Bringing Columbus Back to P.R.

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  |  11/17/1998

CATANO, Puerto Rico - This small seaside city, known locally as much for potholed streets as for a crumbling sewer system, may soon find recognition as host to one of the most grandiose monuments in the Americas.

The edifice, a 353-foot-high bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, is the pet project of Catano's mayor, Edwin Rivera Sierra, who stood on the edge of a dock and wept for joy late last month as workers unloaded the first pieces of the sculpture.

"I feel like a child receiving a gift from Santa Claus," Rivera Sierra told reporters while wiping away tears.

All the 2,000 pieces of this sculpture, nearly twice the size of the Statue of Liberty and three times the size of Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer, have crossed the Atlantic from the artist's workshop in Russia and are stored near its prospective perch in Catano. Still, Rivera Sierra must overcome several obstacles before assembling the statue.

The first is criticism that the huge Columbus will be, at best, an eyesore. The statue features Columbus rising out of a relatively small sloop, which is propped up by a Greek-columned base. One of Columbus's hands grips an angled helm, while the other waves in front of a sail-draped mast.

Zurab Tsereteli, a sculptor from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, has faced criticism for other monuments of his. Tsereteli's 310-foot-high Peter the Great in Moscow was the subject of a removal referendum.

The Columbus statue was intended as a token of goodwill from the newly democratic Russia to the United States. But before Catano was offered the monument, New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio; and, most recently, Baltimore, rejected it.

"I was there and I told them you have a pretty bay in Baltimore," said Ivan Kazansky, director of Moscow's Union of Sculptors, who advised Baltimore officials against accepting the statue. "I really don't want Mr. Tsereteli to ruin it."

Rivera Sierra says the US commonwealth of Puerto Rico was the natural site for the statue because it is the only place now under the American flag where Columbus had actually set foot.

Then, of course, there is the issue of spending about $30 million on about 600 tons of bronze, so soon after Hurricane Georges destroyed thousands of homes and wreaked billions of dollars in damage on the island.

"In Puerto Rico, our city ranks No. 1 in drug use, No. 1 in violent deaths, No. 1 in high school dropouts, and our city's sewer system is obsolete," said Rosa Hilda Ramos, who heads a local group called Communities United Against Pollution. "In principle, we don't oppose the statue; it's just that our mayor invests so much money, time and effort into things that won't immediately solve our city's problems."

Another woman, Carmen Calderon, 63, waiting for a bus under a dilapidated shelter off Catano's main square, was among those who questioned the mayor's judgment. "The symbol isn't bad; Columbus discovered America," she said. "But how could he think of investing this kind of money when there's sewer water in the streets?"

For his part, Rivera Sierra defended the 31-story statue. He argued that it is an investment in the city's future. Private donors will mostly pay for the project, and the city should begin seeing annual profits of up to $5 million in five years, he says. The mayor also says the statue will create 500 jobs.

With an assortment of fast-food restaurants, souvenir shops, a museum in the base and a lookout tower at the top, Rivera Sierra hopes "The Birth of a New World," the statue's sobriquet, will become as much a symbol of Puerto Rico as the Eiffel Tower is of France.

"Catano will become one of the most important cities of the world, with a huge tourist attraction that will boost the economy of our city for the benefit of all of Puerto Rico," he said of his city, which has a population of about 32,000, an annual budget less than the statue's cost, and such narrow roads that they barely accommodate traffic.

The mayor does not stand alone in support of the statue.

"This is a fabulous idea," said Luis Vega, 50, while tending a used clothing shop across the street from the mayor's office. "It will give us an international spotlight and will bring tourism."

A final hurdle is obtaining the permits. That is no simple matter as questions have been raised on issues including how the statue will affect the local ecosystem and whether it will clog the flow of air traffic into the island's capital, San Juan, which is just across the bay from Catano.

Yet the 49-year-old mayor expects all the permits to be approved by December. He said construction is planned to start in January and finish within 20 months, so the statue will be ready to open on Oct. 12, 2000, Columbus Day.

Gazing through the windows of his cluttered office overlooking San Juan's harbor, Rivera Sierra points to the Isle of Hope, where he expects millions of people will soon see the statue of Columbus as they fly into the capital or sail in on one of the cruise ships plying these turquoise waters.

"Many thought this was a joke, but it's becoming a reality," he said. "It's something our children will always have."

David Abel can be reached at

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