental protection at the top of its list of priorities. But for those of us who see Costa Rica as more than a pretty vacation destination, real environmental commitment here — a tiny country with a lion’s share of the world’s biodiversity — is critical, and it does no good to gloss over reality in order to make a case for change in the United States.

Dobles goes down

You could almost hear the cheers go up in the halls of Costa Rica’s grass roots environmental organizations and public universities: Environment (and Energy and Telecommunications) Minister Roberto Dobles had announced his resignation.

After a a series of environmental scandals and increasingly hostile criticism, Dobles, a former telecommunications executive, announced Friday that he will step down today. This, after Costa Rica’s Telenoticias TV news revealed last week that he awarded a mining concession to a corporation where his uncle (and cousin to President Oscar Arias) is the vice-president.

According to an investigation by the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC), and headed by one of the country’s most reputable investigative journalists, 100% of the shares of the company that won the concession are owned by a corporation that, in turn, is owned by four other corporations where Dobles’ wife, mother and other family members are owners.

These last corporations exist largely on paper, according to the PAC investigation, a practice common in Costa Rica for purchasing property, owning businesses or reducing “tax exposure.” Dobles himself was listed as the president of one corporation until he stepped down, five months before awarding the controversial concession. 

Dobles claims he did nothing wrong, citing Costa Rica’s mining code, which prohibits government officials from granting mining concessions to family withing one degree of “consanguinidad,” or blood relation. Dobles said that his uncle is actually three degrees away, and claimed to not have known about the connection to the corporations owned by his immediate family.

He also noted that his uncle’s corporation originally applied for the concession — which is to pull sand and rock from a riverbed over five years — in 2001. It was through a combination of bureaucracy and coincidence, Dobles said, that it did not get through all the necessary hoops and red tape until just after he was named Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Minister by President Arias in 2006. 

Speaking to the Legislative Assembly Monday, where opposition legislators pounded him with questions and accusations of fraud and corruption while friendly lawmakers came to his defense, Dobles said he was stepping down not because he had done anything wrong, but because he didn’t want the controversy to hinder the president’s agenda during the last year of his administration.

Dobles, who prides himself on his work on Costa Rica’s national climate change strategy and a massive tree planting campaign, has become enemy number one for many environmental organizations after a series of decisions that appeared to put business interests before environmental protection

Both Dobles and Arias are now facing an investigation by the state Prosecutor’s Office into whether the concession broke the law.

Costa Rica’s secret police?

What is a country with no military and an international reputation for peace and human rights doing with a secret police that is authorized to spy on its own citizens and answers only to the President?

The question, which has been asked before, has taken on renewed importance since it became public that Costa Rica’s Dirección de Intelligencia y Seguridad Nacional (Department of Intelligence and National Security), or DIS, was apparently keeping a file on a journalist who vocally opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, known as CAFTA. President Oscar Arias campaigned on  a promise to approve CAFTA, at one point nearly staking his presidency on its passage.

Gilberto Lopes, who was born in Brazil but has spent the past 30 years working as a journalist in Costa Rica, was denied his request for citizenship last year because, as the Civil Registry put it in the rejection letter it sent him, Lopes “had not conducted himself well” in Costa Rica. The Civil Registry drew this conclusion after checking with the DIS and being told that Lopes’ name was “annotated” in their files.

Though he has never been convicted of a crime, Lopes did publish a booklet critical of the free trade agreement and spoke out on panels and round-table discussions against CAFTA, which polarized the country and was barely approved in a national referendum in 2007. Lopes also has long worked at Semanario Universidad, a left-leaning weekly published by the left-leaning University of Costa Rica. Semanario Universidad was first to publish a leaked, now-infamous memorandum written by a legislator and administration minister advising the president use fear tactics and other unsavory strategies in order to win the referendum.

When asked if he believed that the DIS was monitoring him because of his political activities, the 66-year-old writer, literary critic and BBC-collaborator said, “It’s evident.”

“But if you ask me for proof, the only proof I have is that file,” Lopes said.

Lopes has not seen the file, because the DIS refused to give even the Supreme Elections Tribunal, which oversees the Civil Registry, access to it during the appeals. The DIS is authorized to withhold information pertaining to ongoing investigations or deemed “state secrets,” but it did not specify where the info on Lopes fell.

