The early chronicles of the colonization of Puerto Rico indicate that by 1510 there was more than one Spanish settlement on the island called San Juan Bautista. Juan Ponce de León had founded Caparra on the north coast, near the ample harbor known then as Puerto Rico, literally “rich port.” Cristóbal de Sotomayor was exploring the western end of the island at the time with the intention of founding settlements.
Sotomayor is credited with founding the Villa de Sotomayor in the northwest (Aguada or Añasco) and of attempting a second settlement in the area of Guánica. Presumably this was near the territory under Agueybaná, who was considered the principal chief or cacique on the island, in some undetermined site between the mouth of the Coayuco (Yauco) River in what is now Indios ward in Guayanilla, or near what is now Guánica.
Our historians have proposed the existence of other probable early settlements. For example, there was a provisional settlement at the mouth of a river called Ana by the indigenous people, near what is now Manatí; another town called Higüey, at the mouth of the river now called Añasco; a settlement called Villa de Tavara near what is now Guánica Bay; and the village of Daguao on the east coast. None of these lasted very long, since they were abandoned for better locations or because of an uprising of the indigenous people in 1511. Subsequently, the development of the new colony was centered on two settlements: Caparra, to the north, later called Ciudad de Puerto Rico; and San Germán in the east, originally located in the area of Añasco-Aguada. Although San Juan and San Germán were the first Puerto Rican municipalities, they both were forced to move to new locations in their struggle for survival.
Caparra was a port and the seat of government, a center for communication and commerce with Spain with agricultural and cattle ranching being developed in the surrounding areas. Caparra was a landing point for dry goods and foodstuffs from Spain and a shipping point for gold that was mined in Puerto Rico. San Germán was a point of contact and exchange with Hispaniola, which at the time was the principal colony of the emerging Spanish territory in the Antilles.
In 1514 the island was divided into two districts called partidos, separated by an imaginary line running from the north at the mouth of the Camuy River on the Atlantic towards the origin of the river in the central range. The line ran towards the east along the range towards the headwaters of the Jacaguas river, and then flowed south to the Caribbean Sea.
The western district, which was smaller but closer to Hispaniola, was called Partido de San Germán or Nueva Salamanca; and the eastern district, the capital and the larger territory, was called Partido de Puerto Rico. This demarcation was maintained for more than two centuries as the line that divided the two political, administrative and ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Map 1 (See Related Documents) shows the approximate division of the districts in the context of the present day municipalities of Puerto Rico.
The intermittent attacks and sacking of San Germán by French corsairs between 1528 and 1569 were a decisive influence on the decision to move the settlement of San Germán from the Añasco River area to its present location at the Santa Marta Hills further to the south. In 1569 these attacks destroyed the new settlement of Villa de Santa María de Guadianilla, also in the south. The new location for San Germán proved to be effective, as a new French attack in 1576 was repulsed.
The relocation of San Juan on the islet where it is today was authorized by the colonial regime of the Hyeronimite friars in 1519. The move is attributed to the fact that the settlers felt that the original location at Caparra was adverse because of the swampy land that was disease-ridden and distant from the port. The move it was facilitated also by the construction of bridges that connected the larger island with the islet. Thus, the capital of the Island of San Juan Bautista began its slow but steady development.
In 1582 a substantial report was prepared on the island in response to a questionnaire prepared by the Council of the Indies. This report, known as the Memoria de Melgarejo, recognizes the two initial settlements –San Juan and Nueva Salamanca (San Germán)— along with the emerging settlements that are now Arecibo and Coamo.
The report also mentions the establishment of sugar mills in the environs of the Bayamón, Toa (today the La Plata), and Loíza rivers, as well as small settlements near what are today Bayamón, Coamo, Juana Díaz, Arecibo, Loíza, and Canóvanas. The Memoria also mentions some attempts that were frustrated by the Caribs and the French of establishing settlements near the modern towns of Añasco, Manatí, Guánica, Guayama, Humacao, Naguabo, Fajardo, Río Grande, and Loíza.
Although the only active ports were located at San Juan and Aguada, the Memoria refers to some promising locations near what are now Añasco, Cabo Rojo, Guánica, Guayanilla, Santa Isabel, Patillas-Arroyo, and Yabucoa. The Memoria de Melgarejo evinces a thorough exploration of the island with a view to further development, which, on the other hand, was limited by factors such as external attacks, the sparse population, the lack of manpower, neglect by the colonial power, and the lack of any infrastructure that would be needed for development and settlement.
