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China, why Costa Rica?

China, why Costa Rica?

Eric Beard on 16 November 2011

Costa Rica have recently unveiled the state-of-the-art Estadio Nacional. But why was it funded exclusively by the Chinese government using Chinese labour and materials?

On Saturday, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid kick off at the Camp Nou and the Mestalla, respectively. Between the two clubs, thirteen players return from international duty with Spain. With Euro 2012 qualifying over, these players earned quite a few frequent flyer miles courtesy of a trip to Costa Rica, which was more or less 30 hours of flying at 30,000 feet from Heathrow and back to Spain.

It’s no mystery as to why Spain traveled all the way down to San José. Money was waiting to be collected. Lots and lots of money. And at the moment FEDEFUTBOL, Costa Rica’s football federation, is sitting on a massive pile of cash.

Relative to Costa Rica’s socio-economic conditions, this money is an absolute anomaly. Though wealthier than surrounding nations such as Nicaragua, Costa Rica’s estimated income per capita is only just over $11,000 USD. But in the world of football, Costa Rica opened a 35,100 seat, $105 million Estadio Nacional in March, with money left over for high profile friendlies against Argentina, Brazil and Spain. There was even room to accommodate concerts from Shakira and Pearl Jam. The state-of-the-art stadium also has a running track, so a bid for the Pan American Games seems imminent.

If you’re a fan of ‘Los Ticos’, life seems pretty, pretty good. However, if you’re an average citizen, you’d be right to raise an eyebrow. This lavishness was funded entirely by the Chinese government.

According to the Chinese, this stadium is simply a donation to the Costa Rican people. Of course, in politics nothing is ever simple. So what terms did Costa Rica’s former President Oscar Arias agree to back in 2007 to make this ‘donated’ stadium a reality?

Again, the answer is not simple nor is it ideal.

First, Arias agreed that Chinese workers could build the stadium, despite the fact that Costa Rica was stricken with unemployment from the global economic crisis. He allowed the Chinese company in charge of the project, AFEC, to entirely bypass Costa Rica’s labor laws, which are notoriously strict. Though Costa Rica is a proud advocate of human rights, Chinese employees of AFEC worked inhumane hours right under the nose of the Costa Rican democracy. There was even one casualty on the project, as 37-year-old Liu Hong Bin was hit by a construction vehicle in November 2010. Putting human rights aside, the stadium barely stimulated Costa Rica’s economy, as even most of the materials used were shipped over from China.

This was only the beginning. Historically, Taiwan has been a great ally of Costa Rica. In fact, Costa Rica initially established diplomatic relations with China through their Taiwanese connection. Back in 2003, the ‘Puente de Amistad’ (Bridge of Friendship) opened. The Taiwanese Government, in exchange for commercial fishing rights, paid for it and helped finance numerous other projects. But as part of the agreement to build the Estadio Nacional, Oscar Arias agreed to terminate Costa Rica’s relationship with Taiwan altogether. He even agreed to change the name of the ‘Puente de Amistad’. The locals have taken care of that, as the suspension bridge is now commonly referred to as the ‘Puente de la Apuñalada’ (backstabbing bridge).

In the end though, supporting Chinese employment and isolating Taiwan politically and economically are mere afterthoughts. It’s always about the business and the effects of China’s new friendship with Costa Rica live on. Last April, only two weeks after the official opening of the Estadio Nacional, a Free Trade Agreement between the nations was agreed upon. China has become Costa Rica’s second biggest trading partner, behind only the United States. Costa Rica is a perfect example of China’s plan to establish Free Trade Agreements strategically, as they have done with Chile, Pakistan, New Zealand, Singapore, and Peru.

Within the sphere of football, the future looks bright for ‘Los Ticos’ with the Chinese supporting Costa Rica’s national pastime.  But knowing what has been sacrificed, Costa Ricans are finding it difficult to accept China’s ‘gift’ with a clear conscience.  As Axel, a 47-year-old writer based in San José, told The Guardian back in March, “If the Chinese give, they expect something in return. We are close to agreeing a free trade deal with China, and this is nothing but a sweetener. Also, China violates human rights, whilst we defend human rights, so it is very important to China’s image to show they have a country like us on their side.”

The next time Xavi or Neymar puts on a show at Estadio Nacional, it will be courtesy of the Chinese government. If the Costa Rican national team qualifies for the World Cup, the Chinese government will be able to claim a degree of responsibility for the team’s success. When Costa Rica succeeds, China succeeds. This is what Oscar Arias sacrificed; this is Costa Rica’s burden.

