Feet of Cement

cementazo

An earthquake of 6.5 shook the country recently.

We had had an early night as we had a crack of dawn start for a hosital appointment the next day but had hardly settled down before the dogs started yodelling. We thought they must have heard the coyotes who have been roaming the mountain behind us for a couple of weeks now but then they fell quiet as the house began to sway back and forth. It was like lying on a jelly.

It lasted a few minutes only and we had no damage. Friends have told us that the danger comes when the action is percussive and we did experience one of those in the original house down below…it was like a hammer drill doing its worst, but luckily, as the epicentre was only ten kilometres away, it was deep, at seventy five kilometres down, unlike the latest one whose epicentre was off the Pacific coast, and only ten kilometres down.

Still, it took the country’s mind off its problems for a moment.

Problems, you ask? In the land of Pura Vida where the people are amongst the happiest on earth according to some survey which is no doubt selling something?

I don’t know where they find these people as most of my friends are usually moaning….perhaps they  interview politicians.

Others interviewing politicians at the moment are the police. It is fairly normal for previous presidents to be investigated by the police, but only after a discreet passage of time when the proceeds have been salted away, so what has occurred to upset the applecart?

Cement…that is what.

No, not cement as in disposing of bodies while road building – the time it takes this country to get a road built the body would have disintegrated enough not to need burial anywhere – but cement as imported from China.

A happy duopoly controls cement sales in Costa Rica. It has no doubt paid well for its position over the years so was far from pleased when it looked as if the President was encouraging the import of cement from China with the aim of lowering prices.

Intolerable! Have his guts for garters!

So the duopoly set the hounds of the press on the job…or at least those parts of the press where it had influence….and finally they dredged up  one of the bosses of the Customs department who said that he had an e mail from the Deputy Finance Minister telling him that the ‘Big Chief’ – supposedly the President – wanted any shipments of Chinese cement to get through Customs without the usual old Spanish practices so that it would still be fit to use when released.

Shock horror!

Then the hounds went further. They discovered that one of the state banks had made a huge loan to the importer – with the cement as security –  the major part of which loan had ended up in his private coffers, while no cement ever arrived in Costa Rica.

And this is where things started to  go wrong.

Aiming at the President, the duopoly accidentally put one of their own in the frame.

The Chief Prosecutor.

This man, a stalwart of the old regime in Costa Rica, was an expert in delaying and burying unwanted dossiers and had been found with his fingers in the bank’s affairs, dividing the investigation into a myriad of mini investigations which would run into the sand, leaving those responsible at the bank to live a quiet life in the offices which had been refurbished recently at vast expense from the bank’s money…..i.e. public funds.

He was suspended and a young lady was appointed as interim Chief Prosecutor.

She seems to hold the view that prosecutors should prosecute and to that end has put the would be importer and the bank officials into preventive detention while she investigates.

Further, she has unearthed links between a magistrate, the Deputy Finance Minister and several politicians which she believes may give rise to prosecutions for the traffic of influence and has, with the consent of the courts, proceeded to seize their offices, computers and cars in search of evidence.

Mark you, this being Costa Rica, where the sublime usually descends to the gor blimey, the cars of the police seizing the gear of the Deputy Finance Minister were nicked for parking offences by the Municipal Police in San Jose.

She has also had a look at the mosaic of dossiers prepared by the Chief Prosecutor over the years in other sensitive matters, the upshot of which is that said Chief Prosecutor has decided to retire and a recent President is being summoned to explain how a mining company managed to get a permit to mine in a conservation area.

The country is reeling.

Action on corruption! Whatever next!

It does not come at a good moment for the politicians. Any of them. Because the Presidential elections are coming up in February and corruption is a major beef for the electorate.

Normally the level of enthusiasm of Costa Ricans for elections equals the energy of a crocodile in the early hours of a chilly morning, but this case has roused people to resemble crocodiles at midday, ready to wolf down anything in their path.

And what is in their path?

Politicians.

I can bet that the man who put up this poster is not going to vote for the PLN.

PLN elections

He seems to have strong feelings on the subject.

Historically the PLN held a firm grip on the vote as they were the party of the President who abolished the army and set up the CAJA – the NHS of Costa Rica. People were grateful and remained so for years.

Further, under the same recent President who is now being summoned to explain the mining licence, the civil service was expanded beyond anything that was necessary in order to form a client vote of those who benefited from the excellent wages, perks and pensions  – and their extended families.

Occasionally the PUSC, sort of Christian Democrats, would get a look in to keep them sweet, but basically the PLN had it all their own way, including in  local government.

