SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- This country is preparing night and day for its biggest bash ever -- the Oct. 12 celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. The pope, the king of Spain and several Latin American leaders are expected for the grand commemoration.
But many people are terrified about what might happen. When a reporter asked about the Columbus celebrations, some put their hands to their heads or ran to the nearest wooden object to knock three times on its surface.
"Don't you ever mention that name again," one prominent publisher said with a mixture of alarm and amusement. "Call him el almirante [the admiral], the great discoverer, anything you want, but don't mention his name."
There is a popular belief here that there is a Columbus curse -- a centuries-old jinx that falls on anybody uttering his name or having anything to do with him. Most Dominicans will assure you that they do not believe in the curse, then tell you scores of stories of disasters said to have been caused by it. Among the most frequently heard:
* On Aug. 4, 1946, at 1 p.m., when the urn containing the admiral's remains was opened in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo as part of official ceremonies to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the city, the Dominican Republic was rocked by its worst earthquake this century.
* A few years earlier, four planes had left from the Dominican Republic in a much-publicized "Pan-American flight" to raise funds for construction of a giant lighthouse in Columbus' memory. Three of the four planes crashed in Cali, Colombia, on the first leg of the tour. The three pilots died.
* Dozens of hotels, restaurants, stores and other businesses bearing the great discoverer's name are said to have gone broke shortly after their opening. Likewise, several dignitaries who were awarded the Order of Columbus -- one of this country's top honors -- are said to have dropped dead within weeks of the ceremony.
President Joaquin Balaguer, who is 85, blind and midway through his sixth term in office, is himself suffering what some say is a mild case of the Columbus curse.
Mr. Balaguer was hopeful that visiting international news media would focus their attention on the government's recent successes in turning around the country's economic indicators: Inflation went down from 100 percent in 1990 to 5 percent last year, foreign reserves are growing, and the economy is expected to expand this year after several years of decline.
But so far, most foreign reporters are only writing about Mr. Balaguer's most controversial accomplishment: the construction of the giant Columbus lighthouse -- on the drawing board since the late 1920s -- at a cost said to have reached $50 million.
As if the curse were making sure that Mr. Balaguer would not get credit for his other works, the talk of the town continues to center on the fabulous cost of the lighthouse to honor Columbus -- or rather, el almirante (knock, knock, knock.)