Eric Beard is the founder and editor of


The aviva stadium in ireland cost an arm and a leg...thanks for not helping England !
by mickeyh on 16 November 2011 at 02:02 PM

Would like to know how they built that stadium for $105M? We could learn a little here in the states
by Bill on 16 November 2011 at 02:29 PM

"When Costa Rica succeeds, China succeeds. This is what Oscar Arias sacrificed" - win and win! Something wrong here?
by wu_ji on 16 November 2011 at 04:13 PM

@Bill Well, what China did would be partially illegal in the States. They got rid of overheads by using their own resources (legal), but then they had overworked, underpaid employees and finished the project 3 months early.

@wu_ji What is wrong is the issue Axel brings up. Costa Rica has a good reputation. China, from human rights to football, does not. Many Costa Ricans are not happy that they are helping move China's political agenda forward. Success for China is derived from Costa Rica's success, but not vice versa. That's the sacrifice.
by Eric Beard on 16 November 2011 at 05:08 PM

The chinese olympic stadium was also cheap because of the same reasons, the labour costs are significantly lower than other projects built in western europe.
by Do I not like that on 16 November 2011 at 07:21 PM

im from costa rica, and you are wrong in one thing.. there was no left over from the chinese donation, in fact costa rica put the money to build a better grassfield, and to accommodate box-offices (because the chinese-designed stadiums dont have ticket sales) .

the international Friendlies are paid entirely based on ticket sales, the ticket prices vary 90$, 150$ and 200$ with a 35,000 capacity stadium, you can make the calculations, the country can now afford to pay 3 million dollars to teams like Spain to come, or 1.5 to argentina or 2 for brazil. based on 70% occupacy. Also 30% of these transactions are retained in Taxes for the country, so it actually helps the economy.
by costa rican on 17 November 2011 at 12:30 AM

what is this article about, I bet US never will help to build something like this stadium anywhere, not if only US can win (Irak is a good example)
by Romano74 on 17 November 2011 at 02:36 AM

I'm Costa Rican, and honestly, most of us are in favor of what Oscar Arias did. 1. relations with Taiwan were pointless, just a few countries (mostly central american and some african) in the world support Taiwan's independence, and besides that bridge, it never gave us anything. It has been confirmed that Taiwanese ships used our ports for shark fins trafficking (clearly illegal). Commercial relations with China, the fastest growing economy in the world, are helping exporters boost the economy of our country sending their products to China, hence increasing jobs. + chinese products have always flooded our market (and everywhere in the world) with or without a free trade agreement. China obviously wants votes on UN's General Assembly in favor of them, instead of Taiwan, and what is so wrong with it, even the U.S. recognizes China instead of Taiwan, so at least we got something out of it.
2. We would have never been able to build a stadium like that, and you may see this obvious, but to us is a huge deal, this stadium works as offices for all of the sports federations, has a running track, a football field, helds concerts, and also has a hotel in it. Our athletes FINALLY have a decent place to practice for the Olympics instead of some muddy field, 3 soccer world champions full of stars that people religiously watch play every week on their tv have played here this year, and concerts that would've never happened before, like Pearl Jam, are now happening. So don't think we see this as a "burden", must of us see it as a blessing.
3. I find hypocritical you criticize China when the U.S. constantly helps us economically too, not at the scale of building a stadium, but there are multiple bridges, schools, medical supplies, police force supplies, etc given to us by the U.S. that out of a good heart too? probably Obama would want our support against communist Ortega in nicaragua, or a very annoying Hugo Chavez that hates Oscar Arias. We hate them too, so why don't benefit from it?
by Monica on 17 November 2011 at 03:01 AM

@costa rican Thanks for the clarification on how exactly the friendlies were financed.

@Monica Great points all around. Thanks very much for such a comprehensive comment.

Ultimately, the stance I took on this article was proving that the stadium was not merely a 'donation', as the Chinese government suggested.

One thing this article is explicitly not is a stance on U.S. foreign policy vs China's foreign policy.

China are creating many friendships with nations like Costa Rica and are clearly benefitting diplomatically. Costa Rica is clearly benefitting as well. As you mentioned, this stadium and this connection with the Chinese can be seen as a blessing; however, I don't think a blessing and a burden are necessarily mutually exclusive.

I also understand why, from an economic perspective, it made perfect sense for Costa Rica to ditch the Taiwanese, as the Chinese can offer infinitely more. But one issue I would still like to clarify is how the average Costa Rican feels about the relationship with China from a human rights perspective. Are most Costa Ricans simply looking beyond China's horrible track record with human rights? This issue holds a lot of emphasis in the article, and I think it cannot not be ignored.
by Eric Beard on 17 November 2011 at 12:04 PM

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