Bureaucracy in Costa Rica

Cédula Renewal Wars

Do-not-get-frustrated-in-direct-sales

Last week my husband and I endeavored to renew our Costa Rican cédulas de residencia, the national ID card.

I called the Banco BCR hotline, BCRCITA (900-003-4639), for an appointment. Aside from the call costing 300 colones a minute, and being immediately put on hold because, “dear customer, all available operators are busy, please be waiting on the line,” the appointment maker was friendly and efficient.

Two years ago, we were in and out in fifteen minutes. This year, the appointment has been the only easy part.

We arrived in Limón 20 minutes early, a good thing because I did not know the Limón Banco BCR had moved. We found the new location, took a seat among the hordes, and listened to the overhead mechanical voice announce ficha numbers and to which booth the holder should report: Ah, setenta tres, posición cinco…. We did not need a ficha, and after about ten minutes a clerk called our name. She asked for our documents.

I have a rule of thumb in this country, known for its obscurantism. When dealing with bureaucrats, I never pull out all my documents at once. If I do, I find they will ask for the one I do not have. Best to present them one at a time hoping my papers exhaust their time, interest, or (insert your own word here).

I gave the clerk our old cédulas and our passports. She asked for proof of payment to CCSS (the Caja), the mandatory government health insurance company. I gave her a payment stub from June. She asked for the actual CCSS carnet, or voucher, which I handed over. I thought I saw her trying to peer over my file folder to see what cards I still held in this poker game, but it might have been my imagination. Then she asked for a letter from the bank ensuring we spend the requisite amount of money each month to qualify us as residents in good standing. I handed over the letter. She read thoughtfully. Then she looked up.

“Entonces, Señora, this letter shows your bank account is linked to your passport number and not your cédula.” There it was, the stickler. I argued my point. The account belongs to my husband and me. Anyone can clearly see that, passport or cédula, we are the same people. I was sent to another booth for consultation. It was there I was informed that a cédula is now required by the good people at immigration.

Our new clerk said we had to return to our bank in Puerto Viejo and a) have the account changed from our passport numbers to our cédulas and b) have our account verified as to our correct information. “The last time you did this was in 2008,” he said. I was aware of that regulation. Back in 2008 the Costa Rican Financial Regulatory Agency – SUGEF – demanded all banks under its supervision update their client account information to bring the accounts into compliance with anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism acts. We had complied, but I was unaware that it had to be updated every two years. I asked if he could do this while we waited.

This is when I discovered that Banco BCR branches have information only about their particular branch on their computers; the Limón branch cannot access accounts from Puerto Viejo, ni vice versa.

So it was back to Puerto Viejo for a chat with the clerk there. Indeed, she said I needed to verify our account and she could do that when we brought a receipt for the electricity, or the phone, with our physical address. Catch-22. In my quest for efficiency, I pay all our bills online and the receipts go to our apartado, post office box. “Well,” she said, “you can use the receipt for the property taxes from the municipality.” Later, at home, I checked. The address the municipality used is referenced by Hotel Suerre, which was torn down by the government several years ago.
I took the receipt into the bank the next day and waited for the same teller to be freed up (another rule of mine: always get the same clerk, otherwise who knows what other requirements may pop up). Our clerk was unfazed by the non-reference point in our address. “But your house is close by this, yes?” Yes. “Okay, then we will just use this and make a note of your actual address.” We could have done this any number of other ways, like me just stating our address, but, hey, she took it.

Then it was on to changing our account from the passport to the cédula number. Do not even ask, because there is no option for simply adding another piece of ID; it’s all or nothing. It would have been faster to close out the account and open a new one and it certainly would have saved trees. After a ream of paperwork and fourteen signatures, we were set. Only problem, they had to annul our credit card and close my online banking account (with saved information on at least ten accounts I regularly pay into). Just a month ago I laboriously matriculated to all those accounts, complete with special codes emailed to me by the bank (again, new regulations). Now all evaporated into thin air.

She promised to have our new credit card by the end of the week. At that point I will be able to start a new online banking account. I have made a new appointment with BCRCITA for our cédula renewal in Limón.

