In the colonial mining town of Guanajuato, in Central Mexico, a massive cast from 31 nations--including 15 major orchestras, 17 theater groups and 12 dance companies as well as opera, film shows and art exhibits--has been performing for the last two weeks.

The setting--17th-century cobblestone plazas and open Spanish squares--is glorious.

The Festival Cervantino, which ends today, is already 10 years old. In its early days, it used to make do with handouts sent from the Old World to the Third World. Yet, over the past five years, as Mexico became more of an energy giant, its petrodollars were able to buy the performers of its choice. Moreover, its main impetus came from this country's first lady, Carmen Lopez Portillo, who has an unusual devotion for European culture.

Due to the first lady's clout, cost has been no object. There is no official budget, but estimates range from $4 million to $10 million. Such an investment in brief cultural events in the past has led critics to attack the festival as an "elitist exercise" aimed only at a handful of educated folk who, in any event, could buy all the culture they wanted on their frequent trips abroad.

The Mexican organizers have found a remedy that clearly sets this festival apart from others. Almost every group has been contracted to visit at least one other Mexican city, so that 43 Mexican towns will receive at least one festival show.

Every performance is being filmed and recorded and will be broadcast full length at home and abroad.

"In a developing country like ours no task should be devoid of social purpose. We also need a wider distribution of spiritual wealth," said festival director Hector Vasconcelos. "There is no festival in the world that gets as much diffusion as ours."

Protests from the locals, however, at being left out of events, led to a popular solution: The government brought in a transmitting station, set up a giant screen on the university steps and showed festival events live and free of charge. But for all the attempts to be popular and populist, some critics charge it is mere snobbery to perform plays in classic French, Russian or Greek.