The Memoria de Melgarejo discusses the potential of the coasts at great length, while attributing the repeated destruction of the settlements on the island to the constant French attacks from Dominica and Carib attacks from Vieques. One of these settlements – the village of Daguao— has particular historic significance.
In his seminal work on the conquest and colonization of Puerto Rico, Captain Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo mentions the settlement of Daguao as the first attempted settlement on the east coast of Puerto Rico. According to Oviedo, the idea that there was a vast gold lode lead Juan Enríquez to settle in what was considered to be the richest region of the island, with the express permission of Diego Colón, the son of the Discoverer. Although there is no generalized consensus, it is believed that this occurred between 1512 and 1514.
This was not an improvised or frivolous enterprise nor was Enríquez the typical fortune hunter. According to Oviedo, Enríquez was a relative of Diego Colón’s wife, who at the time held the title of Vicereine. It is, however, somewhat surprising that the settlement was directly authorized by the Vicerory Diego Colón and that Enríquez was appointed Lieutenant of the Admiral, in an apparent conflict with the authority that had been conferred on Juan Ponce de León. The settlement was short-lived. Oviedo relates that the weakness of the settlers, their lack of skill at maintaining the settlement and extracting gold, was a fatal mix when coupled with the tenacity of the Caribs. According to Oviedo, several rivers with a potential for gold mining had been identified, but their vulnerability to attack made it impossible to engage in this activity.
In Oviedo’s view, if the gold had been found before the settlement had been lost, Santiago del Daguao would have become one of the most important settlements on the island. Oviedo based his defense of the location as the best suited for Spain on the fertility of the land for grazing and agriculture, the quality of the water, and, last but not least, its gold.
The distinguished historian Salvador Brau considered that the settlement of Daguao had been at the mouth of the Daguao River, the present-day boundary between the municipalities of Ceiba and Naguabo and the wards of Daguao (Naguabo) and Quebrada Seca (Ceiba). Brau also speculated that the intention of Admiral Diego Colón was to move the capital from Caparra to Daguao and name Enríquez governor of the island. Brau also states that Enríquez was the brother in law of Admiral Diego Colón.
According to Brau, Santiago del Daguao was burnt to the ground, and “cattle and crops were destroyed” by Taino caciques from the regions surrounding the Daguao and Humacao rivers and the Caribs on the island of Vieques. Other historians have said that Daguao was destroyed in 1530 by the Carib cacique Jaureybo II in retaliation for the incursions made by Ponce de León on the island known today as Guadalupe.
Other things considered, there was never any sizeable settlement at the mouth of the Daguao, which is within the perimeter of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base. It has been speculated that Santiago del Daguao might have been located in the modern ward of Daguao in Naguabo, or in Santiago or Lima wards, or at the moth of the Santiago River at the beach in Naguabo. It is also possible that it was located near Humacao, beyond the Antón Ruíz river mouth, or at what is now Punta Santiago ward on the Humacao Beach. In the 19th century there was a customs house at Punta Santiago, which had been erected over an even earlier customs house. During the years when sugar cane thrived, Punta Santiago was the port for sugar cane from Vieques, protected by Santiago Key and although the hydrographic configuration of the land was reconfigured for sugarcane, there is evidence that this was very fertile land that was highly developed for agricultural use.
From the 16th century on, the commercial monopoly exercised by Spain through trading companies in Seville, and, later, Cádiz, prevented the colonies from trading with other countries or Spanish colonies in the Americas. Although these companies in a sense assisted in the development of the colonies along their routes, they isolated those like Puerto Rico, which were left out of the principal trade network. The European powers took advantage of this anomaly and began to sell merchandise to the Spanish colonies. The colonies, seeing that basic needs were not being satisfied because goods were not being shipped from Spain or were imported at exorbitant prices, and that they had commodities to export, decided to engage in contraband as a means of resistance against an unjust regime as well as a means of subsistence.
