History of the Dominican Republic

For at least 5,000 years before Christopher Columbus "discovered" America for the Europeans, the island which he called Hispaniola was inhabited by Amer-Indians. Anthropologists have traced 2 major waves of immigration, one from the West in Central America (probably Yucatan) and the second from the South, descendant of the Arawakan Indian tribes in Amazonia and passing through the Orinocco valley in Venezuela. It is from this second source that the ancestors of the Taino Indians who welcomed Columbus on his first voyage originated.

The word Taino meant "good" or "noble" in their language, and not only were the Indians peaceful and generous in their hospitality, but early Spanish chroniclers document that no Spaniard ever saw Indians fighting among themselves. By the end of the 15th century the Tainos were well organized into five tribes, and are considered to have been of the verge of civilization and central government. Recent estimates indicate that there probably were as many as 200,000 Tainos on the island at the time.

When Columbus crossed the Atlantic with his crew of Spaniards, he first came to islands in the Bahamas and then Cuba before landing on the island of Hispaniola. But this was the place that really got them excited for several reasons. First, his journal is full of descriptions indicating how beautiful was this island paradise he had discovered, with high forested mountains and large river valleys. Furthermore, the inhabitants were very peaceful and docile, and even though they were very generous and cooperative, the Europeans quickly realized that with their lack of iron weapons and European technology, the Indians could easily be conquered and put to work for them. But, more important than anything else, they found out that there were gold deposits in the rivers. Many of the Indians they met, especially the chiefs, had gold ornaments and jewellry. So after a month or so of feasting and exploring the northern coast, Columbus rushed back to Spain to announce his success.

Just before their departure, during the night of Christmas Eve 1492, after returning from 2 days of partying with their Indian hosts, Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, ran afoul on a reef and was wrecked a few miles east of present-day Cap Haïtien after the crew all fell asleep. Although with the help of the Indians they were able to salvage all the valuables, the ship was lost. So Columbus was obliged to found a small settlement that he named Navidad, and left behind a small group of 39 Spaniards when he departed for Spain.

Within a short time of his departure, these settlers began fighting among themselves, with some of them getting killed. They also offended the natives by forcibly taking 3 or 4 of their wives or sisters each, and forcing them to work as their servants. After several months of these abuses, a tribal chief named Caonabo attacked the settlement and killed the remaining Spaniards. So when Columbus returned to the island the next spring with a large expedition, he and the Spaniards were shocked to find that the settlement they had left behind was empty and had been burned to the ground.

The first permanent European settlement was founded in 1493 at Isabella, on the north coast of the island not far east of Puerto Plata. From there the invaders could readily exploit the gold in the Cibao river a short distance away in the interior. The Spaniards brought with them horses and dogs, and combined with their armor and iron weapons, the Indians were unable to resist them. An expeditionary force was sent to capture Caonabo, which was accomplished by trickery. From the beginning the Indians were forced to work at hard labor panning for gold under conditions that were repressive and deplorable, and many began to die off. During this time the first black slaves were also brought over to work as servants of the Spanish. Most of these later escaped to live in the wild mountain valleys.

Bartholomew Columbus was appointed governor while his brother Christopher continued his explorations in the Caribbean region, and after the discovery of gold in the Ozama river valley in the south, founded the city of Santo Domingo in 1496. The Spaniards were jealous of being under the leadership of the Italian brothers and lodged so many false complaints that eventually they were accused of mismanagement and relieved of their positions. Both were brought back to chains in Spain, where they were released when it became evident that most of the accusations were grossly exagerrated.

Their successor as governor of the new colony, Nicholas de Ovando, decided to take action to domesticate the Indians once and for all. He arranged for the widely respected Indian princess Anacoana, the widow of Caonabo, to organize a feast that was supposedly intended to welcome the new governor to the island. When all of the 80-plus of the island's chiefs were assembled in one large house, the Spanish soldiers surrounded it, then set it on fire. Those who were not killed immediately were brutally tortured to death. After a mock trial, Anacaona was also hanged. With no remaining leaders, future resistance from the Indians was eliminated.

