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Old San Juan Gets A Face Lift To Spark Interest From Abroad


LAST year, controversy broke out when the Puerto Rican government - which critics say does not have enough money to fight AIDS, crime, or drug addiction - announced it would spend $15 million for a lavish pavilion at the 1992 World's Fair in Seville, Spain.

Then, during a commemorative visit last month by Spanish replicas of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, police battled human-rights and indigenous groups protesting the 500th anniversary observance of Columbus's discovery of the New World.

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Earlier this month, in what amounted to a modern-day mutiny, crewmen of the commemorative armada walked off the job in defiance of their "tyrannical" captain.

Despite all the controversy, most Puerto Ricans are looking forward to the long-awaited "Quincentenario," even though Columbus didn't actually set foot on the Caribbean island until Nov. 19, 1493 - a day still celebrated here as "Dia del Descubrimiento."

Unlike the neighboring Dominican Republic, where President Joaquin Balaguer has spent about $35 million on a massive "Columbus Lighthouse," no new, grandiose projects have been planned in Puerto Rico itself. Instead, construction crews have been rushing to restore long-neglected existing buildings and fortresses throughout Old San Juan, a seven-square-block area crammed with Spanish colonial history.

Among the most notable of these structures are the Casa Blanca, built for explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521; the 27-acre El Morro complex, whose original battery was completed in the 1540s, and the Ballaja, a 19th-century Spanish military school soon to be converted into a museum, shopping arcade, and art gallery.

Puerto Rican officials say they hope the quincentennial will bring millions of dollars in tourism revenues and spark pride in the island's rich heritage.

It could also boost officials' efforts to attract the Olympics in 2004.

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