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Dominican Republic - History

The country's historical evolution has proved particularly inimical to democratic development, deviating significantly from patterns viewed as optimum for the development of democracy. The country's colonial period was marked by the extirpation of the indigenous population, and then by poverty and warfare.

The island of Hispaniola, of which the Dominican Republic forms the eastern two-thirds and Haiti the remainder, was originally occupied by Tainos, an Arawak-speaking people. The Tainos welcomed Columbus in his first voyage in 1492, but subsequent colonizers were brutal, reducing the Taino population from about 1 million to about 500 in 50 years. To ensure adequate labor for plantations, the Spanish brought African slaves to the island beginning in 1503.

In the next century, French settlers occupied the western end of the island, which Spain ceded to France in 1697, and which, in 1804, became the Republic of Haiti. The Haitians conquered the whole island in 1822 and held it until 1844, when forces led by Juan Pablo Duarte, the hero of Dominican independence, drove them out and established the Dominican Republic as an independent state.

National integration was truncated, first by a Haitian invasion and then by the attempts of some Dominican elites to trade nascent Dominican sovereignty for security by having foreign powers annex the country, while enriching themselves in the process. State building also suffered under the dual impact of international vulnerability and unstable, neopatrimonial, authoritarian politics.

Both integration and state building were impaired by bitter regional struggles based on different economic interests and desires for power that accentuated the politics of the country. In this context, the failure of early efforts to extend liberal guarantees and citizenship rights to vast sectors of the population served to reinforce past patterns of behavior. Nonetheless, reform efforts continually reemerged.

In 1861, the Dominicans voluntarily returned to the Spanish Empire; in 1865, independence was restored. Economic difficulties, the threat of European intervention, and ongoing internal disorders led to a U.S. occupation in 1916 and the establishment of a military government in the Dominican Republic. The occupation ended in 1924, with a democratically elected Dominican Government.

In 1930, Rafael L. Trujillo, a prominent army commander, established absolute political control. A Dominican state arguably did not emerge until the late nineteenth century or even the era of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina (1930-61). Trujillo's emergence, in turn, was unquestionably facilitated by changes wrought by the eight year United States occupation of the Dominican Republic at the beginning of the twentieth century. Trujillo's pattern of rule could not have been more hostile to democratic governance.

His centralization of power, monopolization of the economy, destruction or co-optation of enemies, and astonishing constitutional hypocrisy were, however, combined with the forging of national integration, the establishment of state institutions, and the beginnings of industrialization, although in a distorted manner.

Trujillo promoted economic development -- from which he and his supporters benefited--and severe repression of domestic human rights. Mismanagement and corruption resulted in major economic problems. In August 1960, the Organization of American States (OAS) imposed diplomatic sanctions against the Dominican Republic as a result of Trujillo's complicity in an attempt to assassinate President Romulo Betancourt of Venezuela. These sanctions remained in force after Trujillo's death by assassination in May 1961. In November 1961, the Trujillo family was forced into exile.

In January 1962, a council of state that included moderate opposition elements with legislative and executive powers was formed. OAS sanctions were lifted January 4, and, after the resignation of President Joaquin Balaguer on January 16, the council under President Rafael E. Bonnelly headed the Dominican Government.

Thus, the country essentially had no history of democratic rule prior to 1961, despite the presence of a liberal constitutional tradition. In the context of contradictory and extensive United States actions both to foster democracy and to block perceived communist threats, efforts toward democratic transition following the death of Trujillo ultimately failed.

In 1963, Juan Bosch was inaugurated president. Bosch was overthrown in a military coup in September 1963. Another military coup, on April 24, 1965, led to violence between military elements favoring the return to government by Bosch and those who proposed a military junta committed to early general elections. The shortlived democratic regime of Juan Bosch Gavino (1962) was followed by unstable governments and ultimately by United States intervention in 1965 out of fear of a "second Cuba." On April 28, U.S. military forces landed to protect U.S. citizens and to evacuate U.S. and other foreign nationals.

Additional U.S. forces subsequently established order. A key figure from the Trujillo era, Joaquin Balaguer Ricardo, was to govern the country for twenty-two of the next thirty years, from 1966 to 1978 and again from 1986 to 1996. His rule combined political stagnation with dramatic socioeconomic transformation.

In June 1966, President Balaguer, leader of the Reformist Party (now called the Social Christian Reformist Party--PRSC), was elected and then re-elected to office in May 1970 and May 1974, both times after the major opposition parties withdrew late in the campaign. In the May 1978 election, Balaguer was defeated in his bid for a fourth successive term by Antonio Guzman of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). Guzman's inauguration on August 16 marked the country's first peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to another.

The 1978 democratic transition following Balaguer's authoritarian twelve-year period in office ended in return to the pre-democratic status quo. The PRD's presidential candidate, Salvador Jorge Blanco, won the 1982 elections, and the PRD gained a majority in both houses of Congress. In an attempt to cure the ailing economy, the Jorge administration began to implement economic adjustment and recovery policies, including an austerity program in cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In April 1984, rising prices of basic foodstuffs and uncertainty about austerity measures led to riots.

Although Balaguer was ushered back into office through democratic elections in 1986, his increasingly authoritarian rule finally ended when he stepped down from the presidency in 1996. Balaguer was returned to the presidency with electoral victories in 1986 and 1990. Upon taking office in 1986, Balaguer tried to reactivate the economy through a public works construction program. Nonetheless, by 1988 the country had slid into a 2-year economic depression, characterized by high inflation and currency devaluation. Economic difficulties, coupled with problems in the delivery of basic services--e.g., electricity, water, transportation--generated popular discontent that resulted in frequent protests, occasionally violent, including a paralyzing nationwide strike in June 1989.

In 1990, Balaguer instituted a second set of economic reforms. After concluding an IMF agreement, balancing the budget, and curtailing inflation, the Dominican Republic experienced a period of economic growth marked by moderate inflation, a balance in external accounts, and a steadily increasing GDP that lasted through 2000.

The voting process in 1986 and 1990 was generally seen as fair, but allegations of electoral board fraud tainted both victories. The elections of 1994 were again marred by charges of fraud. Following a compromise calling for constitutional and electoral reform, President Balaguer assumed office for an abbreviated term and Congress amended the constitution to bar presidential succession.

The Dominican Republic entered the new millennium bolstered by potential changes in political leadership, significant evolution in the country's social structure, and an international environment more favorable to political democracy. However, the country also faced formidable challenges in terms of continued political fragmentation, difficult economic adjustments, and corruption and criminal violence associated in part with drug trafficking.

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