POPE John Paul II arrives today in the Dominican Republic to celebrate mass and open a conference of Latin American bishops, but the controversy over the legacy of Christopher Columbus threatens to overshadow both events.
When the pope arrives in Santo Domingo, he will find aging authoritarian President Joaquin Balaguer Ricardo downcast by the unpopularity of his Columbus quincentenary celebrations.
Despite elaborate preparations, no crowds converged on Tuesday's inauguration of the so-called Columbus Lighthouse, a colossal supine cross 230 yards long and 10 stories high built to house the supposed remains of the Genoese navigator and to cast cross-shaped laser beams that can be seen for more than 70 miles.
Controversy over both Columbus's historical role and the monument's cost - the government says $11 million but critics estimate $70 million - is thought to explain why Spain's King Juan Carlos and many Latin American leaders chose not to attend.
Criticism has also centered on the government's eviction of about 8,000 families to make room for the lighthouse and its surrounding gardens. Another 20,000 families have been evicted elsewhere in the capital during a six-year spree of demolition and rebuilding to beautify the city in time for a quincentenary tourist influx that never materialized.
By opting to hold his main open-air mass Sunday beside Balaguer's unpopular new monument, the pope may see the success of his five-day visit dimmed by a failure to draw a multitude.
"Evictions, official high-handedness, and extravagance - that's what the lighthouse symbolizes," says a priest in the capital who admits sympathy for a series of anti-lighthouse street protests in the last three weeks in which police shot two demonstrators dead. The priest, who asked not to be identified, said he would be "lukewarm" when asking his flock to attend the pope's mass and voiced surprise that the Vatican ignored calls for the mass to be held elsewhere.
Most Dominicans are either black or of mixed African and Spanish descent, and many blame Columbus for the extermination of the island's original indigenous population, the Taino Indians, and the ensuing import of African slaves. The island was Spain's first New World colony.
"Balaguer is of Spanish descent," says one of his chief political rivals, Jose Fransisco Pena Gomez. "He has always professed a deep admiration for Spain, the defense of Spanishness lies at the heart of his writings as a poet and historian, and the fifth centenary was meant to be the culmination of his life's work."
The Vatican last week stressed that the pope was coming to celebrate the gospel's arrival in the New World "not to pay homage to the arrival of Columbus."
Balaguer is now serving his sixth term as president. According to a recent poll, 68 percent of Dominicans believe he rigged the 1990 vote and few doubted he would win again in 1994. But political observers are now saying Balaguer is a broken man since the quincentenary flop and his sister Emma's sudden death last Sunday - which many Dominicans blame on a supposed Columbus jinx.
More controversy may await the pope as he opens a two-week conference of Latin American bishops Monday in Santo Domingo - the first such meeting since one in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979.
Liberal Roman Catholics say conservatives are geared up to stamp out what remains of Liberation Theology, a school of religious thought that encourages a radical political stance on behalf of the poor and oppressed.
The conservative Vatican line is that modern urban culture should replace the poor as the main issue. This is being resisted by a sizable minority of Latin American bishops, who hold that poverty is still the chief problem.
The Vatican appears to have used ideological criteria in choosing participants, another priest claims, requesting anonymity. For example, the Latin American superior-generals of the Franciscan and Dominican orders - known for their liberal views - got no invitation although they were an obvious choice. The two orders played a leading role in the early years of the New World's evangelization.