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Station Closure Deepens Rift with Venezuela

Costa Rican legislators, radio stations, President Oscar Arias and others this week criticized Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s decision to not renew the license of that country’s oldest television network.

Libertarian Movement (ML) party leader Evita Arguedas led the rally against Chávez’s decision, calling this week’s closure of the 53-year-old Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) station a “slap in the face for freedom of expression in that nation and to all free peoples on the American continent.”

About 130 radio stations here organized by Costa Rica’s National Radio Chamber (CANARA) observed one minute of silence Monday morning after the Venezuelan TV station went off air that day and was replaced by a state-run station. RCTV was an outlet for opposition parties, which Venezuelan President Chávez accused of supporting the failed 2002 coup against him and violating broadcast laws.

Venezuelan police clashed with thousands of protestors in that nation’s capital Sunday, firing tear gas into demonstrations after several cops said they were hit with rocks tossed by protestors.

The TV station’s closure, which has drawn criticism throughout Costa Rica and around the world, comes as Costa Rican officials process requests of military leaders in the same 2002 coup against President Chávez who are seeking asylum in Costa Rica.

The refugee situation has resulted in official head butting between the two countries, whose relations have been deteriorating in recent years with stagnating trade and vitriolic rhetoric exchanged between Chávez and Arias earlier this year (TT, Feb. 23).

Arias said this week in a statement, “It’s a mortal injury for any democratic system any time a media is closed.”

But he moderated his criticism by adding that he hopes to continue diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

Clash over Freedoms

Arguedas and other Libertarian legislators requested Monday that Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry demand that the Organization of American States (OAS) review the Venezuelan news network’s closure as possibly violating democratic principles.

The Costa Rican Foreign Ministry didn’t comment on this request by press time. Nor has the ministry commented on the fact that three Venezuelans wanted in their country for having allegedly led an overthrow of President Chávez in April 2002 are in Costa Rica (TT,May 25).

Former General Néstor González and former police director Henry López have presented their requests for political asylum in Costa Rica to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Costa Rica’s Immigration Administration has yet to decide on the cases.

Additionally, former Venezuelan general and coup leader Enrique Medina is in Costa Rica and already has refugee status, Immigration spokeswoman Heidi Bonilla confirmed this week.

González is considered an enemy of the state in Venezuela, where he once accused Chávez of supporting Colombian leftists rebels and headed the coup that toppled Chávez for nearly two days before the populist leader regained power. González is wanted for deaths of soldiers and terrorist acts, the news agency EFE reported.

Minister Berrocal has denied that the Costa Rican government is protecting González, who requested refugee status March 19, several months after he arrived in the country.

This week, Venezuela’s former Vice-President José Rangel accused Berrocal of distorting the facts about González’s arrival to Costa Rica. Though Berrocal had said González came to Costa Rica six months ago and requested refuge, Rangel said González entered March 23, after already having requested refugee asylum, “with the protection of local authorities,” EFE reported.

Berrocal didn’t confirm or deny this, saying only he hopes the issue doesn’t become a point of dispute between the two countries.

The issue arose after Chávez’s plans to close a Venezuelan state-run aluminum plant operating in Costa Rica stirred tensions between Chávez and President Oscar Arias, setting off a verbal tiff between the two that highlighted their political differences (TT, Feb 23). Officials have since announced the plant won’t close and 400 workers will keep their jobs (TT, March 2).

Costa Rica played an unexpectedly important role in days after the April 11, 2002, coup in Venezuela, which began on the heels of violent protests outside Venezuela’s presidential palace that left 17 dead and lead to Chávez’s handing over power to the military.

Eighteen Latin American presidents were meeting in San José to discuss policies to combat poverty for the annual Río Group Summit when the takeover began. But soon after the Venezuelan revolt led to a military takeover, the group’s plans were scrapped and leaders met behind closed doors to draft a joint declaration on the Venezuelan crisis. The leaders condemned the break in constitutional order and threatened to invoke an OAS charter (TT, April 19, 2002).

The failed coup also raised concerns about Costa Rica’s oil supply, prompting the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE) to reassure the country there was no looming oil shortage. Costa Rica, whose trade with Venezuela has stagnated in recent years, still buys most of its crude from the South American oilproducing giant (TT, Jan. 19).



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