San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica’s love affair with China now has a monument

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

If China has not yet made clear its tremendous interest in Costa Rica, the looming, newly carved archway now marking the entrance to San José’s Chinatown certainly establishes the republic’s presence.

Earlier Thursday morning, Li Ching Hua, Chinese ambassador to Costa Rica, and San José Mayor Johnny Araya shook hands before a large ingress pared with Chinese characters set before four large concrete spheres.  

Men in protective masks pushed heavy machinery buffing the colored pavestones on what was previously the Paseo de los Estudiantes (Students’ Boulevard). The mayor and the ambassador gave certificates of thanks to the Chinese laborers contracted to build the arch.

Araya said the arch ran the Chinese government $500,000, which was donated in one of many recent demonstrations of solidarity. “It is a monumental work of art, a beautiful piece of art that will represent one more attraction in San José, bringing more tourists to the capital,” the mayor said.

The vacuum in the region left by a shift in focus by the United States toward the Middle East is opening the door for the Chinese to increase their presence throughout Latin America, some analysts believe. Nowhere has their presence in the region been more observable than in Costa Rica.

Since former President Oscar Arias broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan in June 2007, the Republic of China’s active courtship of Costa Rica is proving more than a brief dalliance. The severance occurred only a few years after Taiwan built the Friendship Bridge over the Tempisque River, which connects the Nicoya Peninsula with the rest of the country and is considered the second-longest bridge in Central America.

Arias called the decision “an act of foreign policy realism,” but the swift reversal in diplomatic alliances has prompted many Ticos to refer to the hulking construction as the “Backstabbing Bridge.”

Following the decision, the Chinese purchased $300 million in Costa Rican bonds, using the republic’s sizeable foreign exchange reserves. In a memorandum signed by Yang Jiechi, then China’s foreign minister, the document states that the money was a gift in return for closing its embassy in Taiwan.

In the same breath, the Chinese also announced a scholarship program that would incentivize Costa Rican students to take up studies in China, as well as $130 million in aid that was used to fund the procurement of brand new police vehicles and other equipment. The bumpers of these vehicles still boast the slogan, “a gift from China.”

Since that time, Chinese donations have continued unabated. The Asian giant donated $100 million for a new football stadium in Sabana Park, in western San José. The country also recently pledged $25 million for a police academy in Limón, as well as another $8 million that was to be used at Costa Rica’s discretion.

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