Calle 13 shows heart in Fraijanes

Latin hip hop/reggaetón megastars Calle 13 went straight from their closing performance at Costa Rica’s drink-a-thon fiesta Palmares today (Sunday) to the mountain hamlet Fraijanes, where families displaced by the Jan 8 earthquake are being sheltered.

According to a video and account by Cristian Cambronero, over at fusildechispas, Residente and Visitante, the two principal members of the group, toured the shelter and town unnanounced, shaking hands and talking with people there but avoiding the media.

Calle 13 has proved itself to be irreverent and original in a musical genre dominated, at least in the mainstream, by shallow derivitives of whatever was hot last month. It’s nice to see that they appear to be compassionate human beings as well.

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Media crisis reaches Costa Rica

Word first leaked out on Twitter last night: Grupo Nación, publisher of several publications including what is considered by many to be Costa Rica’s largest and most influential daily, La Nación, would be cutting up to 100 jobs, including 14 reporters. This followed news earlier in the afternoon that the company would stop printing its recently launched, college-oriented newspaper Vuelta en U, leaving only the website.

Informa-Tico, the on-line daily that broke the news on Twitter, had a story up within a few hours quoting unnamed reporters from La Nación saying they were shocked by the news.

“This feels like a funeral. Even though there had been rumors in recent days, nobody expected layoffs. This has been very hard, very sad,” said one reporter who kept her job.

Informa-tico also ran the text of a memo sent to La Nación employees that included news that those remaining would receive a 5% raise in February.

La Nación today ran a story announcing in the lead “changes in the organizational structure and some products in order to increase efficiency and create savings that will allow (the company) to face the foreseen contraction in the advertising market within the context of the global economic crisis.”

Buried in the 17th paragraph (fourth to last in the story), La Nación revealed it would be cutting 25 positions immediately, and not refilling other positions that are left vacant in the future.

The news came as a shock to many in Costa Rica, but there were already symptoms that the country’s media was not immune to the same ills afflicting U.S. publications.

After a steady decline in ad pages, the English-language weekly The Beach Times quietly closed down at the beginning of this month, though a few stories have been posted to the website since then.

The Beach Times, where I worked for a year, was founded in 2003 by Ralph Nicholson, a life-long Australian journalist who worked his way up to vice-president in charge of new media at Reuters International. The paper served an audience of expats, investors and tourists with hard news and feature reporting from the booming northwest Pacific coast.

Meanwhile, at The Tico Times, where I currently work, ads have been shrinking steadily for months, and when one of the weekly’s four full-time reporters quit last year, no replacement was hired. This month, management announced there would be no raises until further notice.

Founded in 1956, The Tico Times documented much of Nicaragua’s civil war, losing a reporter in the infamous 1984 La Penca bombing (that link is in English, I promise), and has been a pioneer in environmental reporting over the last decade.

And finally, there have been rumors that AM Costa Rica, a staple website for expats in Costa Rica, would be shutting down this year. When I called and asked about the possibility, owner Jay Brodell oddly told me that he doesn’t talk to reporters.

Costa Rica’s earthquake hits environment hard

The full impact of the 6.2 earthquake that hit Costa Rica earlier this month is still coming into focus. Officially, 23 people are confirmed dead, but there are another seven people missing, presumed dead and likely are not going to be found any time soon (more on that next week).

Meanwhile, the environmental consequences are just beginning to emerge:

Thousands of fish in the Sarapiquí River were killed when mudslides choked the waterway, turning it into a continuous trough of sludge. Researchers fear that the river’s entire fish population may have been wiped out.

“For the Rio Sarapiquí, the earthquake was a catastrophe,” said Ron Coleman, a researcher from Sacramento State University in California. “As far as we can tell, the mud that went into the river choked all the oxygen out of the water and killed all of the fish and likely much of the other aquatic life.”

The Sarapiquí is a vital river for the region surrounding it, as well as one of the major rivers for whitewater rafting in Costa Rica. Ron Coleman later wrote me:

“The consequences are definitely serious to the region and certainly important to the country. This is not just a little thing. This is a big thing.” 

