San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Legal Wrangle Forces Senior Siblings Out of Longtime Home

“I, a man: I cried,” said AlfredoBatista, 78, wrapping his hands around thecurved handle of his cane and lookingaround at the rented home he shares withthree of his siblings.It’s a nice place, dim but spacious andclean, with ceramic figures and a picture ofPope John Paul II decorating the tables, butthe home Alfredo and his siblings yearn foris the corrugated tin ranchito from whichthey were evicted May 13, a day hedescribes as “humiliating.”The Cartago Civil Court ruled that thelot on which they constructed the home, indowntown Cartago, east of San José,belongs to the Hospicio de Huérfanos, aprivate foundation that helps orphans andthe poor. A young guard and a rottweillernow keep watch over the heap of rubblethe Batistas once called home.THE siblings – Alfredo, who uses awheelchair, Claudio, 75, who is deaf, FloraIsabel, 71, and Alicia, 68 – say they livedon the lot for at least 57 years before losinga lengthy legal battle with the school andbeing escorted away.Alicia, the only sibling with children, isnow living with her daughter, according tonephew Sergio Batista. The remainingthree have been living in a house rented forthem by the hospice while governmentagencies scramble to find them a permanenthome.At press time, it appeared they hadsecured a home in Paraíso, outside ofCartago, thanks to a donation from the privateCosta Rica-Canada Foundation.VIRTUALLY every aspect of the caseis in dispute: the way in which the familycame to live on the lot, which side initiatedthe legal battle, and even how many yearsthe Batista siblings lived there.One truth is evident, according tolawyers. The case reveals that squatters’rights, or the rights of people to claim ownershipof land to which another party possessesthe original title, are a weak point inthe Costa Rican legal system.“(Squatters’ rights) are a real problem interms of legal security in Costa Rica,” real estatelawyer Thomas Burke told The TicoTimes. “You can’t ask, ‘What does CostaRican law say’? It’s omissive… It was writtenin the agricultural frontier days, is wellover 100 years old, and hasn’t been updated.”WHILE no one denies the situation is asad one, the siblings’ supporters and hospicepersonnel each cast the other as the villains.Catholic priest Joaquín Alvaradodonated the land to the Orphans’ Hospice –the umbrella organization that encompassesinstitutions including the VocationalHigh School of Arts and Careers (COVAO)– in the early 1900s. Both sides of the disputeagree that the priest intended that theland be used for the benefit of the poor.The Batista siblings, however, believethat they, by living on the property, werefulfilling that intention. According toSergio Batista, who has been providingadvice to his uncles and aunts – he is a lawstudent – his grandparents lived on the lotfor years before priest Alvarado’s death.When they heard of the terms of the will,dated in 1899, according to Batista, theyassumed they had inherited the land.ACCORDING to Francisco Jiménez,president of the board of directors of thehospice, the organization was tolerant ofthe situation until the Batistas’ relativeswent too far.“The hospice has a property that wasinvaded by those people 30 years ago,” hesaid. (Hospice representatives maintain theBatistas lived on the lot for 30 years, whilethe Batistas say they grew up there andcan’t even remember when they moved in.)“During all that time, the hospice has beentolerant of them because they are poor. Itwas never the intention of the Hospice tohave these people evicted.”Jiménez added that the organizationwould not have taken any legal action if notfor the siblings’ relatives’ interest in inscribingthe property in the Batistas’ name.“The hospice is defending its patrimony,”he said.WHETHER the Batistas have a legitimateclaim to the property may have beenopen to a judge’s interpretation.Costa Rica’s squatters’-rights law leaves a great deal to be desired in terms ofclarity, partly because it was originallyintended to benefit settlers staking claimsand does not make much sense in much oftoday’s Costa Rica, according to lawyerBurke.The existing Civil Code involves severalcutoff points for landowners withsquatters. For up to three months, a call tothe local police is enough to have thesquatters evicted. After that point, evictionrequires a legal process, Burke said.After living on a property for morethan 10 years, a person can claim the rightsto the property – even if that title is flawedor invalid.However, these rights do not apply topeople living on property they knowbelongs to someone else, or property towhich they have no title.VICTOR Alberto Jiménez, the lawyerwho represented the hospice, told The TicoTimes he no longer wants to comment onthe case now that a judge has rendered adecision. However, he did say squatters’rights did not apply in this case because theproperty clearly belongs to the hospice.“To generate some type of claim, it’snecessary not only to be (on the property),but also to have a fair title – that the propertydoesn’t belong to anyone else,” thelawyer said.According to Burke, however, interpretationsof the meaning of a “fair title”often vary from judge to judge, with someholding that 10 years of possession shouldequal a title even if the squatters have noother documentation. This results in “doubletitling,” where the original titleholderstill has documents proving ownership, buta judge has granted another legal documentfor the person living on the land.In the case of the Batista siblings, thejudge must have used a stricter interpretationof title rights, Burke said, adding that thistendency to adhere to documents rather thana looser interpretation of fair title is increasinglyfrequent among Costa Rican judges.THE siblings are now living in a housethe hospice has rented for them until theMinistry of Housing and Human Settlementscan locate a permanent housingoption for the family. Gustavo Umaña, of theministry’s Quality Assurance Department,told The Tico Times that while housingoptions are available close to the siblings’former home in the El Carmen neighborhoodof Cartago, the ministry located twooptions in the city’s suburbs.Sergio Batista said the ministry’soptions were too far away from the siblings’familiar neighborhood, promptinghim to arrange the donation of the Paraísohouse by the Costa Rica-CanadaFoundation. While hospice board presidentJiménez said the elderly siblings’ relativesappear interested in securing property forthemselves, Batista emphasized that thedonation restricts the use of the house toAlfredo, Claudio and Flora Isabel.“It’s exclusively for the three of them,”he said, adding the siblings cannot inscribethe property in their name; in the event oftheir deaths, the property will revert to thefoundation.DESPITE this apparent resolution tothe question of where the siblings will live,the dispute over the abandoned lot continues.Sergio Batista said it is possible,depending on the outcome of the CostaRica-Canada Foundation donation andsome legal queries he has made, that heand the siblings will continue their struggleto prove their ownership of the lot.The land itself lies unused. Hospiceboard president Jiménez said the institution“is studying various possibilities” for developingthe lot, but added, “the Hospicio deHuérfanos is a very poor institution…itdoesn’t have capital for development.”

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