COSEVI

This, Our Year of Renewal

Los funcionarios del Registro Civil no tendrían tantas carreras en una eventual segunda ronda pues no votarían quienes cumplan 18 años después del 3 de febrero.Allowing official documents to lapse in Costa Rica is a nightmare, which is why I keep close tabs on them. When I saw four items pop up on my computer’s calendar this past January, I groaned. My poor husband asked what was wrong. When I explained, he wasn’t very sympathetic but he never deals with this sort of stuff.

What sort of stuff, you ask. Well, our Costa Rican cedulas de residencia (national ID cards) must be renewed by July and our US passports updated by November. My Washington State and both our Costa Rican driver’s licenses were also due to expire in June… or so I thought.

I traveled to the states in April and renewed the Washington driver’s license. It took two trips to their DMV, because, silly me, I failed to notice on their website that driver’s licensing is closed on Mondays (all other licensing services remain open, however).

It seemed oddly familiar.

I’ve talked about it before, but I will repeat, Adam Gopnik got it straight when he compared French bureaucracies to weight lifting equipment. “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.” His point being that the French rarely go to a gym to lift weights or run on StairMasters in fellowship with kindred spirits the way Americans do. Rather, they treat getting things done in any office of the government as an aerobic workout in itself. The same camaraderie Americans enjoy with fellow exercisers, the French get with fellow misérables in the queues. This applies to Costa Rican bureaucracies, as well, although friends who have lived in both places assure me that France takes the prize.

I approached the Costa Rican driver’s licence renewal with some trepidation. My concern: the cards had expired. This happened because of the due dates. I had tracked my US driver’s license, due 06-03-2012, and our Costa Rican licenses, due 06-02-2013, forgetting that the day and month are reversed in the two countries. So, when I set about renewing the Costa Rican license in late May (with plenty of time to spare) I suddenly had that panicky feeling you get when you realize your pocket’s been picked or you’ve misplaced your keys. It was not due in June but due last February!

I’d also read that MOPT/ COSEVI passed new rules for driver’s licenses last year. It used to be they would honor a current license from any other country. All you had to do was get a medical checkup, trot down to the San José office with some money (of course), and they’d issue a license. Not any more. Now you have to be a citizen or a resident with a current cedula (applicants need not apply). Our resident cedulas were up to date, but as I recalled our licenses were pinned to our US passports.

The first trip to COSEVI was strictly recon. I presented our licenses, passports, and cedulas. The portly guy behind the desk never batted an eye. He adjusted his belly, leaned forward, and flipped through our documents, then tossed them back on the counter in front of me. Bring your immigration paperwork showing you were issued cedulas, copies of your cedulas, the dictamen medico (medical checkup), and bank deposit slips for five thousand colones each. He never mentioned the expired license. Neither did I.

It took two weeks and two visits to the office in Limón. I was sure it would be three, the usual number of stabs it seems to take to kill any task here. The rest of that time we spent getting the medical paperwork and finding time when the bank wasn’t jammed with tourists.

The second trip to COSEVI was nip and tuck. We got through two sets of paper shufflers and were waiting in queue when the machine that prints out the plastic cards broke down. Employees bent over the device and probed its insides. Minutes ticked by. Other employees were summoned from paper shuffling to confer.The clock moved closer to noon. Finally, they called over the woman who’d processed our paperwork. She flipped up covers, un-battened hatches, and reached deep into the organs of the beast to retrieve a jammed card. More levers flipped, shutters clattered shut, and—bing!—it was online again.

We have an appointment in June to renew our residency cedulas, and then it’s on to the US Embassy.

Two down, two to go.

By November I’ll be buffed up like a veteran weight lifter.

[This essay originally appeared in The Costa Rican Times, May 29, 2013.]

MOPT- Half of the Story~

“Yes, this is the right office, but you must go to the Banco Nacional and pay 10,000 colones each before I can renew these driver’s licenses,” said the nice man behind the glass partition separating us. “And anyway, our system is down right now. I won’t be able to do anything for you today.”

This was something new; not the fact that the system was down, that was common enough. It was the fact that he told me about it so I didn’t make a second trip after paying at the bank that was so remarkable. This, in my estimation, is real progress and I told him so.

“Thank you so much for telling me.”

“Con mucho gusto,” he replied as we left the MOPT office.

Alan and I had been eyeing at our driver’s licenses for the past month, aware that they would need to be renewed this month, with the same anticipation as an upcoming colonoscopy.

It was our first trip to the MOPT (the equivalent of the DMV) office outside Limon. Finding it had been no simple task. We asked in town and were directed out past the prison, and further out beyond the truck yards, where containers were stacked like oversized Legos, and finally behind the bus yards for TRACASA, through a chain link gate with the rusted and barely visible sign reading MOPT, to ultimately find the transportation department offices.

We bounced our way over the rough gravel entrance and finally arrived at a group of rundown buildings that used to be blue. Out back was a chain link fence surrounding the impounded vehicles like some vehicular gulag. We parked and walked to the building entrance where we found the familiar socialistic line of people standing idly, leaning against anything vertical for support, most of them twiddling their cellular phones.

“Is this the line?” I asked the woman in the tight black lyrca pants at the end, to which I received a jutted jaw as she pointed with her lips toward the inside of the building. We entered the grubby office and found two windows, both without any line in front of them. Surely it couldn’t be this easy.

It wasn’t.

The man in the first cubicle informed me that I needed to speak to the gentleman behind the second window, who was idle as well. It was this man who told me about the failed system and the bank.

In the old days–a mere ten years ago– they would never have given us the secondary information. It was as though they got some morbid glee out of making a person make multiple trips to get anything done. I believe Franz Kafka took his training in places like this.

We left and drove the five miles back to Limon to pay the fee at the bank. The line stretched down the block as people waited for the bank to open. I realized it was not only a Monday, but also the first of the month and we were going to be hours waiting for people to get their pensions, make their weekly deposits and whatever other business they felt the need to conduct.

Ah, another dead-end in one of the many labyrinthine routes to a fairly innocuous chore. I left and we went about getting other chores done. It then occurred to me that perhaps our own bank, the Banco de Costa Rica, might have an account with MOPT and we went to that bank. Same deal, but I persevered and entered. I went to one of the ubiquitous armed guards that are in every bank and increasingly in every business that handles cash.

“Hi. Can you tell me if the bank has an account with MOPT. I need to pay for my license renewal.” I said, giving him my best smile.

“Let me see your license.” I handed him my driver’s license.

“You can’t renew this now. It’s not expired yet. See, the expiration date is on the 13th. Come back on the 14th.”

“Sir, the license will be expired by then and the police will give us a ticket. I just need to know if the bank has an account with MOPT” I could feel my jaw getting tight. Try to smile, I reminded myself.

“Here is the telephone number, you have to make an appointment.” Defeated I left with the phone number.

On the way home I called the number he had given me using my cell phone. No, I did not need an appointment; I could go directly to the MOPT office. Yes, I could pay at the bank.

We went home stopping off at our local branch office and paid for our renewal. It was during this transaction that I learned I could have done this online myself and the name of the agency was COSEVI not MOPT. Oh, well.

We were half way to being renewed: We had receipts showing we had paid, but still had expired licenses.

(to be continued)