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Puerto Rico’s Monumental Messes

by Lance Oliver

September 29, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

If the governor and the mayor of Cataño have their way, San Juan Bay will someday have massive monuments like bookends: the statue of Christopher Columbus by Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli to the south and the Triumphal Circle, known popularly in Puerto Rico by more derisive names, by Korean-American architect Jin Taek Han to the north.

So far, however, the head of Columbus lies in a Cataño park facing an uncertain future and the proposed circle across the bay has received a reception that’s anything but triumphant.

The two projects are as different as the men pushing them. The Columbus statue, a "gift" that was rejected by several U.S. cities, will eventually cost the municipality of Cataño more than $26 million, according to an estimate by Puerto Rico Comptroller Manuel Díaz Saldaña. Critics say the project is as outrageous as Cataño Mayor Edwin Rivera Sierra, a man who has been arrested twice in recent years for altercations with ordinary citizens and who left his previous job as a police officer citing physical and mental disabilities.

By contrast, the planning for the other monument, managed by the Gov. Pedro Rosselló administration, was the picture of professionalism. An international competition was held and a panel of judges chose the winning design.

But what won over the judges has not won over the public. Political opponents of the governor such as San Juan Mayor Sila Calderón, the Popular Democratic Party’s candidate for governor, said the $25 million cost of the statue could be better spent on social problems such as reducing the island’s constant housing shortage.

That criticism was accompanied by general public apathy for the project. The design was derided as the snail, or the shell, or even the doughnut. The combination led Carlos Pesquera, the New Progressive Party’s candidate for governor, to drop his support for Rosselló’s 400-foot-tall monument, which is intended to be a symbol of Puerto Rico for the new millennium the way El Morro has been for the past centuries.

Pesquera said he would try to convince Rosselló, the man he succeeded as party president, to drop the plans for now.

Rosselló replied that Pesquera should not waste his time.

Now the race seems to be on, to see whether the governor can move the project along far enough that Pesquera will continue it if he is elected. Calderón has threatened to cancel the project, if she is elected, no matter what the cost.

If the governor’s monument has been a dud in the court of public opinion, many, including the comptroller, believe the Columbus statue project across the bay belongs in a court of law.

The project has been riddled with allegations of mismanagement and corruption from the beginning. The municipality paid Tsereteli millions of dollars to transport the statue from Russia though shippers have said it should cost far less. A private company was hired, without a public bidding process, to operate the waterfront area being developed and was allowed by contract to keep 99.4% of gross receipts, such as fees paid by tourists to visit the statue.

Citing these and other problems, the comptroller urged the Puerto Rico Justice Department to take legal action against the municipal government.

While the $25 million cost of the Triumphal Circle has been criticized as an extravagant expense by the central government, it pales in comparison to the $26 million the comptroller estimates the small municipality of Cataño will have to pay to erect the Columbus colossus. The annual municipal budget is just $30 million.

Meanwhile, poor residents of the waterfront area whose homes were expropriated for the project are hopping mad and Rivera Sierra’s opponent in this year’s mayoral election is vowing to cancel the contract and investigate the entire situation if elected.

Much of the public views both monuments as totems to the egos of the men behind them. From his two terms as governor, Rosselló will leave behind changes to the face of Puerto Rico that perhaps no historical figure could claim to match: the Urban Train, numerous new highways, the North Coast Superaqueduct. But he wants to leave a symbol as well as infrastructure and he says his critics are just thinking small, something that Puerto Rico must overcome.

As his last big act as governor, Rosselló is trying to lead Puerto Rico into the new millennium with a new frame of mind, so far without success. Rivera Sierra is trying to put his little town on the map.

So far, the former effort exists only on the drawing boards and the latter lies moldering in a park. Whether either will ever rise is an open question.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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