In the early 17th century, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark occupied the Lesser Antilles, which had been minimized as “useless islands” and abandoned by Spain. They set up highly productive agricultural enterprises and commercial enclaves. Their activities had a significant effect on Spanish commerce while increasingly isolating its colonies, which were left without capital, commercial and exportation options, and military defenses.
Puerto Rico -which had no export economy, was sparsely populated, and lacked manpower and a constant flow of maritime commerce with Spain- was left behind languishing for centuries in the periphery of the Spanish commercial network. Faced with this, the island turned to contraband, with the consent and complicity of many Spanish officers. The chronicles report that there was active contraband from what are now Vega Alta, Loíza and Luquillo, and even in San Juan itself, besides Arecibo, Aguada, Cabo Rojo, Lajas, Ponce, Arroyo, Humacao, Fajardo, Santa Isabel, and Vega Baja. According to the friar Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra, contraband continued until the late 18th century and created an underground economy that was of great assistance in developing production and settlement activities at those places.
One of the principal 17th century chronicles is the Descripción de la Isla y Ciudad de Puerto Rico by the Puerto Rican canon Diego de Torres Vargas, written at the request of the Spanish chronicler Gil González Dávila as part of a larger project, which was to provide an overview of the Spanish Church in America. Torres Vargas report provides geographical and historic information, emphasizing the hydrography of the island and the incipient sugar, ginger and leather industries. He notes that there were sugar mills on the Bayamón and Toa rivers, and at Canóvanas, as well as smaller sugar-cane grinding operations in San Germán and the Coamo valley; that the production of ginger had declined; and that there were promising initiatives in cacao and tobacco production.
There is praise for the quality of the wood and several salt plants of significant potential to the south of San Germán (Lajas and Guánica), aquifers in Coamo, and several mines at other locations. Torres Vargas notes that San Juan had four hundred dwellings, San Germán two hundred, San Blas de Coamo, one hundred residents, and San Felipe de Arecibo forty. By the end of the century, the later chronicles showed little change, there being settlements in San Juan, San Germán, Coamo, Arecibo, Aguada, the mouth of the Loíza river and a first settlement on the eastern side of de Puerto Rico, the present-day municipalities of Las Piedras and Humacao.
The ascent of Philip V and the French Bourbon dynasty in Spain brought with it a new mentality with regard to the colonies in America. The Bourbon reform implemented by Charles III signified a certain modernization for Spain, with centralization of power in the hands of the monarch and his ministers, assisted by a competent and illustrated bureaucracy, although not necessarily of noble origin. In the Americas, the Bourbon reform was primarily reflected in economic affairs, particularly commerce, which was constantly challenged by the generalized contraband. Although Spain had a widespread empire, it derived little profit from its territories.
In spite of the fact that the Bourbon reform was crucial for the development of neighboring colonies such as Cuba, in Puerto Rico, aside from increased fortification, the struggle against contraband and the monopolistic aspirations of the ill-fated Compañía de Barcelona meant there was little economic reform until the arrival of Alexander O´Reilly in 1765 and the De Muesas Pact of 1775. In Puerto Rico, priority was given to stopping contraband, recovering commerce for Spanish interests, and generating revenue for the government treasury, while fortifying the island against foreign designs.
Marshall Alejandro O`Reilly, an Irish military man with an outstanding record in Spain, arrived in Puerto Rico in 1765, charged with investigating sanitary conditions on the island and recommending improvements for it defense. O´Reilly`s report highlighted four principal concerns: the poor state of the defenses of the island, contraband, the lack of commerce with Spain, and the meager revenues of the colony. He carried out a census of the population which showed barely 45,000 individuals, of which about ten percent were slaves.
Map 2 (See Related Documents) shows the population of settlements that existed at the time of O´Reilly`s census (1765) in the geo-political-context of current municipalities. Map 3 (See Related Documents) shows the slave population as a percentage of the total population according to O´Reilly`s census, showing a concentration in Loíza and the Capital.
On both maps, territories whose names are not shown belonged at the time to other municipalities. The municipalities that existed in 1765 were much larger than what is shown on Maps 2 and 3. O`Reilly noted that there were abundant rivers, and fertile land with a potential for agricultural enterprises such as sugar cane, cotton, cacao, tobacco and coffee production, as well as for the production of wood and salt. All of this was set in a stifling context of poverty, neglect, subsistence agriculture, in a generalized rampant contraband economy, which was barely disguised and was concentrated on the southern and western coasts of the island. O`Reilly recommended that the fortifications and the conditions of the troops be improved, that more sugar mills be established, that slave and free manpower be imported, and that fallow land be recovered and distributed to whoever was willing to cultivate and settle it. These recommendations had a significant effect on the eventual upsurge of the Puerto Rican economy in the 19th century.
