By Ron Howell
Dominican Republic, Oct 7, 1992 -- It was supposed to have been a ceremony with cosmic import, a moment of glory for President Joaquin Balaguer and the memory of Christopher Columbus.
But the celebration of 500th anniversary of the explorer's landing here was reduced to a non-event, full of pomp but lacking the enthusiastic crowds that were supposed to have made it the festival of the demi-millennium.
An urn said to contain Columbus' remains (Spain claims to have the real ones) was transferred yesterday to a "final resting place" inside a garish 730-yard-long lighthouse in the shape of a cross, built to commemorate the Genoese seaman's first voyage to the Americas.
A military band preceded the cortege from the Cathedral of Santo Domingo. Scores of diplomats, government officials and Roman Catholic prelates marched solemnly behind. And the procession was greeted along the way by a hundred-or-so United States and Dominican sailors standing at attention as three American fighter planes flew in formation overhead.
But something was missing. The streets along the parade route were largely bare of Dominicans, who seemed to heed dissidents' calls to ignore the official hoopla. Businessmen who were once involved in promoting the event were absent, bitterly accusing the government of poor administration and of backing out of signed contracts.
No head of state attended. Pope John Paul II, who was expected to participate in the ceremonies, canceled at the last minute. The event was hastily moved up from Oct. 12, the date of Columbus' landing in the Caribbean, to yesterday.
(The Pontiff will celebrate a mass here on Sunday, but church authorities say his main reason for coming is to preside over a conference of Latin American bishops that begins next week. The Pope is scheduled to arrive on Friday.)
It is widely assumed the Pope wanted to avoid the controversy of race, class and culture that has marred the quincentenary here.
For years, the government had been hoping to use the lighthouse, whose seven stories will also house international exhibits, to showcase the country to tourists. But yesterday, when Columbus' crystal-enclosed urn was finally positioned at the structure's long-awaited dedication, one thing remained certain: The controversy surrounding the encounter of Europe and the Americas 500 years ago would not be laid to rest with the admiral's ashes.
In the Dominican Republic, one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, angry voices have been raised against the cost of the lighthouse and the celebration of what critics maintain was the rape and pillage of indigenous peoples by Columbus and the Spaniards who sailed with him.
"The Columbus Lighthouse is a gigantic cross nailed into the back of the Dominican people," said Dominican historian Frank Moya Pons. Some critics call the project a lavish insult to a people half of whom are living in poverty. They estimate the lighthouse's cost at more than $70 million; the government puts it at about $12 million.
Critics say continual power blackouts in barrios de miseria make a mockery of the monument's powerful beams of light, which can be seen in the night from Puerto Rico, more than 120 miles away.
The lighthouse is viewed by supporters and foes alike as a testimony to the forceful character of Balaguer, the 85-year-old Dominican president, who began his career in government half a century ago as a protege of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo.
It is often noted, with irony, that Balaguer can never even see the sky lit by the product of his dreams and efforts. The intellectual and author of more than two dozen books is blind.
As if fate were conspiring against him, Balaguer's sister, Emma Balaguer de Vallejo, 73, died suddenly of a heart attack in the home they shared Sunday night. Instead of leading the celebration, the president attended a funeral.
Throughout the day, dissidents marched peacefully to display their protest of the lighthouse and the Columbus quincentenary. There was a heavy military presence in the capital and the countryside, and the radio reported bombs exploding in at least two areas outside the capital, supposedly set off by anti-government militants. Neither injuries nor damages were reported, however, and the capital seemed mostly calm.
Two weeks ago, police shot to death two anti-Columbus activists and arrested dozens of others after boisterous demonstrations organized by unionists and university students.
The lighthouse has given his critics more political ammunition than ever against Balaguer, a bricks-and-mortar leader who has left a trail of buildings, roads and dams that he believes will lead to more generalized wealth in this impoverished nation.
Many Dominicans are offended by the massive displacement of residents - the homes of about 50,000 people were bulldozed - to clear the site for the lighthouse. Adding insult to the injury, the government placed a 1.5 mile-long "wall of shame" in front of the remaining shantytown of Los Mamayes, to hide it from the view of tourists.
"I think that if the money for the lighthouse had been used for schools we would be better off," said a shantytown resident, Scarlet Morales, 18 and pregnant with her first baby, expected in the next week. Morales said the only schoolhouse in Los Mamayes tumbled down from age and disrepair several years ago, and children have to walk for miles or take public transportation to other schools.
"The lighthouse doesn't make me feel proud at all," she continued. "I would feel proud if tourists could come here and see schools and that we have a better standard of living. If they come here now they are going to see the other face of the Dominican Republic, not the beauty of the lighthouse."
One businessman, Manuel E. Bonilla, said government mishandling of the project, more than anti-Columbus hostility, caused the celebration to fizzle.
"I'm sorry it lost its splendor," he said. "In my opinion, the country lost the best opportunity it had in decades to become the center of world attention. It's become a non-event and it's a pity."