Not being used to such hard work, and unable to take the time to engage in agricultural activities so as to obtain enough food to feed themselves adequately, the Indians became demoralized and began to die off in large numbers. To escape from the Spaniards, they adopted the tactic of abandoning their villages and burning their crops. This later backfired on them by causing widespread famine. Completely discouraged by their plight, many Indians committed mass suicide. When the disease of smallpox was introduced to the colony in 1518, the native population was ravished almost overnight, so that within 25 years of the arrival of the Spaniards there were less than 50,000 Tainos remaining on the island. Within less than a century, they were literally totally wiped out. Some modern historians have classified the Spanish acts as genocide.

One of the Indian chiefs named Hatüey escaped to Cuba, where he was involved in organizing armed resistance to the Spanish invaders. But after a brave but uneven struggle, he was captured and tortured to death. The only successful resistance against the Spaniards took place in the 1820s, after the Tainos had been almost completely decimated. Several thousand Indians escaped their captivity and followed their leader Enriquillo to the mountains of Bahoruca in the southeast near the present border with Haiti, where after defeating the Spanish raids in the high mountain passes, an uneasy truce was negotiated.

By 1515 the Spaniards realized that the gold deposits of Hispaniola were becoming exhausted. Shortly afterwards Cortèz and his small retinue of soldiers made their astonishing conquest of Mexico, with its fabulous riches of silver. Almost overnight the colony of Santo Domingo was abandoned, and only a few thousand Spanish settlers remained behind. Columbus had also introduced cattle and pigs to the island, and these multiplied rapidly. The inhabitants who stayed behind were involved primarily in raising livestock to supply the Spanish ships passing by the island on their way to the richer colonies on the American mainland, and the colony's importance became increasingly minimized.

During the middle of the 17th century the island of Tortuga located to the west of Cap Haïtien was settled by smugglers, run-away indentured servants and members of ships' crew of various European nationalities, who were for the most part a gang of lawless rifraff. Most earned their living by capturing animals to sell for their leather, or roasting the meal over smoking (boucan, in French) fires, and so came to be called buccaneers. Tortuga later became the headquarters of the pirates of the Caribbean who raided the Spanish treasure ships, and was a recruitment centre for expeditions mounted by many notorious scoundrals including the British pirate Henry Morgan. (Hey, Captain Morgan's Spiced RUM!!! Yummy!)

Later the French who were jealous of Spanish possession of the island sent colonists to settle Tortuga. In order to domesticate the pirates, they supplied them with women taken from prisons who had been prostitutes and thieves. The western third of the island became a French possession in 1697, and over the next century developed Saint-Domingue into what became by far the richest colony in the world. The wealth of this colony was based primarily on sugar, large plantations of which were worked by hundreds of thousands of black slaves who were imported from Africa and brutally treated.

Inspired by momentous events taking place in France during the French Revolution, and by the disputes between the different classes of whites and mulattos, a slave revolt broke out in the French colony in 1791 and soon came to be led by Toussaint Louverture. In danger of completely losing their colony, France abolished slavery in 1794. Toussaint's soldiers and the French easily overwhelmed the Spanish part of the island which surrendered the next year.

Although Toussaint succeeded in re-establishing order and stability and renewing the economy which had been badly devastated by the slave revolt, the new leader in France, Napoleon Bonaparte, could not accept having France's richest colony governed by a black man. Succumbing to the complaints of former colonists who had lost their plantations, a large expedition was mounted whose ultimate purpose was to conquer the blacks and re-establish slavery. Led by Napoleon's brother-in-law, General Leclerc, the expedition turned into a disaster, and shortly after the black army definitively defeated the French, the blacks declared their independence and established the republic of Haïti on the western third of the island.

The French retained control of the eastern side of the island until 1809 when it was returned to Spanish rule. The Spaniards not only re established slavery in their colony, but many of them also mounted raiding expeditions into Haïti to capture blacks and enslave them. Due to neglect of Spanish authorities, the colonists of Santo Domingo under the leadership of José Nuñez de Caceres proclamed what came to be called the " Ephemeral Independence. But this was very shortlived because in 1822, fearful that the French would mount another expedition from Santo Domingo to re-establish slavery, as they had been threatening to do, Haïti sent an army to invade the eastern portion of the island. Haïti once again abolished slavery, and incorporated Santo Domingo into the Black Republic.

For the next 22 years the whole island came under Haïtian control and domination. Because of their loss of political and economic control, this occupation was deeply resented by the former Spanish ruling class. During the late 1830s an underground resistance group called La Trinitaria was organized under the leadership of Juan Pablo Duarte. After several attacks on the Haïtian army, and due to internal discord, the Haïtians retreated. Independence of the eastern side of the island was officially declared on February 27, 1844, and the name of Dominican Republic was adopted.