He said that it is not a major food source, but it has critical ecosystem importance, not to mention the tourism brought by whitewater rafting.

“Equally important, people are closely connected to the rivers of Costa Rica in many complex psychological ways,” he wrote. “It was clear to me that the death of the river was deeply disturbing to people who have grown up around it. It is a personal injury that will take time to heal and hopefully the river will recover fast enough to help that process.” 

How to help in the United States

More than 1,500 people are currently sleeping in temporary shelters in the mountainous region of Costa Rica that was devastated by a 6.2 earthquake Jan. 8. At least two villages have been chalked up as a total loss. There is a lot of work that needs to be done, houses rebuilt, lives relocated. Western Union has donated $50,000 and opened a special account for donations from the United States. More information here.

Justice and El Pacto in Nicaragua

Arnoldo Alemán, the former president of Nicaragua who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for stealing $100 million from the hemisphere’s second poorest nation, has had his conviction dropped and been set free by the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court. He had served only four years of his sentence, little of which was spent in prison. At the time of the ruling, he had been under a type of house arrest that gave him free movement throughout the country.

Tim Rogers, writing for The Nica Times:

“The ruling to free Alemán came less than an hour before the National Assembly met to elect its new directorate, in what critics are calling a clear political negotiation for control of the legislative branch. Alemán two days earlier denied reports that he negotiating his freedom with President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista Front.

Though the Sandinista Supreme Court judges denounced the ruling, analyst insists the Sandinistas were clearly accomplices in a decision that could be considered the penultimate act of the power-sharing pact formed a decade ago by Ortega and Alemán.”

And writing again, for The Miami Herald:

“In a strong sign of a deal, shortly after the disgraced Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) boss was freed, President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista Front won the presidency of the National Assembly, effectively giving the Sandinistas control over all four branches of government.Upon being notified of his freedom, Alemán, who had been serving out his jail term under the cushy conditions of house arrest at his sprawling hacienda compound outside Managua, thanked ”God and the Virgin” that “there is finally justice.”

Within two hours of the court ruling, the National Assembly, which had been paralyzed for more than two months following scandal-plagued Nov. 9 municipal elections, had reconvened and elected its new directorate, reelecting Sandinista lawmaker Rene Núñez as president of the legislature for another two years.

Although Alemán had denied earlier rumors that he was negotiating his freedom in exchange for giving Ortega power over the National Assembly, analysts insist there’s no other way to interpret Friday’s rapid series of events.

”This is a continuation of the pacto, a renovation of the pacto,” said political analyst Carlos Tünnermann, referring to the decade-old power-sharing pact forged between Ortega and Alemán.

Tünnermann and others speculate that part of the renegotiation of terms between Alemán and Ortega is an initiative to reform the constitution to allow Ortega to remain in power after his five-year presidential term ends in January 2012.

Costa Rica earthquake fatalities: 23. Please help.

Rescuers today pulled three more bodies from the collapsed remains of a restaurant called La Estrella, in the village of Cinchona, in north-central Costa Rica.

They are the latest victims of the 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the country Jan. 8, and bring the total number of confirmed deaths to 23. Eleven others are still missing, and feared dead.

More than 2,300 people are sleeping in churches, schools and tent camps converted into temporary shelters, and meteorologists are expecting a cold front to hit the area any day now. The aftershocks continue, eight days later.

The government has estimated the damage to be around $100 million. Somewhere between 350 and 500 homes have been destroyed in the simple, rural villages where strawberry farms, family-run dairies and ornamental plant nurseries provide most of the income.

Help is needed, and there are ways to donate. Officials are short on simple household items like chapstick, aloe vera and sun block, baby wipes, new, not used, underwear for men, women, boys and girls, adult diapers (they say they have enough baby diapers and towels), toiletries, and more.

Click here for more information on ways to donate money or supplies, or email me at lbaxtern@ticotimes.net.