When I told our lawyer that we finally complied with all the requirements of the bank and immigration, she said, “Para hoy, Sarita, para hoy.” For today. For today. I take some comfort in that. It is good to remember it is not just expats who are inconvenienced and frustrated by these rule changes and regulations; Costa Ricans suffer the same fate. We are all in this labyrinthine system together.

Banking on an Answer

Unless everyone agrees on an established filing system, there will be chaos. In my filing system, for instance, the car insurance bill belongs in the general file under Insurance with a subfile Car. But someone else might feel that the bill is about the car, and all things Car should be stored under the general category Car with a subfile Insurance.

But what about banks and their filing systems?  My bank in the US allows me to look up canceled checks online and view both sides so I can see who endorsed it. When it comes to retrieving canceled checks from my bank here, it is another issue. Banco de Costa Rica does not appear to be able to locate a check even if they are given the check number in question and the cancellation date of the check. I’m on my fifth week trying to get it. Here’s a rundown.

Week one I asked for the check and a male clerk wrote down the number and told me to return in a week. Big smile.

Week two he was not there, so I asked the little dark haired woman who took his place about the check. “You have to speak with him,” was her response. I said, No, I needed the check and could she please inquire as to what was happening with it. She made some calls, told me they were ‘really busy,’ and suggested I return the following week.

Week three I got the same dark haired woman. She made several calls to something called Office of Retrievals (OR?). I could imagine these bureaucrats— like something out of the movie Brazil— wearing green visors and suspenders as they sat in tiny cubicles tediously fulfilling their duties of being present from 8-5 every day. The little bank clerk , who was not wearing a green visor, interrupted my thoughts and asked me the date the check was canceled. I took a deep breath and tried to sound pleasant. “I wrote the check to someone else. I need to know the date he cashed it. That, in fact, is why I am looking for it.” She shrugged and said they were unable to find it. “This is important. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here asking for it.” She told me to come back in a week.

Week four the little dark haired clerk was busy when my number was finally called. Instead, I spoke with a young black woman who spoke English. She started to tell me I needed to speak with the other clerk, but I interrupted. “Can you please access my account activity for the month I wrote the check and tell me if this check was, in fact, cashed. I would do it on my computer, but the online system doesn’t allow me search that far back.” She started to tell me how to sign up for online banking, but I deflected her instructions, and we got back to the issue. She tried and failed. Then she called the Central Office. I watched as her fingers flew over the keyboard and then…Bingo! She found the check number and the date is was cashed. She said she would email the Retrieval office and tell them the date so they could find the physical check. Come back next week.

So, apparently ALL checks canceled on a certain date are filed together. What kind of insane filing system is that? They obviously need Mac’s Spotlight feature where you can find a file no matter where you thrown the thing.

Week five— this week and the final week before Christmas holidays start— I went back. After a 45-minute wait I spoke to her again. She went into the back office and returned. “The Retrieval office says the check is not there.” I could see two men who’d been sent to a room (warehouse?) to find my check. They sat atop a mountain of checks from all over Costa Rica. Like Florida election officials looking for hanging chads, they picked them up one by one they examined them and then pitched them over their shoulders creating another pile behind them. The following shift probably started looking in the refuse pile of the first team.

Before I left, I gave her a zip-lock bag full of cookies and candies and a Christmas greeting from us thanking her and wishing her well for the New Year. I said I appreciated all her efforts to help me. Maybe that will work.

I am to return next week.

Migracion- The Fast Track~

Chaos

Costa Rica’s Immigration Department has a logo suited to its mission. The logo is represented by the earth’s globe, but the country of Costa Rica has been mysteriously plucked from the isthmus of Central America and placed aside. There is a band, sort of like an arrow, that girdles the globe begining at the country in limbo. There are little people standing on the band. In fact, they appear to huddle there as though their lives depended on it. The arrow circumnavigates the globe– a bit like the bands of Saturn– only to end where the country has been plucked from the map. What one sees when they look at it is a continuous circle with people stuck on it like a perpetual chipmunk wheel.

You can probably tell, It’s time to renew our residency visas. They are due every two years. Actually, it was time to do that a year ago, but migracion told us expats that “due to the high number of residency requests, they were unable to process them all,” and “there would be a year’s grace period.” Translated, this means that the office was totally disorganized and had lost complete control over the process. They needed a year to see if the could rein in the chaos.