The La Trinitaria leaders almost immediately encountered political opposition from within their own country, and within 6 months were ousted from power. From this time onward the Dominican Republic was almost always under the rule of caudilos, or strong leaders who usually ruled the country as if it were their personal feif. During the next 70 years, the history of the Dominican Republic was characterized by regular outbreaks of civil war, political instability and economic chaos.

For nearly the next quarter of a century the leadership seesawed between that of General Pedro Santana and General Buenaventura Baez, whose armies continuously fought each other for control over the government. In their efforts to maintain control, the 2 military leaders and their disciples resorted to outside assistance. In 1861 General Santana invited the Spanish to return and take over control of their former colony. But after a short period of mis-management, the Dominicans quickly realized their mistake and forced the Spanish out. Apparently not learning their lesson, another group begged the United States to come in and take over a decade later. Although US President Grant supported the move, the plan was defeated by the US Congress and then abandoned.

During the 19th century the country's economy shifted from primarily livedstock grazing to other sources of revenue. In the south-western region, a new industry arose in cutting down and exporting precious woods such as mahogany, oak and guaiacum. In the northern plains and valleys around Santiago, the emphasis was focused on growing tobacco for production of some of the world's best cigars. Throughout the country another important crop was coffee.

Another strongman who came to power in 1882 was General Ulysses Heureux. A brutal dictator whose corrupt regime was maintained in power by violent repression of his opponents, Heureux handled internal affairs of the country so poorly, and so mis-managed the economic situation that the country was regularly rocked back and forth between economic crises and currency devaluations. Following his assassination in 1899, several individuals came to power only to be rapidly overthrown by their political opponents, and the country's internal situation continuously degenerated into chaos.

Overall, the situation in the Dominican Republic for the first 70 years following its independence can be characterized as having been a series of civil wars interrupted by brief periods of peace before being disrupted again by politically-motivated strife and violence generated by power hungry followers of regional strongmen. These attacked their opponents with charges of corruption and lack of patriotism and made promises to carry out reforms. But as soon as they had the opportunity to take office, they all forgot about their promises and proceeded to place their friends and relatives in positions of prominence and to raid the country's treasury as if it were a family fortune that was there for them to loot and squander.

Around the turn of the century, the sugar industry was revived, and so many American businessmen came to invest and buy plantations that they came to dominate this vital sector of the economy. With the advent of the First World War, and using the excuse that political instability was creating a situation whereby a European power (Germany) might be able to take advantage of the country" s weakness - whereas the real reason was to expand American influence over the Dominican economy - the United States sent in its Marines to occupy the Dominican Republic in 1916. Only a few months earlier, the Americans had also used the same argument as a pretext to occupy neighboring Haïti.

The US occupation in the Dominican Republic lasted 8 years (it went on for 19 years in Haïti), and from the beginning the Americans quickly took over complete control. It ordered the disbanding of the Dominican army and the competing rival strongman armies and forced the population to disarm. The puppet government that was installed was obliged to obey the orders generated by the occupying force commanders. Among the changes made was the re-modeling of the legal structure in order to benefit American investors, who took over greater sectors of the economy and to remove all customs and import barriers for American products brought to the country. The results of the heavy penetration of the local economy by American investors was that many small Dominican businessmen and entrepreneurs were forced out of business. The changes, however, were not all negative, because during this period the former patten of political violence was eliminated, and many improvements in infrastucture and the educational system were introduced.

One of the changes made by the Americans was to establish and train a local armed forces (as they also did in Haïti) whose supposedly intended purpose was to maintain law and order and public security. In both counties the end result of this change in the system was to shift power from the civilians to the military. During the time of the occupation, the head of the army was a former telegraph clerk named Raphael Leonidas Trujilo. This unscrupulous strongman utilized his position in power to amass an enormous personal fortune from embezzlement activities which initally involved the procurement of military supplies. Although the Dominican Republic had its first relatively free election after the US forces left in 1924, within a short time Trujilo was able to block any government reform actions, and in 1930 he took over complete control of the reins of power.