Now, it appears that the whatever it was, the information has disappeared, or never existed at all.

“I have investigated and there is no file on him here. We are completely sure about this,” said the sub-director of DIS, Jorge Torres, in an interview this week inside his wood-paneled office in the unmarked, nondescript DIS headquarters off a busy intersection in San José.

Torres also denied that the DIS ever investigated opponents of CAFTA.

“That’s totally false. We are not a police force that has been created for that. In Costa Rica, we have the freedom of expression,” Torres insisted.

This defense is unlikely to go far with critics, however. The DIS was rocked last year when Torres’ predecessor, former sub-director Roberto Guillén, was forced to step down after being accused of robbing property and money from at least 14 businesses and individuals by accessing their personal information.

The nation’s chief prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese has called for nothing less than the total dissolution of the DIS.

In an op-ed for the daily La Nación, he wrote: “It is worrying that in a nation of laws there exists an entity such as the DIS, which, contradictory to Article 11 of the Constitution, is not called to account, does not file reports nor assumes responsibility for what it does.”

The little court that could

Arguably the single most effective government agency protecting Costa Rica’s environment is an underfunded, short-staffed, three-judge administrative court called the Environmental Tribunal.

While Costa Rica has won praise internationally for high environmental standards, with the oft-quoted statistic that 25% of the country is under some type of protection (national park, wildlife refuge, etc.), a closer look reveals some serious contradictions.

One of the biggest threats in recent years has been an onslaught of tourism and real estate development. Real estate agents and baby boomers discovered cheap land, sunny living and breathtaking views and descended on some of the most pristine regions in this hemisphere, where building and environmental regulations are often flimsy or not enforced (especially in exchange for a bribe).

A study in 2007 found that 1 in 5 projects along the central Pacific coast and in the northwestern province of Guanacaste — the fastest growing regions in the country, per new construction — lacked basic construction and environmental permits.

Enter José Lino Chaves, who in January 2008 was sworn in as the lead judge on the Environmental Tribunal, a court that before then held little name recognition, let alone fame.

In his first 12 months on the job, Chaves led a series of regional inspections he termed barridas ambientales, or environmental sweeps. With little to no notice, he and a squad of geologists, hydrologists, engineers and other specialists and local officials would visit construction sites checking paperwork and looking for environmental violations.

The total number of cases opened by the tribunal in 2008 increased by 50% from the year before to 461. Nearly 60 of those were allegedly illegal construction projects along either the Pacific or Caribbean coast, uncovered during the sweeps. Among the projects either suspended or put under investigation were the $300 million Hotel Hyatt Azulera, on Guanacaste’s Brasilito beach, and the Ritz-Carlton’s $250 million Guacamaya project in Guanacaste.

It is of little surprise that the newly invigorated court would have stepped on some toes. Politicial pressure, a break-in at the court’s offices and death threats to the judges and Chaves’ wife however failed to slow their actions.

But with a total staff of 12 employees — five of whom are on loan from other institutions and whose availability depends on their workload at their other offices — the cases have piled up. Construction projects have had to fire workers as they waited for investigations to begin, riling local unrest.

Chaves estimates that cases currently average about two years in the court before being resolved,  but the tribunal has agreed to prioritize the development projects caught up in last year’s raids, and a new budget will add nine new full-time positions to the staff. Chaves, who was inspecting projects in Guanacaste this week, said he will continue full-force this year.

“One alternative was to slow our pace this year to give us a chance to catch up. But what is lost? A delay in the cases because of a lack of personnel, or continued environmental damage in this country,” Chaves told me in a recent interview. “Obviously the answer is that we cannot allow continued environmental damage. We have to be inflexible, and we have to go back out in the field.”

The tribunal has announced six more sweeps for this year, with an emphasis on chemical and waste pollution in the country’s waterways. Those inspections will target construction and industry on the Nicoya Peninsula, the San José greater metropolitan area, Guanacaste, the Caribbean province of Limón and the Osa Peninsula, and look at the heavily criticized pineapple plantations in the northern plains.

How to cross the street in Costa Rica

This comes from my good friend Peter Krupa:

Crossing the street in Costa Rica from Peter Krupa on Vimeo.