President Under Fire For Perks
There’s no such thing as a free lunch – especiallyif you’re the President of Costa Rica, asAbel Pacheco has learned with a vengeance inrecent weeks.Pacheco has positioned himself since his 2002election as an enemy of corruption, a stance thatbecame even more adamant after corruption casesimplicated three of his predecessors last year andplaced two behind bars.However, criticisms of free flights, lifetime membershipsto a luxury resort and other perks Pachecorecently accepted have placed the President on thedefensive.This week, allegations that an honorary consul toSpain had privileged access to investments hereprompted a Prosecutor’s Office investigation and theresignation of two public officials: the consul and thePresident’s chief of protocol.CRITICS of Pacheco’s actions say they violate botha presidential decree he signed upon taking office andthe new Anti-Corruption Law passed last October. Theformer states that no public figure should accept gifts ofany kind; the latter prohibits public officials from accepting gifts worth more than ¢160,000($333). Free tickets that Grupo TACA airlinesgave Pacheco and his wife for a personaltrip late last year had a combinedticket value of ¢521,892.80 ($1,103),according to the daily La Nación.Pacheco supporters, including hisCabinet members, who signed a statementof “unconditional support” at his weeklyCabinet meeting on Tuesday, say thesecriticisms are unfair.At the press conference following themeeting, Pacheco said he will cooperatewith prosecutors’ and journalists’ investigationsbut will not give up his presidentialimmunity, because it would impede hisability to lead.“That’s what my enemies want,” hesaid. “If I renounce my immunity, they’llplace 5,000 accusations against me and I’llspend my life not governing, but answeringaccusations,” he said.THE series of scandals began whenPacheco accepted an invitation to visit theexclusive Cap Cana resort in theDominican Republic May 13-14. As partof the trip, he and his wife, LeilaRodríguez, received free flights and lifetimeCap Cana memberships. These giftsgenerated criticism in the national press.After a report from Casa Presidencialauditors said Pacheco’s acceptance of theseperks was not appropriate, the Presidentreturned the memberships and apologizedfor accepting the flights, saying his actionswere “definitely not good” (TT, May 27).Days later, after Channel 7 TV Newsrevealed that Pacheco and his wife hadflown to Miamiwith TACA forfree in December2004 as part of avacation trip toSeville, Spain,Pacheco returnedthe special passthe CentralAmerican airlinegives all CentralAmerican Presidents,entitlingthem to free travelto any destination.(Because he has renounced the privilege,the government picked up the tab forPacheco’s trip to Guatemala Tuesday on statebusiness – a trip he made in economy class.)ANOTHER aspect of the Seville tripcame under fire when Channel 7 revealedthat Spanish businessman BernardoMartín, president of Fundación Robles, theorganization that financed the publicationof Pacheco’s book “Poems, Stories andDrawings” – its unveiling was the reasonfor Pacheco’s trip to Spain – was laternamed Costa Rica’s honorary consul inSeville and is seeking beach concessions atthe Papagayo Peninsula tourism project inthe northwestern province of Guanacaste.Tourism Minister Rodrigo Castro clarifiedon Tuesday that Martín has neversought concessions, but has expressedinterest in investing in the hotels of would beconcessionaire and former TourismMinister Rubén Pacheco, a distant cousinof the President.The Papagayo board froze its concessionprocess last year when the CostaRican Tourism Institute (ICT) began aninternal investigation prompted by allegationsthat Rubén Pacheco’s concessionswere not legitimate.This investigation continues, althougha preliminary report released this monthsaid no wrongdoing had been found,according to Castro.He added that the Prosecutor’s Officehas requested copies of the documentsfrom the ICT investigation.MARTÍN announced his resignationas honorary consul in a five-page letter toPacheco, sent late Tuesday, in which hedenounced press activities here as a “witchhunt” and expressed concern about thecountry’s future in attracting foreigninvestment.“I have never expected, solicited norreceived any favor, sinecure or benefit, fromyour government or people linked with yourgovernment,” he wrote. “The generalization,the systematic lynching of foreign investors,isn’t the most appropriate focus for a countrythat’s trying to grow and sit in internationalfora next to other powers.”CONNECTIONS between privatebusiness and public officials are especiallyunwelcome in today’s Costa Rica, wherethe wounds are not yet healed – nor investigationscompleted – from last year’s corruptionscandals involving alleged illegalpayments to public officials by foreigncompanies with contracts in Costa Rica.One major case involved ex-PresidentRafael Ángel Calderón, Jr. (1990-1994)and a medical equipment purchase by theSocial Security System (Caja); the otherimplicated ex-Presidents José MaríaFigueres (1994-1998) and Miguel ÁngelRodríguez (1998-2002) and a multinationaltelecommunication firm’s contract withthe Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE).In coverage reminiscent of last year’smedia frenzy, newspapers and TV reportsthis week were rife with previously undisclosedlinks between public and privateinterests. In addition to Martín, with hisinterests in Papagayo, the Hazoury familyof Cap Cana is reportedly interested in arailroad concession here.Channel 7 News brought to lightMartín’s connection not only to RubénPacheco, but also to Jorge Arce, whoresigned Monday from his post as the chiefof protocol for President Pacheco after revelationsthat he also served as Martín’slegal representative. Arce maintains thereis nothing unethical about his dealings.“POEMS, Stories and Drawings”wasn’t the only Pacheco-authored book tocause controversy this week. A court rulingforced the groups that oversawPacheco’s successful 2002 campaign – theSocial Christian Unity Party (PUSC) andthe public relations firm Jotabequ Grey –to pay $30,000 in damages to Nicaraguansinger-songwriter Luis Enrique Mejía forfalsely claiming that Pacheco had writtenthe lyrics of one of Mejía’s songs, inspiredby one of Pacheco’s short stories. Whilethis case does not involve Pacheco directly,it added to the dull roar of retractionsand apologies the President and his camphave issued this month.Problems with Mejía began in 2001after Jotabequ Grey, which managedPacheco’s campaign, prepared a disc thatincluded two versions of Mejía’s 1993song “Congolí Changó.”Mejía’s lyrics for the song wereinspired by a short story in Pacheco’s book“Más abajo de la piel” (Underneath theskin). However, the credits of the discincorrectly stated that Pacheco had writtenthe lyrics to the song.A San José civil court ruled May 13that PUSC and Jotabequ Grey must paydamages to the author. PUSC and theagency did not make any profit from thesong, because the disc was distributed forfree as part of Pacheco’s campaign,according to the Judicial Branch.
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