In the decade that elapsed between O´Reilly`s visit (1765) and the administration of Governor Miguel de Muesas (1776) the population of Puerto Rico increased by over fifty percent, from less than 45,000 to more than 70,000. The arrival of immigrants was one of the most important factors in this growth. Many new settlements sprung up around the principal urban centers of San Juan, San Germán, Coamo, and Arecibo, some of which had previously been a part of those centers.
The Historia Geográfica, Civil y Natural de la Isla de San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico, by the friar Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra, provides a very complete overview of the development of these new jurisdictions. Although it was published in 1788, the Historia is based on the visits made by Abbad and Lasierra during his sojourn on the island between 1771 and 1778 and includes his erudite commentary. The work includes travel around the island coasts, in which a city (San Juan), three royal-charter towns (San Germán, Arecibo and Coamo) and twenty-six municipalities are listed. This configuration of cities, towns and villages according to Abbad and Lasierra is shown on Map 4. The high concentration of villages on the western part of the islands suggests a higher population density.
As with the previous maps, territories whose names are not shown belonged to other municipalities and did not exist formally when Abbad and Lasierra published his Historia. Again, the municipalities that existed in 1788 were much larger than what is shown on Map 4.
O´Reilly’s recommendations were met with both resistance and support among the residents of Puerto Rico. Although it appears that they reacted positively to the improvements to the fortifications and for the troops, the proposals with regard to agriculture met with resistance from the cattle ranchers, the hateros. Since the 16th century, the end of mining had given way to a local economy based on cattle raising, due to the difficult of establishing other profitable agricultural activities, whether because of the climate, the lack of roads, taxes or the lack of viable markets. Consequently, the hato or cattle ranch came to outnumber the farm or estancia as a territorial unit.
In general, the hatos were quite large extensions of land, in a circular or polygonal shape, dedicated to subsistence ranching as well as to providing meat and hides. This supply of beef cattle, horses, and swine was in high demand from neighboring islands since the intensive sugar cane agriculture and the lack of rivers limited the viability of cattle raising on those islands -which was needed not only for food, but to provide mules, oxen, and horses for the sugar cane mills and hides and other by-products that were given a variety of uses.
The Puerto Rican hateros, a small incipient oligarchy, lacked deeds for their property. In 1775, in negotiations with Governor Miguel de Muesas, the hateros were able to obtain title to their property in exchange for taxes to support the troops. Only then was the systematic and progressive dismantling of the hatos begun. The gradual transfer of cattle to less productive terrain freed-up land for agriculture. The sparse population (slightly more than 70,000 in 1776) and the lack of resources hindered full agricultural development. It was not until the Royal Decree, the Cedula de Gracias of 1815, that incentives were established to attract equipment and people from outside of Puerto Rico, who in exchange for land, developed many different agricultural enterprises. Much of the fallow land granted to these foreigners were so-called hatos realengos or lands without owners that were distributed in the early 19th century. The dismantling of these hatos and the subsequent distribution of land brought with it an unprecedented population growth and the rapid founding of dozens of villages and municipalities. The names of many of these hatos have persisted in many of present-day municipalities and wards.
Land was made available under the Cédula de Gracias, but the influx of immigrants arose from geopolitical events of a hemispheric dimension. During the first decades of the 19th century, new settlers arrived from many places the former French province of Saint Domingue/Haití; Louisiana, sold by France to the United States; families that were loyal to Spain in the Bolivarian independence wars in South America, in particular in Venezuela and Colombia; and from Santo Domingo, in successive waves, due to the Haitian invasion, the first independence, the ill-fated recolonization under the so-called “España Boba,” and the definitive independence of 1844.