Using the army as his enforcer, Trujilo wasted no time in setting up a repressive dictatorship, organizing a vast network of spies to eliminate all potential opponents. His henchmen did not hesitate to use torture, intimidation, or assassination of political foes to terrify and oppress the population and consolidate his rule and fortune. Before long he had so consolidated his power as to be able to treat the country as his own personal kingdom. After only 6 years at the head of government, Trujilo was confident enough to even change the name of the capital city from Santo Domingo (which had held this name for over 400 years) to Cuidad- Trujilo (Trujilo City).

Initially Trujilo continued to receive American support because he offered generous and favorable conditions to American businessmen wanting to invest in the Dominican Republic, and after World War II showed his political support of the USA's stand against the spectre of Communism. By 1942 he even arranged to repay all of the foreign debt due to the United States, which had for decades limited economic initiatives of the Dominican government. But after several years of confiscating ownership of the majority of the most important domestic businesses and moved to control virtually all large industrial development in the country, he then moved to also take over several of the major American-owned industries, particularly in the sugar industry. These take-over activities, plus Trujilo's meddling in the internal affairs of other neighboring countries in the region, led increasingly to American disenchantment with the Dominican dictator.

One of Trujilo's most notorious acts was committed against his island neighbor, Haïti. For centuries the lack of clear definition of the location of the border between the two countries had been a source of aggrevation and conflict between the two countries. Not only had the border areas always been a thorn from incessent smuggling activities, but many thousands of Haitians had also been increasingly settling on lands around the border. Trujilo had always made it clear that he held racist ideas and considered the black-skinned Haitians to be inferior. In 1937 he took action to resolve this problematic issue by giving the order to his army to massacre all Haitians found to be in the Dominican Republic. Estimates of as many as 17,000 unarmed Haitian men, women and children were slaughtered in a bloodbath of violence, particularly around the border region of the town of Dajabon and the aptly named Massacre River.

To attempt to deflect international criticism of this notorious scandal, Trujilo offered to accept to the Dominican Republic as many as 100,000 refugees from the scourge of Nazi-Germany in Europe. But when it came to action, only about 600 Jewish families were offered refuge in 1942, and came to settle in what is known today as the El Batey section of Sosua, opposite the small bay from the fishing village of Charamicos. Of these, only a dozen or so families remained there in the long run.

Trujilo remained in power for over 30 years, but toward the end he succeeded in alienating even his former most avid supporters, including the USA. The final straw came when he was linked with an abortive assassination attempt against Venequelan President Romulo Bétancourt. A year later, on May 30, 1961, Trujilo" s personal automobile was ambushed after a rendez-vous with his mistress, and the dictator and his chauffeur met a violent end. When he died, he was considered to be one of the richest men in the world, having amassed a personal fortune estimated to be in excess of $500 million US dollars, including ownership of most of the large industries and a major sector of productive agricultural land. The anniversary date of his assassination is today celebrated as a national holiday in the Dominican Republic.

After Trujilo's untimely death, he was succeeded by his vice-president, Dr. Joachim Balaguer. A year and a half later, Juan Bosch of the Dominican Revolutionary Party was elected president. However his socialistic program was judged to be too extreme by both the United States, then paranoid about the possible spread of Communism in the Caribbean after Fidel Castro's successful revolution in Cuba, and the army who had maintained Trujilo in power. The army's proponents manoeuvered to block every of Bosch's legislative endeavors, and only 9 months later engineered a coup d" état to oust him from the presidency.

The next 2 years were the scene of political and economic chaos, which culminated when the dissatisfied working classes rose in rebellion, and allied with a dissident army faction, took action to re-establish constitutional order on April 24, 1965. President Lyndon Johnson then ordered the US Marines to occupy the Dominican Republic under pretext that communists were in control of the political uprising.

A year later, Dr. Joachim Ballaguer, one of Trujilo" s former trusted lieutenants, was elected president again in what was acknowledged by all observers to have been a rigged election. Ballaguer remained in power during this time for a continuous period of 12 years, winning re-election in 1970 and 1974. In both instances the opposition parties maintained that the elections were rigged, so they did not nominate candidates to participate in the electoral races.

Wanting a change, in 1978 Dominicans went to the polls and elected Antonio Guzman of the Dominican Revolutionary Party. Unwilling to cede defeat, when Balaguer" s supporters became aware that the results were moving in the direction of a victory for Guzman, they attempted to put an end to the vote counting to maintain Balaguer in the presidency. But under international pressure, particularly Jimmy Carter" s government in the United States, Balaguer was forced to give in and admit to defeat.