Alan and I have seen the interior of migracion before and if you have any neatness fetishes it’s a frightening sight. If you are anal-retentive, don’t go in there at all.

In 2003 our residency cards were stolen, along with my purse, our passports, and a few other essentials. It was hell getting everything back, but we managed. The lesson was so blistering that ever since then I have refused to carry original documents at all. I only carry photocopies despite occasional objections from the police.

One of the many visits we paid to migracion during that ordeal was an eye-popping view into how the place operated, or slouched along. The day we were there we were ushered into the maw of the beast and seated on a couple of worn out dining chairs along a wall and told to wait. Espera, por favor. The person who seated us then went off in search of our file.

From our vantage point, and with nothing else to do, we got an inside look into the guts of the place. They were remodeling, but that couldn’t begin to explain all of it.

Alan always likes to watch workmen where ever we are, so he was busy watching the remodel, which involved putting up some prefab walling right through the center of the office. He kept jabbing me in the ribs as one of the men attempted to straighten an unwieldy section by himself, or another man pushed in one direction while his partner pulled in another in an attempt to get a section up.

They had moved “the files,” manilla folders stacked helter-skelter, that now cascaded out of some sagging tin shelving that might be purchased at any WalMart and are ubiquitous in lower income family basements in the States. In fact, the more I looked the more files I saw. They were everywhere. Because of the remodel, or perhaps in spite of it, there were computers piled up on chairs in the middle of the room, wires haphazardly wound around their middles. On top of those were more files, some of them open. A worker hustled by and I watched as a single paper off the top of one file was sucked up in her wake, fluttered briefly, and then parachuted to the floor.

“I bet that’s someone’s police report, or a income validation form,” I told Alan. “They will probably be refused residency because their file is ‘incomplete.'” The worker stepped on it on her return through the department.

So, they’ve had a year to work on it, and get things in order. I was told I could begin applying for our renewal carnet, card, when our previous ones expired. That was last month.

Yesterday I called the new 900 number (that costs 50 cents a minute) and fully expected to be put on hold. But no, I was greeted promptly by a intake worker who asked what I needed. This seemed auspicious.

“We need to renew our residency cards,” I said. I told her when they expired and our names and our number.

“But you don’t appear in our system. Are you sure you are a resident?”

“Yes. I have the previous card here in my hand.”

“Well. I am very sorry Mrs. Sarah, but you will have to call migracion directly for an appointment.”

I called migracion and was put on hold. I listened to Musak for about two minutes and then was disconnected. I tried again with the same result. It’s the Dilbert Thing, nothing unique to Costa Rica. How many times up North have I been run through a scheme of a corporate menus only to discover that my question is not in the allotted push button options. With no way to retrace my steps, and punching zero only results in the message “I’m sorry but we don’t recognize that option,” the only option is to hang up and start again. Costa Rica hasn’t gotten that sophisticated yet, they just hang up on you.

I gave myself an afternoon away from the frustration, had a glass of wine last night and watched the Republican convention (which got my blood boiling again). This morning, fresh from a good sleep, I went after migracion again. Sometimes calling back and getting another operator has better results. That’s a lesson I learned over the years; always call at least three times to make sure the verdict is the same. Then act accordingly. The same is true up North too, by the way.

This morning I called the 900 number again and got Sara. Maybe having the same name bonded us in some bureaucratic way, I don’t know, but she was kind and helpful. But the story was the same; we are not in their system. She did assure me that we were not lost altogether, just unavailable to her and her computer. I would need to call directly for an appointment.

“But when I call migracion they put me on hold, and then cut me off.”

“Oh…,” she said in a knowing voice. “What number are you calling?” We went through all of that and agreed that was the correct number and she couldn’t– or wouldn’t– give me a number to the back room.

“Perhaps I need to have my lawyer call them. She would probably know someone to call and be able to set up an appointment,” I said.

Sara was delighted at my insight into how things work here. “Yes, that’s exactly what you should do.”

So, It will cost us an extra $100 to get the services of the gavilan or facilitator to do the business, but that’s how work gets done here.

