Rocky course for lighthouse in eye of storm: A decades-old project in the Dominican Republic to commemorate Columbus has divided the country, writes Colin Harding

IT IS ONE of the many ironies surrounding the Columbus lighthouse project, which was officially inaugurated in Santo Domingo yesterday, that its progenitor did not see his long-cherished dream become reality. For Joaquin Balaguer, octogenarian President of the Dominican Republic, is blind. This concrete monolith, 800ft long and 150ft high, will henceforth project a 30 billion-candlepower crucifix of light into the Caribbean night sky, but the President can only imagine what it is like.

In the event he did not even attend the opening ceremony: Mr Balaguer cancelled all engagements after his sister, Enma Balaguer de Vallejo, 73, who was also his closest adviser, died following a visit to the lighthouse on Sunday.

The building towers over a city that suffers chronic shortages of power and many basic necessities. It cost one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere anything between dollars 70m (pounds 40m) and dollars 250m; no one is saying how much. It is designed to glorify the Spanish heritage of a nation whose 7 million people are overwhelmingly black or mulatto, and whose tiny 'white' upper class enjoys a lifestyle that owes more to Miami than to Madrid.

Dominicans say of the 86-year-old autocrat that he only stood for his fifth presidential term in 1990 so that he could take charge of the lighthouse celebrations. For decades it has been the pet project of an elite inordinately proud of its European Catholic culture, and it has come to fruition on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus, who made his landfall in the Americas just along the coast from Santo Domingo on 12 October 1492. The bones of the 'Admiral of the Ocean Sea', which have lain for centuries in Santo Domingo cathedral - the oldest in the Americas - will rest henceforth in the cross-shaped monument.

President Balaguer is the very embodiment of the cultural pretensions and prejudices of the Dominican elite. In 1984 he published a book deploring the Dominican Republic's 'ethnic decline', due to excessive immigration from Haiti, , which occupies the other half of the island of Hispaniola. Last year he decreed the mass expulsion of Haitian sugar cane-cutters who had allegedly overstayed their welcome. Mr Balaguer has now made the Columbus quincentennial the centrepiece of a drive to sell the republic in the United States and Europe as a politically stable, economically promising paradise, 'the land Columbus loved best'.

This undertaking has involved 'beautification' of the capital, which has some of Latin America's most wretched slums. At least 2,000 families have lost their homes in the process, and shantytowns that have not been bulldozed have been concealed by an enclosure known locally as the 'wall of shame'.

But much of the pomp planned by Mr Balaguer for the opening ceremonies yesterday had long since fallen flat. The Pope declined an invitation to preside, delaying his arrival until Friday, when he will attend a Latin American bishops' conference. And the streets of the capital have been thronged in recent weeks by demonstrators protesting at the notion of celebrating an event that led to the annihilation of the native Taino people and the importation of thousands of African slaves.

(Photograph omitted)