For the past two years, a crew of Chinese workmen has been building a big new shiny spaceship for soccer fans in a western neighbourhood of San José, Costa Rica. The $100 million dollar engagement ring between these two countries is known as “the jewel of La Sabana” which is the name of this area in the city that includes a huge park with green space, playgrounds, lakes and art galleries. Since March 27 the inauguration festivities have gathered sports, music and happy-to-fiesta fans for more than a week of special events.
This “gift” of the Chinese government apparently came about thanks to Costa Rica’s twice ex-president, Oscar Arias, who started the process of signing a free trade agreement with the largest world nation, and second largest world economy, back in 2007. There are many people in Costa Rican still wondering what this little country will have to pay for this “gift”, as we all know that you don’t get something for nothing in this world…well, there are exceptions, like long prison sentences for possessing almost no pot and fatal diseases through no actual fault of your own, but we don’t need to go there right now.
The stadium, like all newly-designed big structures, has a grand presence both from street level and viewed from any high building or elevation around the city, day or night. It looks like a big crown or, as I said earlier, a spaceship. It is very open to the sky, and thus the elements. In Canada, most major sports stadiums are now built with retractable roofs that allow for relative comfort against the elements in extended sports seasons (have these seasons gotten longer, running into each other to fill up the whole year, or is this just my imagination?) Since there are several months here in Costa Rica when the rain will pour down, it would have been a more generous gift if the Chinese had added one of those sliding roofs, but beggars can’t be choosers and fans and players alike will just continue what they’ve always done – come to the game and get soaked until the possibility of a mass drowning finally gets the game called off and sends the wet puppies scampering home.
This stadium was also built to host major international music events, the first one being Columbian superstar Shakira, scheduled to rock the place next Sunday, closing out nearly two weeks of festivities. Once again, pouring rain would really put a literal damper on these concerts, and with the changing weather patterns present here, as all over the world, I can only imagine that it is hard to predict when one can safely plan a concert here, hoping for more than 35,000 fans to fork over the maybe $100 or more to see their idols only to get a free bout of pneumonia in the process.
The night of the grand opening, CR President Laura Chinchilla, ex-President Oscar Arias, and Chen Changzhi, the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, all put their patriotic political spin on things. Then lithe Chinese dancers performed, a few fireworks burst in the sky, and the first fútbol match was played between La Selección, Costa Rican’s national team, and the Chinese national team. It ended in a tie because of a goal scored in the last couple minutes by the Chinese, who may have given Ticos the stadium, but ultimately took away their glory…hopefully not a sign of things to come.
I spent that night in a beautiful home in the Escazu hills with my friends Edín and Lorena, our colourful hosts Raymond and Jerry, and a joyful mix of Ticos and ex-pats. We ate glorious food and drank nice wine while we watched the ceremony and game on the television screen, and the light show and fireworks off the sweeping balcony with the million dollar view over the city. I’m neither a big sports fan nor a supporter of the excessive amounts of money spent in the sports and entertainment sectors, but I’m always keen for a celebration! And when in Rome….
I am, however, a very huge fan of music of all kinds and especially the music and musicians I know here in Costa Rica. There were several music events at the stadium, covering all different tastes. Apparently the National Symphony put on a beautiful program one night to a huge crowd – who said classical and opera wouldn’t bring in the masses? There was a night when all the top dance bands in the land played to the biggest dance floor ever assembled – salsa, meringue, cumbia, the works – and people of all ages swirled and twirled together. And thanks to Edín, we had passes to get into the stadium on the day when 27 music groups of Costa Rica performed in a flawlessly executed show on the big stage. There are four large screens to amplify the images for the crowd, with two of the screens serving as front drops on the stage. One rises to reveal the next band which is already to play as they have been setting up behind the other big screen. The ten hours of show went off without a hitch – very professional, great sound, excellent music – definitely a world class festival of contemporary Costa Rican music. Lorena, her friend Vicki, and I only stayed for Edín’s band EDITUS 360 and a couple of other performances, and we wandered around, taking pictures and looking at the mammoth structure.
EDITUS, who I’ve written about so many times before (most recently when I went to Guatemala with them), presented their show they call Latinamerica 360. It is the main three musicians of EDITUS along with a bass player and keyboardist as well as a cello and second violinist. They play electronic world music that you have to move to, with a backdrop of mesmerizing images. It was amazing to see the hundreds or thousands of people in the stadium, mostly youth with Megadeath t-shirts, mohawk haircuts, and attitude yet obviously fans of these superstars of Costa Rican music. It is a very long way from the days when Edín and Ricardo were a classical violin/guitar duo playing in the salons of Monteverde – which they still do. It is great to see them continue to be enthusiastic about music as they constantly switch up their playlist and musical colaborators.