The last elections brought a change….the people elected an almost unknown candidate, a university professor, who stood on a platform of opportunity for all, not the few.

Thus the enmity of the cement duopoly who regard such views as heresy.

He has had a hard fight. No majority in the National Assembly, ministries stuffed with partisans of the outgoing party….but the ship is slowly turning round. People are discontented with the slow pace of change but with the cement case there is a chance that they will see that change is possible…if they will back those who work for it.

Locally, too, politics is in the news.

This town is built on ground that is unstable…underground water courses run all over the place, let alone fault lines,  so holes tend to appear in the roads without warning. Ideally the council would use a study done by the University of Costa Rica which showed how to channel  and drain the area, but, of course, that would cost money and the council never seems to have any of that for infrastructure problems despite having a dedicated budget for same.

So the holes tend to be there for a long time.

puris holes in road

 

Exasperated by the inaction of the council a group of businessmen got together, hired an engineer and the necessary equipment and did the job themselves in the course of one night when they could reckon to be undisturbed by council workers or police who tend not to venture out after dark.

The alcalde – mayor – outraged by this demonstration of citizen power announced that the work was shoddy and would collapse within a week. Furthermore it would all have to come up anyway as the council was about to start a programme of repairs!

Several weeks later the holes remain mended and the council has managed to repair one road…the one leading to the fiesta ground which has been done in time for the annual high jinks surrounding the celebration of the town’s patron saint’s day.

Clearly it is not for nothing that the alcalde is a member of the PUSC.

I have been a trifle unfair to the police here.

They have a new boss. He is a local lad who has worked in other areas for years before being drafted back to his home town.

He wishes to clean up the place, but is a realistic gentleman.

No point rounding up the drug dealers and the wild young men who make the roads dangerous by doing wheelies, etc on onlicensed motorbikes during the week, as the resident judge for criminal affairs has a great respect for the presumption of innocence and tends to release anyone  daft enough to be caught by the previous police chief.

No…save the effort for the weekends, when a duty judge comes down from San Jose and jugs the lot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holes in the road.

Bring Back Gladstone

candidatesWill it be the man in the suit who buggered up my mobile ‘phone or will it be the one who looks as if he has just been ejected from Tracey Emin’s unmade bed?
The woman who knows all the facts, or the silver haired man ‘who has consented to stand’?
The man who has just hired a bulldozer to repair the road to town which has been impassable for three years – and in so doing has been threatened with legal proceedings by the Roadworks Agency who should have done the work; the woman whose main claim seems to be her extensive family connections, or the man with the clipboard?

Yes, local elections are coming up in February and the candidates are doing their best to raise the political temperature in the area from somewhere near sub zero to something approaching the blood heat of a crocodile in the dark hours before the dawn.

The seven candidates have one thing in common….no, two things: they all want to be mayor and they are all shocked to find that the populace demonstrates a certain cynicism as to their motives for so doing.

Of course, they all want the best for the local people…the cynicism of the populace lies in the determination of who, exactly, counts as ‘local people’…
Is it local people in general, or is it certain people who live locally?

In order to bring things into the open the stringers for the national press organised a meeting, live online, where the candidates could answer questions and express their views.
Needless to say we saw a great deal of the said stringers congratulating themselves on organising the event…and a lot of camera time dwelling on the backdrop with the names of the local businesses sponsoring it…but we did also see the candidates.
All seven of them.

Eventually, things began with a rendition of the national anthem sung with enthusiasm.

As it was being distributed live online only the seriously narcissistic were present to watch the event, which, given past form at council meetings might have been an advantage. (The action on the video starts at four and a half minutes and involves the intervention of the police a minute later…)

Matters proceeded with a rendition of a ghastly ditty celebrating the area and they were off!

The candidates introduced themselves, talked about their families and then answered questions which were of two types: the first being written questions submitted to the stringers and the second being questions about the area and the work of the council written by the stringers themselves.

While the answers to the first batch of questions were the usual mix of wishful thinking and back handed swipes at the outgoing regime I was delighted to find that most of the candidates answered most of the ‘general knowledge’ questions correctly…apart from the one about the number of employees the current regime owns up to which produced a fair amount of wild guesswork as while some are visible and occasionally active others seem to live in a shadow world where only their paycheck is real.

So, whoever we get, the new mayor will have some idea of what he or she will be dealing with.

The same could not be said for Myriam El Khomri, France’s new Ministre du Travail (minister for employment) who made a real ass of herself in a recent television interview.

