Columbus celebration a clash of culture, race and struggle

October 06, 1992|By Boston Globe

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The official view of Christopher Columbus, on the 500th anniversary of the "discovery and evangelization" of the Americas, is symbolized here by a massive, five-story pyramid being inaugurated today. Crowned with 147 floodlights, it beams the shape of a huge, ethereal cross into the Caribbean night sky.

The opposing view of the anniversary, which already has provoked protests here, is compressed in a pocket-sized history of the Spanish legacy to the island of Hispaniola, which is now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On its cover, a gruesome illustration shows conquistadores torturing native inhabitants with whips and hot coals.

In the United States, the debate over whether Columbus brought more blessing or curse to the New World is largely abstract. Adversaries argue over whether textbooks should be more honest or "multicultural."

To millions of people across Latin America, however, the contradiction between these two versions of history -- and the contrasting prisms of class, race and power through which the Spanish legacy is viewed -- have intense relevance to their own, unfinished struggle to rise out of poverty and discrimination.

"At this moment, there are many important people celebrating the history of the conquerors," wrote Frank Moya Pons, a Dominican historian whose brief essay on Hispaniola has infuriated the government. "Perhaps the hour has come for someone to raise a voice" and "reflect on the history of the conquered."

Five hundred years after Columbus landed, over half the region's 441 million inhabitants still live in destitution. From Jamaica to Brazil, white Europeans or light-skinned "mestizos" of mixed blood occupy most positions of economic and political prominence, while most darker-skinned descendants of Indian or African cultures provide menial labor. Although most of Latin America won its independence from Europe more than 150 years ago, the legacy of postcolonial exploitation lasted well into this century, giving rise to revolutionary movements in the 1960s and right-wing military crackdowns in the 1970s.

Today, nearly every country of the hemisphere is nominally democratic, yet a glaring gap between poor majorities and wealthy elites persists. That gap is especially dramatic in nations with large indigenous populations, such as Guatemala and Bolivia, or high numbers of black inhabitants, such as Haiti and Brazil.

The perennial, delicate question of why this economic imbalance exists has taken on new urgency as the region's governments, with strong diplomatic and financial encouragement from Spain, prepare to celebrate Oct. 12, 1492 -- and, by extension, the prevalence of European language, religion, institutions and

economic power during the five centuries that followed.

To such conservative intellectuals as Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, the problem of regional underdevelopment is largely one of ethnic inferiority -- and the answer is to more fully assimilate the conquered into the European culture.

To such grass-roots activists as Juana Vasquez, a Mayan leader from Guatemala, the problem is one of political oppression. Mayan people, subjected to harsh peonage for centuries, remain trapped in illiteracy, poverty and disease. In the past 20 years, moreover, their highlands have been decimated by military repression against a guerrilla insurgency.

"We are 60 percent of the population, but for 500 years we have been denied the chance to be actors in our own destiny," the Mayan said last week from Guatemala. "The Spanish considered us inhuman, and those who have economic power still see us as garbage. The genocide has never stopped."

This week, the debate will come to a symbolic showdown. While regional governments will mark Columbus Day with pomp, parades, speeches and museum openings, opposition groups from 27 countries will commemorate "500 years of resistance" at a mass meeting in Managua, Nicaragua, while attempting to stage protests in numerous other capitals.

Nowhere will the tension be greater than in the Dominican Republic, where Columbus established his first settlement. President Joaquin Balaguer has invested enormous financial and political capital in the celebration, and he is officially quoted as boasting of Hispaniola's "stellar role" in opening the Americas to "European civilization and Christian faith."

The King of Spain and a host of dignitaries have been invited, Pope John Paul II will arrive for a bishops' conference, and the week will be capped by a ceremony transferring Columbus' purported remains from a cathedral to Balaguer's monumental lighthouse.

But to many Dominicans, the festivities seem both extravagant and inappropriate. According to Mr. Moya Pons, Hispaniola under Columbus became a nightmare. From 1492 to 1510, forced labor and disease reduced the indigenous population from over 400,000 to under 34,000; by mid-century it was totally wiped out.

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