San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ruling Puts Caribbean Properties in Limbo

Property owners in the Caribbean beach towns of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita who own land close to the ocean have been thrust into legal limbo after courts struck down a law that declared the two communities to be cities.

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ruled that the 2005 law is unconstitutional, and ordered it annulled.

Drafted and pushed by a legislator from Puerto Viejo, the law was designed to allow longtime residents – particularly Afro-Carribeans whose families have held property in the area for as many as 100 years or more – to register their land and own it outright.

Costa Rica’s Maritime Zone Law, passed in 1977, prohibits owning property within 200 meters of the ocean, except in cities. When the law was passed, it exempted the Caribbean port city of Limón, the Pacific port city of Puntarenas, and the central Pacific town of Jacó, which were all declared cities.

Along both coasts, municipal governments are in charge of demolishing construction within the 200-meter area, but enforcement is irregular.

The Tico Times tried to reach Rugeli Morales, the mayor of Talamanca, the municipality that oversees the two towns, but messages left on his cell phone and with his secretary were not returned.

Edwin Patterson, the former legislator who introduced the bill and was subsequently bestowed with a plaque naming him Puerto Viejo’s “favorite son” for his work, blasted the court’s decision as racist discrimination against the Afro-Caribbean population that lives along the east coast.

“It is incredible the level of stupidity,” Patterson said by cell phone. “But I’m not sad because of this decision. I’m sad because our people have let themselves be fooled into believing that because they gave us a piece of paper, it meant we were citizens.”

In their ruling, the judges of the Sala IV found that the law, approved in the Legislative Assembly in October 2005, is unconstitutional because it violates the state’s soverviegn right of ownership of the Maritime Zone by allowing property owners who can prove they have legally possessed the land for 40 years to register the land as their own.

The law also violated the Constitution, the Sala IV found, by “creating a privileged treatment for a segment of the population.”

According to Patterson, however, the country has extended privileged treatment to other segments of the population before.

“On the indigenous reservations, what other Costa Rican has the right to live there or own property on that land? No one,” he said.

As is customary, the court only released a brief summary of the ruling, while the full text of the judge’s reasoning will be released at some unannounced moment in the future.

The Sala IV’s rulings cannot be appealed. Manuel León, president of the Puerto Viejo Integral Development Association, a government-supported community organization, said he was going to review the ruling with his lawyers to see what could be done.

“Forty-two legislators voted in favor of this law, which is a qualified majority. It was signed by the president. It was given a number.

Now these seven judges tear it down,” León said. “And we can’t appeal.” Patterson, meanwhile, does not believe that the government will begin bulldozing buildings anytime soon because so many properties are now in the hands of wealthy foreigners.

“Today, 97 percent of the population is foreign. There are 59 restaurants in Puerto Viejo. Three are in the hands of locals,” Patterson said. “It’s purely political theater. A politician will come along and pull a solution out of his sleeve and everybody votes for Superman.”


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