Actually, this is how we did it before the modernization overhaul at migracion.

Dog Days~


There is a saying, adapted from the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, the meek shall inherit the earth.

Of this I am sure, people: this passage is not referring to the pious or mild-mannered followers of the Christian faith. As a full-fledged Darwinian I believe it means that things like ants, cockroaches, and, yes, fleas will be the last remaining inhabitants of this planet.

La Zona Tropical is a bad place to get a flea infestation, and this summer– especially hot and humid– has been a particularly bad one. We are still battling them.

Before I left for Japan we had a major outbreak and had to battle back with everything known to the toxic and environmentally friendly world of Pest Control. We bathed dogs every third day with flea shampoos. We have three dogs and one is so big it’s a bit like washing the side of a boxcar, but we lathered on. When they were dry, we powdered them, sprayed them, and, excuse the new verbs here, Advantaged® or Frontlined® them, depending on which product we could find and buy.

Alan crawled under the house, where the dogs den, every three days and sprayed with a combination of poisons and boric acid. Boric acid? Yes, boric acid. According to some literature I have read on the subject it is a miracle of sorts in the fight against insect infestations. My daughter-in-law, Yuka, says she remembers her parents making balls with “some white powder” and foodstuff to kill cockroaches in Japan. I’m almost certain that it was boric acid, but I’m unable to ask them as they speak only Japanese. But according to all I’ve read, boric acid kills cockroaches on contact and “apparently” will do the same to fleas. We were trying anything.

It’s been an uphill battle.

I’ve learned a lot about fleas in the past month or two. They, like other insects, pass through four stages in their life cycle- egg, larva, pupa and adult. An adult female begins laying eggs within two days after her first blood meal. Sounds vampirish, doesn’t it? How about this– within 9 days she will produce up to 30 eggs a day and consumes 15 times her body weight in blood every day. Multiply this by an infestation of twenty or more (lots more, actually) and it’s no wonder our poor dogs were scratching. That very scratching only spreads the eggs further afield, I might add, the game plan of the pesky flea. But there’s more. Once the eggs are scattered around nicely and develop into larvae, they live off the feces of the parents, manifested as partially desiccated blood.

The whole thing sounds really creepy and not so meek to me. It also makes me want to CLEAN MY HOUSE. Which, it turns out, is exactly what needs to be done.

According to the Texas A&M site I visited, and Texas should know about fleas, regular vacuuming is the key to controlling fleas indoors. They tend to nest in dog bedding, carpets, under furniture, and in cushions of couches. We keep our house very clean and free of any food products out on counters because we live in the tropics, but now it’s time to double up on the effort. I am now vacuuming every other day.

Here is an interesting fact and more ammunition for my postulation about the inheritance of the earth theory. When fleas, laid as eggs and fed on feces as a larva, enter the pupa stage of the transition to adulthood, they spin their own cocoon and reside inside until the time is ripe to enter the world. Normally, they will emerge within a couple of weeks but if the environment doesn’t suit them, the adult flea may remain in the cocoon for up to five months. When stimulated by a passing animal the adult can emerge within seconds. Old houses or apartments can still be infested and can “come alive” when new tenants move in. Yikes!

So, I am back from my trip to Asia and the fleas are still here. Not as fiercely as before, but still present.

There is a wonderful book called The War of the Flea, by Robert Taber. It is not about fleas, but about guerrilla warfare. Clearly Taber knows what it’s like to battle the flea and he uses the analogy well in his book. One passage reads: “The guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with.” He also points out The West’s inability to truly understand how to wage war against these non-conventional forces.

It’s a bit the same battling the lowly flea here in Punta Uva. It requires time, patience, and an understanding of the enemy.

I washed both our dogs today and hope that our hired man, José, will do the same with his. Alan was under the house again spraying and hopefully…hopefully we will put a dent in the flea population.

I know I’ll never be able to eradicate them, but perhaps I can keep them in check until I totter off this world, or… more likely, it gets colder.

MOPT II- The Second Half of the Story~

Undeterred by our previous failure to obtain our licenses in a single visit, and truthfully I can’t think of anything is this country that we’ve ever accomplished in one visit if it has to do with an agency of the Costa Rican government, Alan and I forged on.

