Dominican Republic

March 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

dominican republicWho lives there?: Around ten million people. Whilst almost all are mixed race and almost all are Catholic, the issue of ethnicity is highly contentious on the Dominican Republic.

For much of the intertangled history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic there have been attempts by leaders of both sides to tie the idea of Dominican nationality to Hispanic ancestry and Haitian nationality to African ancestry. This has given rise to the perennial idea that those of darker skin are Haitian and those of lighter skin Dominican, regardless of where they were born – and this idea is only slowly fading. To further muddy the waters various Dominican leaders have at times attempted to “whiten” the population by imposing racial stratification and expelling darker skinned people into Haiti. Similar but reversed measures also took place in Haiti. And then to complicate this still further at various times, when one nation would be relatively stable and the other in chaos, there would be a wave of economic migration going one way or another.

And so the phrases “black”, “white”, “Dominican”, “Haitian”, “Dominican from Haiti”, “Dominican of Haitian origin” and every possible combination and variation of the above have incredibly charged political significance. In actual fact most Dominicans are primarily of African origin (although Dominican ancestry in general – there are many exceptions – tends to be more mixed than Haitian ancestry) however culturally there has been more of an emphasis on Hispanic culture than African and most Dominicans will not self-identify as black. About a million people currently living in Dominica were born on Haitian soil.

There are also over a million Dominicans living abroad – mostly in the USA  – and remittances make up 10% of Dominican GDP.

An aside: The Dominican Republic is not to be confused with the Dominica. Dominica is the nation on the tiny southern Caribbean island of Dominica; the Dominican Republic is on the western half of the much larger northern Caribean island of Hispaniola. Residents of both are however known as Domincans, which can lead to confusion. To aid matters they are supposed to be pronounced differently: those from Dominica placing the emphasis on the third syllable (Dominican) like the name of the country whereas those from the Dominican Republic pronounce it more as a fairly flat English adjective with the stress, insofar as it is anywhere, on the second syllable (Dominican). However the difference is subtle and many (particularly Anglo Saxons) don’t really respect it, so it can be confusing.

The Dominican Republic (together with the CAR the only national name in the world to contain a denonym) is sometimes referred to by Dominicans as Quisqueya – from the name given to the island by the indigenous Taino.

How does the system work? (the theory): The Dominican Republic has a Presidential system with an executive President elected every four years and a bicameral legislative elected every four years – elections are interwoven so that there is an election of some sort every two years.

There is no Presidential total term limit but Presidents have only just in this last election been given the right to run for consecutive terms. Elections are by two round first past the post. As with all elections in the Dominican Republic suffrage is universal over the age of 18; whereas under that age you can only vote if you are married.

Congress consists of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. On most issues the two houses have equal powers; however the Senate has the sole power to approve treaties and appointments, whereas the Chamber has the sole power to approve financial bills.

The thirty two senators are elected by first past the post, one per district, regardless of the district’s population. The 178 deputies are elected by D’Hondt PR, with between 2 and 36 representing each district depending on its population. The Dominican Republic also elects twenty members by d’hondt to the Central American Parliament.

The thirty two districts each have governors appointed by the President. However below this level there is direct local government with the direct election of 155 mayors and local municipal administrations.

How does the system work? (the practice): The system is free and fair and there is a vibrant free press. However Antihaitianismo is still fairly endemic and, as recently as 1996, political parties were banding together to prevent a “too Haitian” candidate from winning the presidency. Election campaigns can get violent with three party workers shot dead on polling day during the last elections.

How did we get here?: This is one of those countries where you may think you are getting more history than you need but it is, sadly, all deeply relevant to the modern politics of the island.

The indigenous population – the Carib – were wiped out by the Central American Taino around 650 AD. The Spanish arrived in 1492 and they, and smallpox, wiped out the Taino – the last surviving Taino were recorded in 1864 (although it is thought most Dominicans have some Taino ancestry).

The Spanish settled the island but didn’t really care for it much and by the late 17th century what is now the Haitian area was overrun by French pirates. Deciding that this was France’s problem, Spain gave that area to France in 1697. In 1795, in response to the Revolutionary wars France also took control of the eastern half of the island – Santo Domingo. This didn’t last long though, and in 1804 a slave rebellion led to the creation of the independent republic of Haiti in the west, and in 1808, with Haitian help, Santo Domingo was returned to Spain.

Spanish rule was again ineffective and in 1821 the governor declared Santo Domingo’s independence, and in 1822 petitioned Simon Bolivar to be allowed to join the newly created nation of Colombia. However before Bolivar could respond, Haiti invaded and annexed Santo Domingo. That short-lived first attempt at independence was known as the “Ephemeral Independence”.

