Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Summary of the Dominican Republic

The island's indigenous inhabitants were the Taino Indians (Arawaks) group and a small settlement of Caribs around the Bahía de Samaná. These Indians, estimated to number perhaps 1 million at the time of their initial contact with Europeans, had died off by the 1550s.
The importation of African slaves began in 1503. By the nineteenth century, the population was roughly 150,000: 40,000 of Spanish descent, an equal number of black slaves, and the remainder of freed blacks or mulattoes. In the mid-1980s, approximately 16 percent of the population was considered white and 11 percent black; the remainder were mulattoes.

The Dominican Republic's economy, historically oriented toward the export of primary products for the world market, was dependent on fluctuating world market prices for those products, or on the quotas set by major importers--factors beyond the Dominican Republic's control. Moreover, the country's strategic location in the Caribbean, astride all the major sea lanes linking North America and South America and leading into the Panama Canal, exposed the country to the buffeting winds of international politics, or led to its occupation by major powers such as Spain, Britain, France, The Netherlands, and, most recently, the United States. The nation's almost inevitable entanglement in international conflicts afforded it little opportunity to develop autonomously.

In 1844 the Dominican Republic emerged from twenty-two years of occupation by Haiti. Politically, Dominican history has been defined by an almost continuous competition for supremacy among caudillos of authoritarian ideological convictions. Traditions of personalism, militarism, and social and economic elitism locked the country into decades of debilitating wars, conspiracies, and despotism that drained its resources and undermined its efforts to establish liberal constitutional rule.

Beginning in the early 1960s, however, many things began to change in the Dominican Republic. Per capita income in the late 1980s was four times what it had been in 1960. The country's population was approximately 70 percent urban (the corresponding figure in 1960 was 30 percent), more literate (in about the same proportion), and more middle class. Political institutions had developed and had become more consolidated. The country's international debt continued to be a major problem and a severe drain on the economy, but in general the Dominican Republic's economic position within the international community was more stable than it had been in past decades. These changed conditions made the climate more conducive to democracy than it had been at any previous time.

In 1961 assassins ended the thirty-one-year dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. There followed five years of instability that witnessed a short-lived democratic regime under Juan Bosch Gaviño, the military overthrow of Bosch, a Bosch-led revolution in 1965, civil war, United States intervention, and the restoration of stability in 1966 under a former Trujillo puppet, Joaquín Balaguer Ricardo. Balaguer governed for the next twelve years, until forced to bow to the electorate's desire for change in 1978. That year Silvestre Antonio Guzmán Fernández, of Bosch's party, the Dominican Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano--PRD), won the presidency. Guzmán was succeeded by another PRD leader, Salvador Jorge Blanco (1982-86).

But 1982, the year of Jorge's inauguration, was the year the bottom dropped out of the Dominican economy. The country began to feel the full impact of the second oil price rise, induced by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC); recession in the United States and Western Europe dried up the market for Dominican exports; and the international debt crisis also hit home strongly. These conditions forced Jorge to abandon his ambitious reform agenda in favor of severe austerity, belttightening , and a cutback in services.

New elections were held in 1986. President Jorge's deeply divided PRD eventually nominated Majluta, Guzmán's vice president, who four years earlier had served a short stint as interim president. Majluta was of Lebanese background, a longtime PRD stalwart, and a businessman who was tainted with the corruption of the previous administrations. He was opposed by Balaguer, who, though old and legally blind, still enjoyed widespread popularity. Many associated Balaguer with the economic boom of the 1970s; in addition, he was widely admired as a shrewd, resourceful, and skilled politician. In 1986 the shrewd, but aging, Balaguer won four more years as president in another “fair and free” election.

In office, Balaguer proved as adept as before, although now slowed by age and infirmity. He juggled assignments within the armed forces to assure its loyalty and support; followed policies that pleased the economic elites, while at the same time doling out land and patronage to the peasants; and fostered greater contact with Cuba, while simultaneously keeping United States support. He listened to advice from all quarters, but kept his own counsel, kept his subordinates off guard and insecure so they could not develop a base from which to challenge the president himself, and refused to designate a successor while keeping all his own options open. Balaguer delegated some limited power and patronage to subordinates, but he kept most of the reins of power in his own hands; he let cabinet and autonomous agency heads have a bit of responsibility, while he maintained control of the allimportant jobs--patronage, money, and military matters. Whatever one thinks of his policies, Balaguer must be considered one of the cleverest presidents in Dominican history.
Then comes the most recent elections, still fresh in everybody’s minds. in 1996, Leonel Antonio Fernández Reyna from the Dominican Liberation Party (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana--PLD) won the election, followed by Rafael Hipólito Mejía Domínguez (again PRD) in 2000. Finally in the election celebrated in 2004, Leonel Antonio Fernández Reyna was chosen once again, and re-elected in 2008.

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