Divorce trial in U.S. causes cooking gas shortage in Costa Rica

May 7, 2015
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It hasn’t quite reached telenovela status but the drama between the once-married owners of a Costa Rican propane supply company is causing a serious crisis for customers in the couple’s home country.

The couple, Miguel Zaragoza and Evangelina López, own Gas Zeta, the largest of Costa Rica’s two private companies authorized to sell propane. But a large chunk of the company’s operations has ground to a halt in recent weeks after a Texas court granted the couple a divorce and ordered a division of assets.

The ensuing legal drama for ownership of Gas Zeta has left its propane customers in Costa Rica — nearly 70 percent of the country — scrambling to find cooking fuel for homes, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools and even prisons.

In a news release on Wednesday, López said that the Costa Rican people, just like her, “are suffering because of her husband’s love affairs.”

She also said she requested protective measures from a U.S. judge for her family’s home and assets as “they all are under threat of being seized due to her husband’s actions.”

In an effort to make up for the gas shortage, Costa Rican Environment Ministry (MINAE) officials granted another private company a one-year license to sell cooking gas. The new company, owned by local and foreign investors, began selling propane Wednesday evening.

Environment Minister Édgar Gutiérrez Espeleta said the couple’s problems caused a clash of court rulings in both countries. He explained that when the Texas judicial system sent the divorce papers to Costa Rica, a local family court judge issued preventive measures protecting the López family’s assets. Then Zaragoza’s lawyers filed a counter claim in an administrative court over the company’s rights, and that judge ruled in his favor.

“Both rulings are now being challenged,” Gutiérrez said, “raising uncertainty over an issue that (should be) entirely private.”

The Costa Rican police have even had to get involved. Last week officers carried out an eviction order against employees at some of the company’s plants, which sparked the supply problems.

Representatives of Gas Zeta said last week that they were waiting for the Costa Rican Oil Refinery (RECOPE) to authorize entry for the company’s tankers in order to restart gas distribution as soon as possible. But RECOPE said in a news release that it can’t currently sell propane to Gas Zeta because of the legal uncertainty over the company’s ownership.

Meanwhile, business groups, including the Costa Rican Food Industry Chamber, Costa Rican Chamber of Hotels and the Costa Rican Chamber of Restaurants, warned this week that if the problem persists, many businesses will be forced to halt operations as soon as next weekend.

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