After the Cédula de Gracias, immigration also included farmers from Córcega, who settled in the last remaining empty land along the central range and began to grow coffee, and from many other places such as France, the Lesser Antilles, Mallorca, Italy, and Germany. According to Dr. Estela Cifre de Loubriel, towns with the largest concentration of immigrants were San Juan, Ponce, Mayagüez, Humacao, Arecibo, San Germán, Fajardo, Yauco, and Arroyo.
The invasion of Spain by Napoleon at the start of the 19th century brought with it a new set of circumstances for Puerto Rico and the Spanish colonies in the Americas. After the capture of King Ferdinand VII, the Spanish organized the resistance on the Peninsula and convoked a Junta Suprema (Supreme Assembly) at Cádiz to govern during the King”s absence. To garner the support of the colonies and prevent secessions, the Junta convoked representatives from the colonies to participate in the government and the creation of a constitution. Many colonies took advantage of the circumstances and declared independence. Others, such as Puerto Rico, elected representatives.
Ramón Power y Giralt, a Puerto Rican military man, was elected for Puerto Rico and took with him to Spain a list of petitions and recommendations from the local municipal councils. As Vice President of the Spanish Cortes, he was able to obtain reforms for Puerto Rico, many of which were repealed when absolutism returned to Spain with the restoration of Ferdinand VII. For several years, however, Puerto Rico was a province of Spain, rather than a colony. From this experience Puerto Rico obtained the Real Cédula de Gracias that fostered an increase in population and development.
Map 5 (See Related Documents) shows the parishes or jurisdictions of the five districts that voted for members of the electoral college, called compromisarios, to select the delegate to the Spanish Parliament, the Cortes.
As with the previous maps, territories whose names are not shown belonged to other municipalities and did not exist formally when the Delegate to the Cortes was selected. Once again, the size of the municipalities at the time was much larger than what is shown on Map 5.
This map shows the population growth that Puerto Rico was experiencing in the early 19th century. Generally speaking, the establishment of a parish was the step that immediately preceded becoming a formal village. Only two parishes are known not to have become villages in the 19th century, Rosario, in San Germán, and Esperanza, in Arecibo.
By the early 19th century, Puerto Rico had more than forty parishes that were in the early stages of becoming villages. However, the distribution of population among the five districts may not be deduced from this map, since San Juan had 23 electors, Arecibo and Aguada had 15 each, San Germán 12, and Coamo 11. Yet the concentration of 27 electors in the two districts on the western end of the island does suggest that there was a higher population density in the region.
Puerto Rico continued under the iron grip of Spanish absolutism and its governors, notably Miguel de la Torre. The island kept waiting for special legislation that would address its special needs. Although this legislation never came, significant reforms were implemented at the municipal level during the mid-19th century, which propitiated the creation of city governments comprised of a mayor, two military lieutenants, and seven trustees, all of whom were under the authority of the governor and subject to appointment by him. The main municipalities had chief magistrates and mayors, followed by those who had chief magistrates and first and second class mayors.
By the second half of the 19th century, Puerto Rico was experiencing a visible and unprecedented population growth and economic development, with specialized economic and agricultural centers. By 1898 the municipalities of Arecibo, Yauco, Juana Díaz, Ponce, Adjuntas, Utuado, San Sebastián, and Orocovis (Barros), Coamo, and Salinas were the ten with the most cultivated land; and Arecibo, Mayagüez, Ponce, and San Juan were the main centers of commerce. Map 6 (See Related Documents) illustrates this specialization in the context of present-day municipalities. Some, such as San Germán, Juana Díaz, and Arecibo were specialized in two areas (two colors), and in the case of Yauco, there were three specialties (three colors)
It is estimated that in 1898 the population of Puerto Rico was at about one million, from barely seventy thousand a hundred years before. This implied the establishment of many municipalities where there had only been wards of other municipalities. Map 7 (See Related Documents) is a historic synthesis of the founding of the municipalities of Puerto Rico during more than five centuries, up to the present day total of seventy-eight.
