Dominican Republic: History

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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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 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.

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.

Since 1996, the Dominican electoral process has been seen as generally free and fair. In June 1996, Leonel Fernandez Reyna of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) was elected to a 4-year term as president. Fernandez's political agenda was one of economic and judicial reform. He helped enhance Dominican participation in hemispheric affairs, such as the OAS and the followup to the Miami Summit. On May 16, 2000, Hipolito Mejia, the PRD candidate, was elected president in another free and fair election, defeating PLD candidate Danilo Medina and former president Balaguer. Mejia championed the cause of free trade and Central American and Caribbean economic integration. The Dominican Republic signed a free trade agreement (CAFTA-DR) with the United States and five Central American countries in August 2004, in the last weeks of the Mejia administration. During the Mejia administration, the government sponsored and obtained anti-trafficking and anti-money-laundering legislation, sent troops to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom, and ratified the Article 98 agreement it had signed in 2002. Mejia faced mounting domestic problems as a deteriorating economy--caused in large part by the government's measures to deal with massive bank fraud--and constant power shortages plagued the latter part of his administration.

During the Mejia administration, the constitution was amended to permit an incumbent president to seek a second successive term, and Mejia ran for re-election. On May 16, 2004, Leonel Fernandez was elected president, defeating Mejia 57.11% to 33.65%. Eduardo Estrella of the PRSC received 8.65% of the vote. Fernandez took office on August 16, 2004, promising in his inaugural speech to promote fiscal austerity, to fight corruption and to support social concerns. Fernandez said the Dominican Republic would support policies favoring international peace and security through multilateral mechanisms in conformity with the United Nations and the OAS. On May 16, 2008, President Fernandez was re-elected president with 53.8% of the vote. The Fernandez administration works closely with the United States on law enforcement, immigration, and counterterrorism matters.

Congressional and municipal elections were held in May 2010, with Fernandez’s PLD winning a slim majority of seats in the House of Representatives and 31 of 32 Senate seats, as well as a plurality of mayoral seats. President Fernandez’s role in the victorious congressional campaign led his supporters to promote his candidacy for re-election in 2012. The new constitution promulgated in January 2010 would seem to prohibit this, and ultimately Fernandez announced that he would not run in the 2012 elections. Following primary contests, the 2012 presidential race is divided between the ruling PLD's candidate, Danilo Medina, and the opposition PRD's candidate, former President Hipolito Mejia.

Sources:

CIA World Factbook (March 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( March 2012)

Glossary