Chamber: Airport Dispute Worrisome

May 14, 2004

THE president of the Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) this week warned that the dispute between the Costa Rican government and Alterra Partners, which holds a 20-year contract to remodel and operate Juan Santamaría International Airport, could permanently scare off foreign companies planning to invest here if the issue is not resolved.“We [AmCham members] have been terribly worried about the airport situation since last year,” AmCham president Carlos Denton told The Tico Times Wednesday during the chamber’s monthly luncheon event.“If this contract fails, that airport will be left as is [incomplete] for the next three to five years while the dispute is settled,” he said. “We want to have tourists. (…) We need there to be investment to improve the airport.”ALTERRA and the 14 foreign banks financing the project, along with the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT), the Technical Council of the Civil Aviation Authority (CTAC) and the airport’s inspector general, had reached an agreement in August 2001 on “development expenses” for the airport, placing them at $18.6 million, according to Public Works and Transport Minister Javier Chaves and Alterra executives (TT,May 7).However, the amount allotted for this expense in the original contract bid could not exceed $3.4 million, according to the Comptroller General’s office. The amount has been in dispute since last year and caused the banks to freeze financing for the project.Last week, the government announced it was beginning a two-month period of negotiations with Alterra, which if not successful could result in Alterra’s contract being revoked. Alterra has warned that if this happens it would sue the government for $150 million in damages.Chaves has asked the Comptroller General’s Office to reconsider its position. DENTON said it was up to the government to solve the dispute.“It [the dispute] affects all [public works] concessions – the road to [the Central Pacific shipping port of] Caldera, ports on both coasts and the road to [the Central Valley town of] San Ramón,” he explained. “There are also problems with the Pococí Prison (proposed for construction in the Caribbean-slope town of the same name) and Harken (oil explorations) off the coast of Limón.”These disputes (TT, Jan. 23, Feb. 6; 13, March 19) give foreign companies planning to participate in public works concessions here a bad message, he said. “The message Costa Rica is giving is a red card [used when a soccer player is being expelled from a game] – don’t do business because the Costa Rican government can’t be trusted,” Denton said.IN related news, outgoing Comptroller General Luis Fernando Vargas last week reiterated to a legislative commission charged with investigating the airport situation that the Comptroller General’s Office never approved the controversial agreement that sparked the government’s dispute with Alterra, the daily La Nación reported.Arnoldo Camacho, the airport’s current inspector general, told the same legislative commission days before that the Comptroller’s Office in 2001 said there was no cap on the development expenses, only to change its position last April.

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