Wednesday, August 27, 2008

600 Ton Statue of Columbus (1998 article)

For discussion of this piece, see the Indigenous Caribbean Network


Published: December 21, 1998

Police Officer Adan Vargas Maldonado tried to picture what a 30-story-tall bronze statue of Christopher Columbus would look like.

''I don't imagine it beautiful, but attractive, yes,'' he said as he kept watch on the mammoth head and other statue parts, strewn about in a park, awaiting assembly. ''It'll be something supernatural for Puerto Rico.''

Such lukewarm views are an improvement over the reaction in almost every American city that has considered but rejected the statue by Zurab K. Tsereteli, the Russian sculptor who gave it to the United States as a gift of friendship in the early 1990's.

In South Florida, cities like Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale passed on erecting the 600-ton monument because of its size and the costs involved, about $25 million for shipping and assembling. In Columbus, Ohio, which debated adding the statue of Columbus at the helm of a ship to its other memorials in honor of the explorer, some nicknamed it ''Chris Kong,'' and American Indians said it glorified someone who represented ''500 years of genocide.''

But where some see a colossal headache, others see a potential moneymaker. The statue is about to settle down in Catano, a city of 36,000 better known for flooding, industrial pollution and playing ugly duckling to San Juan, its neighbor across San Juan Bay, but whose leaders expect soon to blossom as an international tourist attraction.

Plans call for the statue, which would rise here 295 feet above sea level, to become the centerpiece of a waterfront tourism complex, which would also feature a pedestrian mall, restaurants, shops and boutiques, inspired by Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. Proponents say the complex, a short ferry ride from the cruise ships that anchor at San Juan Harbor, could draw 500,000 visitors a year.

''This is going to put Catano on the map of the world,'' said Sergio Cordero, a Miami consultant who is manager of the statue project here. ''People will recognize it like they recognize the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty.''

Not everyone in Catano thinks it will be money well spent, given the city's municipal problems, but officials are trying to win people over by focusing on the future.

The unlikely but impressive journey from Russia to Catano of the monument titled ''Birth of the New World'' began last February, when Anibal Marrero, the vice president of the Puerto Rico Senate, heard that the statue needed a home. Mr. Marrero, whose district includes Catano, said he thought it fitting that the gift be given to Puerto Rico, an American territory on which, unlike the mainland, Columbus actually set foot during his second voyage in 1493. (Puerto Rico's national anthem includes the lines: ''When to its beaches Columbus arrived, with admiration he cried: 'Oh! Oh! Oh! This is the pretty land I'm looking for.' '')

Senator Marrero, who said the statue honored the man's daring spirit rather than his conquest, said he also envisioned new jobs and an economic bonanza for Catano. The city has one of the most majestic waterfront views on the island and is already the site of a popular tourist attraction, the Bacardi rum plant. But it does have problems, Mr. Marrero said, including an unemployment rate of about 13 percent and a disproportionate number of public housing projects.

After enlisting the support of Catano's Mayor, Edwin Rivera Sierra, who earmarked $3 million to bring the statue's parts to the island, the two officials put a project team together and exchanged visits with Mr. Tsereteli, whose large-scale art is found all over Moscow and in cities like New York.

Mr. Tsereteli had presented scale models of the statue to both President Bush and President Clinton and, last September, to the Organization of American States, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

The statue depicts Columbus standing at the historically inaccurate wheel of his ship (maritime historians say ships from Columbus's day steered by a bar directly connected to the rudder), his right arm raised in a greeting. Three sails snap in the wind behind him while the three caravels are positioned on a map of the New World at the base.

The statue arrived here in more than 2,500 pieces, some from St. Petersburg, Russia, and some from the United States, where the 11-ton head had unceremoniously languished for six years in a Fort Lauderdale warehouse after South Florida turned the statue down. By contrast, when the head got here last October, a welcoming delegation from Catano was waiting at the dock.

''I feel like a child receiving a gift from Santa Claus,'' Mayor Rivera Sierra, whose statue-related exploits have been the subject of both ridicule and song, told The San Juan Star as he wiped away tears.

Many of the Mayor's constituents, however, are extremely angry over the statue's cost, which officials plan to cover through a $30 million private bond issue. The officials say Catano would only profit, and any expenses related to the statue would be reimbursed, but residents wonder why a monument is the focus when many of their streets still flood every time it rains and some neighborhoods lack sewage hookups.

''That money should be used for necessities, like more hospital services, more police officers,'' said Rafael Roman, 84, a Catano native who was talking with friends one recent evening in the town plaza. ''That statue is not going to resolve anything sitting there. It's throwing taxpayers' money into the trash can.''

Another Catano resident, Luis Ortiz, 47, said, ''We're just praying Catano doesn't sink.''

But if visits to the park where the statue pieces rest under 24-hour guard are any indication, Catano got itself a hit. Officer Vargas Maldonado said visitors from all over the island had already come looking for ''la cabeza de Colon'' -- the head of Columbus.

One recent afternoon, several parents with children stopped by. ''It's a well-done job,'' said Marco Prieto, 8, who visited with his father and two brothers. ''The Mayor has shown great intelligence.''

''The nose has holes and everything,'' his 12-year-old brother, Giovanni, reported excitedly.

The statue has another enthusiastic ally in Gov. Pedro J. Rossello.

''I just picture an imposing structure at the entrance of San Juan Bay which can be seen by air, sea and land and which will be a landmark in United States territory where Christopher Columbus actually landed,'' the Governor said.

Assembly by the sculptor and a crew of about 50 Russians is expected to start in mid-1999, pending environmental and other permits. Officials say they had to rush the transportation of the statue before all studies were completed because of the fear that political instability in Russia might prevent a move.

Unveiling is scheduled for the anniversary of the first sighting of the New World, Oct. 12, 2000.

''It's a beautiful monument,'' Mayor Rivera Sierra said in an interview on Thursday. ''I have no doubt it's going to be a success.''

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