The development and evolution of our municipalities is a direct function of population growth. As a result of this, seven towns were founded in the 16th century, only one in the 17th century, thirty-one in the 18th century (eleven between 1770 and 1770, twelve between 1771 and 1790, and eight between 1791 and 1799), thirty-four in the 19th century (twenty between 1801 and 1827, nine between 1831 and 1857 and five between 1871 and 1900), and only five in the 20th century. This list does not include the towns that were suppressed in the 20th century and that today are a part of other municipalities, such as Trinidad de Palo Seco (Toa Baja), San Mateo de Cangrejos (San Juan), and Trujillo Bajo (Carolina), nor the ill-fated settlements of the 16th century that never re-emerged, such as the old Villa de Sotomayor, Santiago del Daguao, and Caparra, among others, although it does reflect the change in place names, such as San Antonio de La Tuna (Isabela), San Miguel de Hato Grande (San Lorenzo), Sabana del Palmar (Comerío), Aguas Claras (Aguas Buenas), Barros (Orocovis), and El Pepino (San Sebastián) among others.
It was not only during the 19th century that municipalities were eliminated. On the contrary it was a very marked tendency during the early 20th century. During the early years of the American regime, between 1898 and 1900, the Military Government suppressed five municipalities by incorporating them in other jurisdictions. As a result, Hormigueros became a part of Mayagüez and Luquillo was divided between Fajardo and Río Grande (1898); Ceiba became a part of Fajardo; Las Piedras became a part of Humacao (1899); and Barceloneta was joined to Manatí (1900).
The suppression of municipalities quickly developed into a public policy of the American government directed at progressively incorporating the American concept of “county” and addressing the precarious finances of the smaller municipalities. The 1902 law to consolidate municipalities resulted in the suppression of an additional 20 towns, to save money and improve the efficiency of municipal administration. Moca was joined to Aguada; Rincón to Añasco; Barranquitas to Barros (Orocovis); Gurabo to Caguas; Trujillo Alto to Carolina; Cidra to Cayey; Juncos to Hato Grande (San Lorenzo); Loíza to Río Grande; Vega Alta to Vega Baja; Maunabo to Yabucoa; Naranjito and Toa Baja to Bayamón; Quebradillas and Hatillo to Camuy; Arroyo and Salinas to Guayama; Peñuelas and Guayanilla to Ponce; and Corozal and Dorado to Toa Alta. There was one retraction: that same law restored Hormigueros to its status of municipality.
More than 25 municipalities were eliminated in a little over three years, and the configuration of municipalities in Puerto Rico, illustrated on Map 8, was reduced to 46 jurisdictions. Some of these, such as Bayamón, Toa Alta, Ponce, Río Grande, Guayama, and Camuy, significantly increased their size by including several bordering municipalities.
The suppression of these municipalities was not well-received. The municipalities were very important for the early 20th century political parties. From Spanish times, Puerto Ricans had been excluded from island-level positions, and it was in the municipalities where the basic political work of the political parties took place. In addition, during the brief period of the Autonomous Cabinet in 1898, the political movement led by Luis Muñoz-Rivera proceeded to substitute almost all of the mayors and appoint hundreds of councilmen who were autonomists. Many of these had remained in their positions after the change of sovereignty.
In 1905 the Executive Council proposed dividing the island into seven counties, in the manner of provinces. But the ensuing hue and cry prevailed. At the initiative of José de Diego, an ally of Muñoz-Rivera, the law was repealed that same year and the status of municipality was returned to almost all of the places that had been annexed or suppressed.
Some municipalities, such as Barceloneta, Ceiba, Luquillo, and Las Piedras had to wait between six and nine years to regain their municipal charter. Guaynabo, which had been eliminated in 1875, was restored in 1912 with ten of its original wards. Subsequently the new municipalities of Jayuya (1911), Guánica (1914), Villalba (1917) Cataño (1927), and Culebra (1928) were created, and more recently, Florida and Loíza, in 1968. In the case of Loíza, the municipal franchise that was recovered was absorbed by Canóvanas in 1909. In the end, Río Piedras became a part of San Juan in 1951, thereby losing its identity as a separate municipality.
At the beginning of the 21st century, there are still those who clamor for the creation of new municipalities, such as Ensenada (Guánica), Castañer (Lares-Adjuntas), Angeles (Utuado), and Levittown (Toa Baja). There are others who at the same time are suggesting that many municipalities should be suppressed, due to their precarious financial situation and their irrelevance in view of the growth experienced by more prosperous neighboring municipalities. The next chapter of this centuries-long history of the municipalities de Puerto Rico is still to be written, and will depend on how future events unfold.
Author: Rafael Torrech
Published: May 03, 2012.
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