The lack of stable employment is a serious problem in France
If you are lucky – or started work in the Dark Ages – you will have a permanent contract, a CDI.
If you started work after Personnel Departments started calling themselves Human Resources then you are more likely to have a temporary contract, a CDD.
While the latter are supposed to be only for short term specific jobs, in reality they are about all you can get these days, because they allow employers to get rid of staff without the costly rigmarole of warnings, assessments and compensation afforded the holder of a CDI, and can be renewed without having to be converted into a permanent post as long as there is a break in or change of terms of employment.

There is, of course, abuse of the system.
La Poste holds, I believe, the palm, having employed someone for twenty five years on temporary contracts by moving the unfortunate worker from one office to another….but they are not alone – notably the Pole Emploi (Labour Exchange) in the public sector, the banks in the private, so for the person on a temporary contract the matter of the renewal of contracts is most important.

Not, it seems, for the Employment Minister.

Asked how many times a temporary contract could be renewed before having to be transformed into a permanent contract she dithered and dithered..and finally admitted that she did not know.

Not that it mattered, of course. The next day she said that she had been deliberately trapped…as had other politicians before her..it’s happened before and it will happen again, said she insouciantly.

This from someone who has never held down a proper job in her life.
From university onward she has lived from the public purse…from cronyism… flitting from one political job to another until the need to appease those of immigrant stock who still vote for the Socialist Party arose – and there she was: a woman of Moroccan origins. Ideal!
Does it matter that she has no experience in the field? No.
Does it matter that she appears incapable of acquiring any? No.

Because modern ministers are for the most part figureheads…the policy is decided elsewhere, by the global businesses who now control politicians, and all that is required is to toe the line and accept the handout on retirement from office.

We, the people, do not matter – except as a Human Resource.
And we, the people, have no power except at the changing of the guard called elections when one uniform replaces another to continue with the same policies.

The last Presidential elections in Costa Rica produced a nasty surprise for entrenched power: an outsider came to power borne on people’s resentment of corruption and cronyism.
He says he will not stand again…it has been a constant struggle to start the process of change; setbacks and ambushes at every turn…but there have been changes and people have seen that they could make their voice count and that they can do it again if need be.

I note the way in which Jeremy Corbyn has been demonised in the press; how the New Labour elite are organising to overthrow him as leader of the party…
But many people voted him into that post, people who, like Costa Ricans, had given up on politics. They voted for change once they had the chance.
Voted, like the Costa Ricans, for honesty and competence over entrenched privilege.

Enter Gladstone, monument of rectitude.

In the wake of the disastrous campaign in the Crimea his government resolved to shake up the armed forces…to make them efficient, competent and open to talent. His War Minister, Cardwell, abolished the purchase of commissions bringing fresh blood into higher command….a process gently mocked by Gilbert and Sullivan in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ in the Major General’s song:

Gladstone shook up the Civil service too…entry only by competitive examination.Goodness only knows what he would make of the tribe of ‘consultants’ leeching the public purse these days….

We need another Gladstone…but unless we combat the influence of global business’ lapdog, the media, we won’t get one.
We need to talk to each other, encourage each other, help each other to bring people back to voting again…to back candidates with whom we do not agree on all points but who are honest and willing to stand up for all the people, not just the privileged.

Mr. Magouille.

la_poste_logo_enseigne

A French friend sent me an e mail today.

‘Read the paper! Open a good bottle!’

So I turned up the local rag on line and found the item to which he referred:

L’ex maire de ‘St. Supplice’ definitivement condamne’.

Not, unfortunately, to the guillotine, but to a disqualification from holding public office for three years and a fine of seven thousand five hundred euros, in respect of an illegal use of his powers while maire of his commune.

As it was by then lunchtime I did indeed open a good bottle in celebration.

I had known this man…I bought my first house in France from him.

Well, not exactly from him as he was then disqualified from any financial dealings and everything was in the name of his wife.

The notaire, well oiled in the after lunch appointment to finalise the sale, had been discursive.

The gentleman had been involved in property speculations in the Var and had gone spectacularly bust. I was left with the distinct impression that while going spectacularly bust might have been marginally acceptable, doing so in the department of the Var…in the south of France…put the man beyond the pale.
Rural France, la France Profonde, may not be fond of Paris….but it is definitely agin the south of France.

He – or his wife – had bought a chateau in dire need of repair….the last owners, three maiden ladies known as the ‘six fesses’ – three bare arses – due to their parsimony, had finally given up the struggle to maintain life in the one room which was not dripping with damp and the property speculator had struck.

He had a plan.

By selling off the peripheral properties ( thus my house purchase) he had enough money to finance the initial repairs: he managed to make enough of the chateau habitable to be accepted by social services as a foster parent….and as the money rolled in the chateau was fully repaired – to be fair, he and his wife did a great job with the children they fostered – and he was regarded as a respectable citizen.
Not by me…I had had the benefit of the notaire’s indiscretions.