As is the case with all mega-events, there was corporate advertising everywhere – mostly Coca Cola, Taco Bell and BCR (Bank of Costa Rica) – and corporate litter everywhere as well. Taco Bell (or BeatBell as they call their rock concert alter ego), BCR and Kolbi (taking over Central America’s cell phone service with a cute green frog as their logo), had to do that thing where they give everyone a free plastic blow-up tube to play with and ultimately toss away – all quadrillion of them end up on the floor, or the street, after. All those poor lost little green frogs. As long as marketers believe that plastic throw-away garbage with their logo on it somehow increases sales, this scourge will continue. It drives me crazy – this rampant disposable advertising in exchange for corporations supporting cultural activities.
There were several controversies around the festivities that arose throughout the week. One involved the arrival of Argentina’s soccer team who came to play a friendly match against the Costa Ricans. One of the top teams in the world, it is also the birth-team of the hottest player in the world, Lionel Messi. Just the possibility of seeing this great player playing on the new concha had thousands of people lining up to buy pricey tickets to this game. My boyfriend Roberto said weeks ago that Messi would never play in this game, as he is a very expensive and important player for Barcelona and has some big games coming up for his cash-parent team in the next weeks. His owners wouldn’t allow that he take the possibility of getting injured in a silly little game in silly little Costa Rica. Roberto was right.
Messi came, I’m not sure why, since he never got off the bench. What did happen is that Costa Rican fans, hungry for even a few minutes of his renowned footwork, having paid the price of admission with that possibility in mind, booed every time Messi’s face was caught on camera and flashed on the big screen in the stadium. Perhaps not very polite behavior on behalf of the Ticos, but neither was the way they were sold the idea that if they paid the price, they would see the great one play. There was rumors that he had a mild injury, but I’ve also read that wasn’t true. Once again, the Costa Rican team only managed to tie Argentina 2-2, but that was a win for the Ticos, considering the strength of the Albicelestes.
One of the biggest events of the week was when Costa Rican female boxer, Hanna Gabriel, did her thing and held on to her world middleweight championship fighting against US opponent Melisenda Paris in front of a huge crowd at the stadium. I’m not a fan of fighting, wrestling or boxing, but I do find this woman beautiful and very gracious, and I have no doubt there is a huge pride on the part of her family, community and country. And that one woman did what all those male fútbol players couldn’t manage – to win!
The organizers of the inaugural events and the publicity surrounding them made a few errors, intentionally or not, by promising big names when they shouldn’t have, with the obvious intention of selling tickets. Another small scandal erupted weeks ago when the day of national music was being planned and the organizers used Malpais (one of the country’s most popular groups that includes Minister of Culture Manuel Obregon as their keyboardist) as a selling point for tickets before they had reached an agreement with the group itself to play.
Malpais refused to play when it was revealed that the organizers wouldn’t pay them what they normally get for a concert. They were asked to take less money as some kind of patriotic donation, while massive amounts of money went to bringing in Shakira, the international superstar. Musicians and artists here, as everywhere, struggle to survive financially but also struggle to receive the proper respect and remuneration for the talent and art that they bring to the big social table – without their music, words and images we would live much less enjoyable lives. Malpais made a public statement about their refusal to play. Other bands chose to play – many craving the exposure, others, such as EDITUS, simply feeling it was important to be part of this national event yet supportive of the statement Malpais was making.
Manuel Monestel, who recently received two national awards for his music and work, and his group Cantoamerica also didn’t play and, knowing Manuel and his politics, I can imagine he not only agreed with Malpais but also didn’t want to support the extravagance of the stadium. So many other aspects of society in Costa Rica are suffering by cutbacks to social programs, poverty and poor infrastructure in a quickly developing nation. I have no doubt that he questions, as do the activists who were demonstrating politely outside the stadium, the price to be paid by Costa Rica for this “gift” from China. He and those activitists, as their sign states, love their country as much anyone who was inside praising the new stadium. Considering China’s poor human rights, health and environmental record, it is scary to think what the free trade agreement will lead to for little Costa Rica with its faded green party dress and schizophrenic spirit mixing ecology with development.
Sports and entertainment are very important elements of society – a place to learn teamwork, be creative, to relieve stress, to enjoy yourself, etc. People work hard and at the end of the day deserve to be entertained. I agree with that, yet I also agree with those that see the attention on sports and other forms of mass entertainment and scandal used as a distraction from the real issues. And the money involved always astounds me to create these megastructures. I would propose that people living with good health care, education, safe infrastructure and roads, and less crime, at the end of the day would come home happier and would still enjoy a game or a movie. It all seems hopelessly out of whack to me.
At the inauguration, Oscar Arias spoke of the relationship of Costa Rica and China as “a young bonsai tree creating a bridge over the Pacific Ocean”. I love these delicate dwarfed living sculptures as much as the next person, but considering they are created by cutting roots, trimming healthy branches and keeping the poor little things stunted in a rather unnatural environment for years, I’m not sure that it is such a healthy image for the future of Costa Rica.
The symbol over the entrance to the National Stadium…don’t know what it means, but it looks like it says that Costa Rica and China are intrinsically linked for life….or maybe it says what’s yours is now ours…