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San Juan - History

San Juan History

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León founded San Juan in 1521, and the city became one of the most strategic outposts in the New World, easy to defend because of its elevated island geography, more or less mosquito-free due to the constant whirring of the trade winds, and a sentinel over the most protected harbour in the Caribbean. Over the next century it underwent massive fortification to protect it from British and Dutch maritime incursions, as the Spanish government identified the settlement as the linchpin in its domination of the sea routes between Europe and America. Trade in sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco and African slaves flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries. Smuggling and the rise of a plantation-owning bourgeoisie weakened Spain's grip on the city, and San Juan began developing a distinct identity during the 18th century. For the most part, the city remained a monumental, remote military base for Spain, its development slowed by the Spanish government's monopoly laws, until the USA claimed Puerto Rico as victor's spoils following the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Nationalist fervor spread through the 19th century, only to be stopped in its tracks in 1897 by the US occupation during the Spanish-American war. The US recognised the port as the safest in the Caribbean, and soon shipping terminals grew up around the bay, new roads spread out to the rest of the island, and agricultural goods such as sugar, tobacco and coffee flowed into the port from other parts of the island for export. Along with the rest of their compatriots, Sanjuaneros received US citizenship in 1917 - just in time to get drafted for WWI. Partly from an infusion of American cash during the 1940s (consisting largely of tax breaks to resident US companies), San Juan grew rapidly, annexing suburbs like Santurce, Condado and Miramar. Tourism became a major earner.

Until as recently as as the late 1980s, much of metropolitan San Juan had the unplanned, slapped-together feel common to overnight commercial sensations such as Las Vegas or Hong Kong. The global economic downturn of that period gave citizens a chance to stop and take a look around at their city. Crime, fast-food outlets, bland high-rise hotel and condo buildings were sprouting like mushrooms and drug culture was infecting public spaces.

A massive restoration project was kick-started by 1993's 500th anniversary of Columbus' sighting of Puerto Rico. Many of San Juan's old buildings were lying derelict and in disrepair - preservation and reinvigoration have turned the quaint into the magnificent, and the walled city is now a major tourist destination in itself. Though nationalists have kept the independence debate on the national agenda, in reality San Juan remains a cultural beachhead for spreading US influence throughout the Caribbean.

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