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Latin Americans Clash Over Columbus Anniversary

A lingering dispute over how to mark the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas broke out last month at the Latin American and Caribbean Culture Ministers' meeting, with the visit of a messenger from Madrid. Pina Lopez Gay, vice president of the Spanish commission to commemorate Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492, came bearing promises of goodwill and economic aid in a bid to pacify those ministers for whom the Spanish conquest of their continent is a cause for lament rather than celebration.

Ms. Lopez agreed the conquest, which wiped out such flourishing indigenous cultures as the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in the Andes, ``cannot be justified by any minimally informed person.'' And she hoped that 1992 could be used ``as an excuse to deepen our cooperation in all fields with Latin America and to extend our economic aid.''

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She failed to win over Peruvian minister Efrain Orbegozo, however.

``In 1992 there will be 100 of the richest, whitest, and most reactionary families in Lima who will be with Spain, celebrating. And there will be 21 million other Peruvians with Peru, in mourning,'' he said flatly.

The Mexican government, meanwhile, has turned the meaning of the Spanish celebration on its head.

``For us, the 500th anniversary is an opportunity to strengthen our own pre-Columbian cultural traditions, to put the spotlight on indigenous culture,'' says Mexican Arts Council chief Victor Flores. He is trying to persuade the Spaniards to assuage their guilt by funding a series of museums presenting early Mexican cultural artifacts.

While countries such as Argentina and Brazil have sought to stay out of the argument, the Dominican Republic has entered the fray as a champion of the conquistadores.

Proud that the Spaniards established their first New World settlement in what is now Dominican territory, the government is ``celebrating'' not only the discovery (and even the Spaniards are content to merely ``commemorate'' it) but also the evangelization of the continent.

Jorge Tela Reyes, Dominican under-secretary for education, says, ``In the Antilles, the problem is not so acute as elsewhere, because in the early stages of the conquest the Spaniards absorbed the Indians' physical presence.''

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