Just before his 4-year term ended in 1982, Guzman allegedly committed suicide after becoming aware that close family members were involved in massive corruption and embezzlement of government funds. He was replaced by Salvador Blanco of the D.R.P. Blanco continued in the time honored tradition of rewarding family members, close friends and political supporters with lucrative governmental posts. His term in the Dominican presidency was in the end marred by allegations of massive corruption and mis-appropriation of government funds. He was later found guilty and convicted to 20 years in prison on charges of corruption.

Thoroughly disallusioned by the mis-rule of the leaders of the D.R.P., Dominicans returned to the polls in 1986 to opt for the former dictator, Dr. Joachim Ballaguer, who to this day (April 1996), at age 90, almost completely blind and partially deaf, remains in the post of President of the Dominican Republic. He was successful in winning the election in 1990 against divided and disorganized opposition parties.

Within the past decade the Dominican government was condemned by the international community for the exploitation of Haitian braceros (or sugar cane workers). It was alleged that thousands of these workers were forced to labor at back-breaking work for long hours under the hot sun under the supervision of armed guards. International observers reported that they were obliged to survive in deplorable living conditions, were kept virtually as prisoners and were not permitted to leave their places of employment, and were paid only pennies for their toil, conditions that were likened to that of slavery. Finally bowing to international pressure, in June 1991 all of the Haitian workers were deported. It is uncertain if such conditions continue to exist today, but there are still thousands of Haitians in the Dominican Republic at present, doing mainly heavy manual and low-paying jobs in the construction and agricultural industries that are usually scorned by the bulk of the Dominicans.

The year 1992 was marked by the 500-year anniversary celebration of Columbus' discovery of America. In honor of the event, a massive concrete momument, the Faro de Colón (Columbus" Lighthouse) was erected on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. The celebration events were somewhat diminished by international criticism of the massive spending required to pay for this structure when millions of Ballaguer's countrymen were suffering from living in conditions of poverty.

Progress Towards Reform

In 1994 Balaguer again declared victory in an election which O.A.S. and other international observers unanimously agreed was rigged. The names of thousands of voters were removed who were known to be supporters of his main opponent, the former mayor of Santo Domingo, Jose Francisco Peña Gomez of the D.R.P. In a bid to avoid a major outbreak of violence, Balaguer and Peña Gomez met and negotiated an agreement whereby Balaguer promised to remain in power no longer than 2 years, and not to run for re-election the next time around.

Run-off elections were then scheduled for May, 1996 and early returns showed Peña Gomez holding a plurality. On July 2, 1996 Leonel Fernandez of the Partia Libertad Democratica (P.L.D.) edged out Gomez in the run-offs. Balaguer gave his support to help Fernandez come from behind to win. Leonel finished in July with 51% of the vote compared with 49% for Peña Gomez. Dominicans seemed to accept the vote with little protest, but most people are waiting to see if he can accomplish significant reforms. According to international observatory organizations the election was declared clean.

Part of Leonel's anticipated reforms depended on his party gaining a majority in the National Assembly, which held elections in May 1998. A few weeks before the elections, Peña Gomez died from cancer. The country declared a two day period of mourning to honor the politician who many believed would have been president had past elections not been tampered with. Election results in the National Assembly gave a majority to the opposing Peña Gomez party and many Dominicans feel that Leonel will have difficulties passing his proposed legislation. However, this kind of political debate is now more representative of a true democracy in which divided elections are the result of the people's shifting opinions.


Today the Dominican Republic is progressing as a free and Democratic nation. Political demonstrations take place openly and freely in the main streets and politicians are able to campaign without being censored. Dominicans are involved in the political arena and newspapers provide a comparatively free and open flow of information for the people. Even with these advancements, the country is still watched over by the police and the army who act in the interests of the politicians who hold power. This along with continual problems with corruption need to be overcome before the Dominican Republic can truly move into the 21st century as a true and developed democracy. Standing before the new elections which will happen in Mat 2000, it appears that all leading parties are committed in continuing along this road to a full fletched democracy.

Presidents since 1966:

1966 - 1978 Dr. Joaquín Balaguer
1978 - 1982 Dr. Antonio Guzmán
1982 - 1986 Dr. Salvador Jorge Blanco
1986 - 1996 Dr. Joaquín Balaguer
1996 - 2000 Dr. Leonel Fernandez
2000 - 2004 Hipólito Mejía
2004 - 2008 Dr. Leonel Fernandez