Last week it was necessary to go to San José, partly to buy some things we needed for the house, and partly to retain our sanity in the face of this ongoing lawsuit with the neighbors.

We decided–or rather I decided–, as it was on our way, we’d give the old licenses a try again. Approaching the MOPT/COVESI offices, I had the resolve of a conditioned marathon runner. I would prevail despite all the odds against me. And, after all, we had our receipts from the bank.

I have come to agree with Adam Gopnik, who, in his wonderful book, Paris to the Moon, describes the average Parisian’s encounter with the never-ending bureaucracies, which invade daily life. He says, “Each Ministry is a bit like a Nautilus machine, designed to give maximum resistance to your efforts, only to give way just at the moment of total mental failure.”

Battling with the bureaucracies provide a common ritual enjoyed by enthusiasts of modern health spas. About once a month or so one of us is forced to engage in an activity that is mildly stressful, forces us in close proximity with total strangers engaged in the same act, and ends with a sense of exhilaration if the goals are met, or a realization that we must work harder to accomplish our goals should we fail. A workout.

We arrived at the MOPT offices in Limón at 8 A.M. sharp. That’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years: either be the first in line or manage to get yourself inside the doors (so they can’t shut them in front of you) within a half-hour of lunch or quitting time and you are bound get service quite quickly. We were first in line.

This time it was a jovial black woman who spoke the Caribbean singsong English I so love to hear, “Is what I tellin’ ya, da’ling. You’s got to go to the doctor and get a physical. But make sure you tell dem is far a driver’s license only, you hear?” her lilting voice was matched by a smiling face. Where to get the physical, I wondered.

“You know de Methodis’ charch in Limón?” I did, so that was fortunate.

“Go on up thar pas’ that, and… oh, cien meters farther is a carner. You know it?” I said I did. What is the point in questioning her? I felt as though someone had added another ten-pound weight on the Nautilus machine, but I was determined. I would simply scour the entire area or ask someone when we got closer to the scene.

“Okay, turn thar and go on up maybe 25 meters. You find him thar. Name is Coto; Dr. Coto.” This is where Costa Rican directions get tricky. It’s the “turn there” and the “on up” that defy actual directions, but never mind. I felt I could find it.

“So, I guess we’ll do that when we get back from San José,” Alan said casually as we got in the truck.

“No. I can feel it. We can get this done. We’re not in any hurry are we? Hell, we can spend the night here if we want.” Alan knows better than to argue with me when I’m this focused.

We drove the five miles back to Limón and found he Methodist church and the corner and the office. I went in to ask if they could take us right away while Alan parked the truck.

“Por supuesto,” said the friendly clerk. “The doctor is on his way in and he’ll take you first.” Of course he would take us first. What a racket. It cost us the equivalent of $50 dollars for a blood pressure check, height, weight, and one line on the eye chart (somewhere between two or three lines of normal). Oh, and he asked in passing if I could hear him all right. That was the hearing test. I paid and we were set to leave.

“You see these two boxes, here?” The receptionist asked, pointing at two empty squares on the medical exam form. “You need to go to the bookstore (one block up) and buy the stamps for this, otherwise it’s no good.” Another five pounds of resistance was stacked on the machine.

The bookstore she referred to had closed a year ago, according to the black man standing in front of it, “But you can buy the stamps from a lady what sell them up by the bank. Not in the bank, in front.” Another 1000 Colones.

Back to MOPT, and still there was no line at the window. The jovial black woman was still there. I handed all documents through the window and she nodded approvingly as she punched our information into the computer.

“Go wait over there,” she said pointing to a row of chairs filled with other lost souls. Alan and I went over and leaned against the wall like sweaty athletes toward the end of a long workout.

About five minutes later a very nice lady who spoke only Spanish ushered us into her office ahead of all the others. I asked, tentatively if we were cutting in line.

“Oh, no. There are all waiting to take their driver’s tests.” Well thank the motor vehicle gods for that small favor. She also told us in passing that people from San José often come here to get their licenses renewed because it is so quick here.

She sat us down, took our pictures, and created brand new shiny driver’s licenses that will expire February 07, 2013– just long enough for me to forget how to go about the renewal process.