San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

City of Limón Suffers ‘Back-burner Syndrome’

Waiting on change hasn’t been easy for Limón’s mayor, Eduardo Barboza.

He came into office promising improved sanitation, a crackdown on crime and a new life for the city, and while he’s seen most of his commitments through, it’s cost him time on the clock.

“I could use four more years with the pace of things here,” said the 47-year-old, whose term is up in February.

For years, the city suffered a trash problem, with food scraps, crumbled papers and dirty diapers building up in the streets. In 2007 and 2008, the Health Ministry canceled the city’s largest event of the year – Carnival – due to fears of an outbreak of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease. Dengue can spread in pools of standing water and areas littered with trash.

Despite Barboza’s best efforts, he said, it took three years for new garbage trucks purchased by the city to clear the central government’s bureaucracy and make it to Limón, which to him “was not acceptable.”

The promised financial assistance from the World Bank for the Limón Port City Project – a plan meant to revive the city and make it an attractive destination for tourists – which was also supposed to arrive months ago, may only begin to trickle in by the end of the year.

Despite the sluggish pace of advances, Barboza – who sat at his desk on Tuesday juggling a walkie-talkie, telephone and cell phone while talking to The Tico Times – is still confident about Limón’s promise as a frontier for healthy economic development.

TT: Are you satisfied with the progress of the Limón Port City Project?

EB: I am not satisfied. I can’t be satisfied with the bureaucracy that is involved in management in Costa Rica. Not just with the Limón Port Project, but with everything. It took three years to buy three trash trucks.

Has the city seen money from the project?

Not yet. We are still in the processing phase. But by the end of the year, we will see the first results.

And what is the first thing the people of Limón will see?

The foundation for the railroad.

Another issue you’ve been responding to here is that of privatizing the ports, which has stirred up much controversy. Workers rejected a private concession because they say it will result in lost jobs. What do you think of their concerns?

Clearly, I understand their concerns. We don’t share all of them 100 percent, but we do understand them. We need to prepare the port for modernization. We have to strengthen Japdeva. The mayor’s office is in favor of concessions, but only when it’s for new construction. The existing infrastructure needs to be made compatible with the new additions.

Where are you in the process of the concession?

It is on hold. In fact it’s taken a step back. There is nothing going on.

There has been much investment on the Pacific side of the country, but there hasn’t  been as much investment in tourism or in real estate in Limón. Why not?

The Pacific side has developed 10 times faster than the development here in Limón. Any construction is 10 times bigger. I think that behind this there are hidden interests, in the sense that Limón hasn’t developed in the way it should. But neither do we want the type of development that you find in the Pacific. If you have that type of development, only a few jobs are created and you perpetuate poverty.

What is your vision for development?

Are you familiar with La Fortuna, San Carlos? This is the type of development we want. It’s an area that is very productive, very prosperous and the people live in better conditions.

What do you think about the new free-trade zone?

It’s a great opportunity. The purpose of free trade zones is to collaborate with depressed areas. Golfito was one of these areas. The free-trade zone there generated employment and increased commercial opportunities. Clearly, we want that in Limón.

What are the risks for people who want to buy land here or who want to invest in tourism?

I suspect there is some fear about investing in Limón. I spoke with someone from New York and they said they didn’t come because they said, “In Limón, there are murders and robberies.”

Is that true? Are there still problems of violent crime?

What happens in Limón is nothing different from what occurs in the rest of the country. In Limón, there are robberies, crime and drugs, but at the same level as the rest of the country; and in the rest of the world.

What have you done to tackle this problem?

We are coordinating with the Public Security Ministry and the National Police. The level of communication has been very good both with the administration of former President Oscar Arias and that of current President Laura Chinchilla.

How can you encourage investment here?

We’ve put our best foot forward. We’ve been able to attract events such as the trans-Atlantic boat race that took place last year – Transat Jacques Vabre (TT, Nov. 29, 2009). We have shown the world that in Limón, the people don’t just kill and commit crimes. Here, there are good, hardworking and honest people, people who are prepared for development. Limón is the best place in the world to invest. Why? Because of the quality of its people. For the most part, the people of Limón are bilingual. We are also the gateway to the Atlantic; the place where Costa Rica can access the markets of the United States and Europe.

What does Limón need for the next phase in its development?

The will. The desire to do things well. But we also need help from on the central government. We can’t wait another lifetime for help. Limón has many social problems. One of those was this issue of trash. Two years ago, Limón was full of trash in its streets. They had to cancel Carnival one year because the problem was so bad. We were able to get a private company to come here, and in two months, invest $3 million in the construction of a sanitation facility in Limón. It was really bothersome to truck our trash to Alajuela (west of San José). Now we can dispose of our trash here. There have been times that the situation in Limón has been ugly with potholes in the streets and crime. But, we have been able to remodel the park, install water fountains and we have been able to do other things to improve our city.

This region has had a historic problem with unions. Has this been a challenge in attracting businesses?

This is a perception that people can have. I think the unions have matured on some of these issues. And we hope this is no longer a problem in Limón so that we can attract businesses to a zone that has all the ingredients to develop.

What is your advice for the next mayor?

The greatest honor in my life is the confidence the people of Limón have  bestowed upon me. I hope the next mayor also sees it as an honor. We have come far, but we have a long way to go. People’s dreams are put in the hands of the municipality. Sometimes people are confused and they think the municipality can resolve all their problems. We can’t, but we want to do what we can.

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