So much so that, with support from right thinking persons, he became maire of St. Supplice.

But the old Adam of property speculation was strong within him….

As so often in France, the local council owns a number of buildings in the commune.

In St. Supplice, it owned the building used for years as the Post Office…and when La Poste, in its eternal quest to reduce services and increase prices, decided to close down its office the council, with the maire at its head, put the building up for sale.

A value was determined by Les Domaines – a government agency which handles public property – and the game was on.

An offer was received from a Belgian resident of the commune.
The offer was rejected, although over the valuation arrived at by Les Domaines.

The maire authorised the demolition of some of the outbuildings of the Post Office.

An offer was received from a company owned by the son of the maire, whose capital depended on a loan to said company from the old dad.
This offer was under the valuation arrived at by Les Domaines.
It was accepted.

The Belgian gentleman protested.
The maire – on behalf of the council – replied that as the outbuildings had been demolished the value had been reduced and the offer accepted reflected the reality of the situation.

You have to realise, when dealing with anything in France that you have to follow the advice of the White Queen to Alice and practise believing six impossible things before breakfast….otherwise madness lies.

So while you might think that the reduction in value made the Belgian’s offer even more attractive, shifting the goalposts – or the outhouses – allowed the council to assume that it would have to accept a lower offer.
An offer made by the son of the maire.

The Belgian, not having been brought up on Alice, was not impressed.
He sued the council.

And, in particular, the maire.

The maire’s lawyer claimed that the maire had been badly advised.

The court was not impressed. The maire was disqualified from public office for three years and fines seven thousand five hundred euros.

The Belgian claimed consequential loss….the court refused to accept his plea.

The maire appealed.

The regional Court of appeal threw it out.

He appealed again.

The Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court in this instance) threw it out.

Collapse of stout party.

But having had a nap to recover from the good bottle which had been opened I turned the matter over in my mind again.

Yes, the maire had been disqualified for three years…dating from 2013. He’ll be free to stand again from March next year.
Agreed, he has had to cough up seven thousand five hundred euros…but – given that he (or his son) has bought the old Post Office for a song – that is chicken feed.

The Belgian, on the other hand, has been deprived of the power to buy the property.

The commune has been deprived of the extra amount which the Belgian was willing to pay for it.

Another triumph of the French justice system.

That wine begins to taste sour.

Walmart People

walmart By now, shoppers in my local town should have had the pleasure of encountering something like this while buying their rice and beans in the aisles of a spanking new Walmart supermarket…..but the local council has, no doubt in the interests of health and safety, so far managed to keep the threat at bay.

Financial health and safety, that is.

The financial health and safety of certain important local people.

Walmart, for its purchasing power and the treatment of its workforce, is akin to a dirty word in certain circles….I remember being told by a ‘concerned’ North American expat not to shop in the down market Pali chain, as that was part of the evil Walmart empire – not that I took a great deal of notice.
Supermarket chains exploit as a part of their business plan, but if I need a bar of soap I’m going to buy it in a supermarket rather than drive up to the local indigenous people’s reservation to buy a suspiciously neon coloured bar of equally dubious provenance and be royally ripped off in the process.

I can’t say I am fond of Walmart here in Costa Rica….we once visited its store on the way to San Jose in search of a television.
The search lasted only as long as our arrival in the electrical goods area, where the prices were such as to blow us backwards bow legged. Still, as we were there, we decided to take a look round before we departed in search of cats’ whiskers and crystals and among the overpriced and flavourless cheeses, depressed looking tomatillos and frozen farmed salmon from Chile my husband found potatoes.
Not just potatoes…but potatoes on promotion.

Danilo was despatched to find trolleys; potatoes were sorted by Higher Authority, bagged by me and stacked in the trolleys by Danilo. An impressive production line which drew spectators wondering whatever we were going to do with that lot. Unlike France no one pointed out that potatoes on promotion were for everyone….
Grand Fleet
In line astern like the Grand Fleet we made for the checkout, where bag after bag was hefted onto the counter. I unloaded, Higher Authority counted the bags and Danilo loaded at the other end.

With a sigh of relief the checkout assistant presented the bill.

Higher Authority questioned it. The potatoes had not been billed at the promotion price.

But’s that what it says on the till.

It’s not what is says on the veg section.

Then, turning to me as the assistant rang for a supervisor, Quick…get back there and don’t let anyone move that price ticket!

We had been trained on French supermarket practice where the first reaction of management, once a price had been challenged, was to remove the price ticket from the offending item.
I legged it for the veg section and stood guard.

