Image: Head of the statue of Christopher Columbus
Olimpo Ramos  /  AP
Tony Jacobs, director of the port of Mayaguez, looks at the head of a statue of Christopher Columbus, one of many pieces strewn across the port storage area in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 2. The Columbus statue would be the tallest structure in the Caribbean and among the tallest statues in the world.
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updated 9/25/2011 1:45:33 PM ET 2011-09-25T17:45:33

It would be the tallest structure in the Caribbean and among the tallest statues in the world, a monument to Christopher Columbus in a region where he has not been regarded highly for many years.

So far, though, the nearly 300-foot (92-meter) statue of The Great Explorer just seems like a monumental morass or perhaps a colossal joke. Originally intended to grace the skies of a major U.S. city, it has been shuffled from one locale to another and lies in pieces as a businessman and the mayor of the small Puerto Rican town of Arecibo try to finally erect it overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the island's north coast.

But this still may not be the final chapter in what has so far been a 20-year saga. The statue's final resting place is far from certain: Its backers must gather a long list of permits, including from the Federal Aviation Administration, to install a monument so tall it could interfere with air traffic. And now, Puerto Rican officials are competing to bring it to their parts of the island as a lure to tourists.

Then there is the fact that the roughly 600-ton (544-metric ton) statue, like many other large-scale public works, inspires more criticism than awe, especially since Columbus is commonly viewed now as the harbinger of genocide rather than the discoverer of the New World.

"To be honest, it's a monstrosity," says Cristina Rivera, a longtime activist against the creation of private beaches in Arecibo who has been vocal about her opposition to erecting a giant Columbus in her town. "Why do we have to bring such an exaggerated piece of work here?"

It's just that kind of reaction that has doomed the project in the past and could do so again.

Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli, 77, built the statue in 1991 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' 1492 arrival in the Western Hemisphere. The artist is internationally renowned for giant, expensive and sometimes unwanted works. But his pieces have found a home in the U.S. before, including in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York, and he remains confident his rendition of the Great Explorer will eventually reach a destination.

Tsereteli, in an email interview with The Associated Press, notes that even the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower faced criticism and challenges.

"Now they are symbols," he said. "Without those symbols, those places would be unimaginable."

During a visit to Russia in 1990, U.S. President George H. W. Bush stopped by Tsereteli's studio in Moscow and picked one Columbus model out of three presented to him. In September 1994, Tsereteli traveled to the U.S. with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and presented the chosen model to President Bill Clinton.

South Florida was one of the first proposed locations for the statue, which features Columbus with shoulder-length hair, an unusually sharp and straight nose and large and slightly protruding eyes reminiscent of a Cubist painting.

One county commissioner joked it would make a good artificial reef while another suggested they could just display the head and not bother with the rest of the statue. Some also worried about erecting something that would pay homage to a person associated with slave trading and brutal colonization.

The statue then made its rounds through New York, Ohio and Maryland, with no success.

"Various private organizations said they would put it up," said Emily Madoff, Tsereteli's spokeswoman. "Then they realize what's involved in something so big. ... You just don't plunk it on top of the land."

In 1998, Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rosello accepted it as a gift and spent $2.4 million in public funds to bring it to the island. Then the mayor of Catano, a suburb of San Juan that draws thousands of tourists to its Bacardi rum distillery, requested the statue.

Image: Jose Rivera takes a break
Olimpo Ramos  /  AP
Jose Rivera, a worker of the port of Mayaguez, rests on a giant hand, one of many pieces of a Christopher Columbus statue strewn across the port storage area in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 2.

But the plan ran into trouble when aviation authorities said the proposed location would interfere with flight paths, and residents whose homes would have to be demolished to make way for the statue protested the plans. Then Columbus went into storage. "It was awful, really awful," Madoff said. "It just sat there."

In 2008, a port management company, Holland Group Ports Investments, agreed to take the statue and store it in the western coastal city of Mayaguez, where it remains. A Russian crew recently flew there and ensured that most of the 2,700 pieces still fit together as plans seemed to move forward in Arecibo.

Arecibo Mayor Lemuel Soto says the statue would add to the allure of the town, which draws people to its limestone caves and one of the world's largest telescopes. Madoff says funding should not pose a problem, that investors have the $20 million it would take to erect the statue.

But now that the permit process is under way, a new threat has emerged. Puerto Rican Rep. David Bonilla has begun lobbying to put up the statue to lure tourists to the western corner of the U.S. territory, perhaps on the island of Desecheo, which is uninhabited except for the occasional errant Dominican migrant trying to escape the U.S. Border Patrol.

San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, an influential figure on the island, also has weighed in, saying he wants Columbus in the capital. Santini envisions it near a popular lagoon or even atop an old landfill.

The artist's spokeswoman insists it's too late to start looking for a new site and that Columbus will rise in Arecibo.

History says otherwise.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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