After a while an assistant appeared, reaching for the ticket. I interposed my person. The assistant departed.

After some muttering with his colleagues, he made a flank attack, trying to take the ticket from behind my back while sidling alongside me.
I put my hand on it.
He retired.

A smart young lady appeared. A supervisor. With a lovely smile she explained that she needed the ticket in order to verify the price and sort out the problem.
I agreed that she would need the ticket but explained that it would only be available in the presence of my husband and whoever was dealing with the problem.
Then she regretted that she could do nothing about a refund.
I returned her smile and said that she should then find someone who could.
She returned whence she came.

The manager of the veg section manifested himself to explain that he would need to take the ticket.
Was he the person arranging the refund?
No, he was not.
Then no ticket.

Eventually the enemy fleet bore down on me….a large gentleman in a suit, three well built ladies in office dress and the till assistant with my husband in tow, letting the side down in tee shirt and gardening trousers.
I took possession of the price ticket and we all moved off to an office behind the tills, passing Danilo standing guard over the trolleys containing the contentious tubers.
The price was checked against some infernal IT system and was agreed to be correct.
A refund slip was issued.
We were escorted by the large gentleman and his assistant ladies to another office where details were entered in a book and money was forthcoming. Apologies were made for the problem.

We gathered Danilo and trolleys and departed, never, so far, to darken the doors of Walmart again.

So why am I so keen to see a Walmart in my local town?

Because apart from offering more choice to consumers it would provided competition for the existing supermarket, controlled by a local family and, more importantly, would offer further employment opportunities.
Not short term contracts to avoid paying social security, but long term jobs.
The town needs long term jobs.

Agriculture, once the staple, has declined. Nothing has taken its place. Successive town councils – all of the same political stripe – have turned their backs on development of industry, solemnly invoking the quality of the environment while allowing large scale housing development which has destroyed the rain forest and led to water shortages.
The place has stagnated…to the advantage of the local bigwigs.

The bus station is crowded in the early mornings with hordes of people going off to work in San Jose, having taken the feeder buses from their villages in the early hours.
These people are transported by the locally owned bus company, which certainly does not want to see employment on its doorstep…just think of the decline in revenues…
But the people it transports would dearly love to be able to work locally and avoid a one and a half hour journey morning and night.

The coming of Walmart alone would not solve the problem…but it would be a breach in the wall and as such has been opposed by the council, for whom pleasing the local movers and shakers is more important than the welfare of the mass of the people.

Not opposed openly, of course….but opposed effectively.

The local small claims court moved into town from the outskirts….into a building owned by a local bigwig.
The vacant plot was eyed by Walmart for installing one of its big Pali stores, but it was beaten to the post by another purchaser.
The wife of one of the owners of the local supermarket.
The plot still lies empty.

Walmart, undeterred, took a closer look at the area and decided that, given the catchment area of the town, it was worth installing a proper Walmart.
They bought a large plot which had once housed the teachers’ insurance agency.
They applied for planning permission and jumped through all the required hoops.
All was ready to go ahead when, at the last minute the town’s engineer (laughingly so called) announced that work must stop as Walmart had not applied for a demolition order.
Walmart had not applied for a demolition order as there was only a remnant of wall to demolish. Some three metres of it.

I know the town engineer, I know his false smile as he tries to bugger you up.
He knows mine as I thank him effusively before setting off for the Constitutional Court where I have defeated him and his council twice.

The council which employs him was stupid, arrogant and ignorant enough to think that it could take on Walmart.
Walmart have taken them to court for not respecting planning procedures.
Walmart has won.
Walmart has just been awarded compensation for loss of predicted earnings, currently running at £125,000 and rising daily.

Add this to the matter of the large amount of money which went missing under the aegis of the last mayor and it wouldn’t take a Nostradamus to predict that there will be trouble at t’molina.

Shortly.

Because those responsible will not be paying from their own pockets…local taxes will rise, yet again.
We will see how the tribal loyalty which has seen this political party elected time after time will resist the wallop in the wallet come the next elections.

We’ve just had a visit from the new President – not of the same party as the council.
He has announced help to make the area build a profile in eco tourism but, more importantly, has set up a road building and repair project and has directed the Apprenticeship Institution to set up courses in IT to enable local kids to fill the jobs which are available on this side of San Jose.

None of the proposed projects involves the council, which can’t get its mitts on a peso of the proposed budget.

A breach in the wall…and those of us who remember the destruction of the Berlin Wall know what that can mean.
Our small town is not East Germany, but its denial of opportunity to its people is East Germany in miniature.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l46GNducsPk