Haitian forces abolished slavery but also introduced onerous new taxes – this was unpopular and in 1838 a revolutionary movement started. By 1844 the colony was independent again, and it was this independence movement that coined the name “Dominican Republic”. However the leadership of the new republic was chaotic and the two main leaders of the independence movement both felt that the new nation was too small to survive. They both wanted to ask a nation to annex them but bickered over which: 1st, 4th and 8th President Santana favoured Spain whereas 3rd, 6th, 10th, 13th, and 16th President Báez favoured the USA. In this time Haiti invaded a further six times, which hardly helped calm the situation.

Santana won out and the Dominican Republic was returned to Spain in 1861. However this was hugely unpopular and opponents led by Báez launched the “war of restoration”. By 1865 Spain had abandoned the island for good and the Dominican Republic was independent once again. Various overtures were made to the USA to annex the island but these were turned down. Offers of increased political and trading links were however accepted.

The Republic was relatively stable for a while but by the early 20th century it was again a basket case. In 1911 mutual assassinations and civil war left the republic effectively leaderless and wallowing in debt. In 1914 the Americans lost patience, telling Dominicans that if they did not pick a President instantly and stick with them, then they would be invaded. The Dominicans duly did pick a President, but when the new guy lasted only two years the Americans snapped and conquered the island.

The US occupation was deeply unpopular and fairly brutal. It served no-one and by 1924 the Americans were glad to leave. Fresh elections were held and the winner, Horacio Vásquez, brought a period of relative calm. In 1930 however, opponents of Vásquez – led by the army – rebelled against his rule. Vásquez resigned almost immediately and the head of the army: Rafael Trujillo, was elected president unopposed.

Trujillo ruled the nation as supreme dictator for the next thirty one years. However he was only formally in office for fourteen of those years, preferring to rule through proxies and puppets. He was without a doubt one of the most brutal dictators of a century which had a bumper crop of brutal dictators. Amidst constant displays of violence, institutionalized racism, rape to order, and megalomania the event which has cast the longest shadow was the 1937 “parsley massacre” in which – in an attempt to “Dominicanise” the Haito-Dominican border area – Trujillo ordered everybody whose skin was darker than a dried parsley leaf to be killed with machetes (another version of the story says that it was everyone who could not pronounce the word “parsley” with a proper Spanish accent that was to be executed). It is thought around 35,000 people were killed.

Trujillo was assassinated in 1961. The assassination attempt was part of a wider attempt at a military coup but this fizzled out and Trujillo’s sons were able to remain in power for a time – long enough to take a brutal revenge on the coup perpetrators and give Trujillo a full state funeral. However Trujillo’s last puppet President: Joaquín Balaguer, was able to persuade them that the public mood – and in particular the US attitude – had turned and in 1962 the Trujillo family left the Dominican Republic for good.

The first truly free elections for over thirty years were held in 1963 and were won by the left wing Juan Bosch. After just nine months in power the military deposed him. In 1965 there was a pro-Bosch revolution in response to which America invaded “to prevent another Cuba”. This American occupation lasted just over a year. The Americans left after they had “supervised” the 1966 election which Joaquín Balaguer won.

Balaguer and Bosch would dominate the political scene until almost the present day. However whilst Balaguer would in total serve 22 more years as president, Bosch would never again win the Presidency in his own right. Balaguer’s rule was notable for its authoritarianism and human rights abuses – particularly against “leftists” (broadly defined) – however it also brought greater economic prosperity and a gradual transformation into a modern state.

Who’s in charge?: There are many political parties but only three of any size. In any case all the parties who hope to win any seats at all are part of two broad coalitions. All the big three political parties were founded by either Balaguer or Bosch.

The oldest is the Dominican Revolutionary Party, or PRD, which was founded by Bosch in 1939 as a centre-leftist party. It still is that to this day. However in 1973 – feeling that the PRD had become too centrist – Bosch founded the Dominican Liberation Party, or PLD ,with the express aim of being a to-the-left-of-the-PRD party. However latterly the PLD has been adopting increasingly neo-liberal and centre-right positions and now it is hard to say which of the two parties is the further left. It is probably fair to say that the PLD occupies a broader spectrum of political space – and that elements of the PLD outflank the PRD to the right and to the left.

Balaguer’s party was the Social Christian Reformist Party or PRSC and is predictably centre right and socially conservative. They have been fading badly of late.

Populism and pragmatism are the key factors in determining policy in all three parties and this can be seen by the fact that in recent years the three parties have joined together in every conceivable combination of electoral coalition.

Currently the PLD are part of a coalition called the Progressive Bloc which also involves various smaller parties of the right, left, and centre. They dominate the coalition to the extent that none of the other parties have any seats. The PRD and the PRSC were part of a coalition called the “Grand National Alliance”; however this coalition is on hiatus (as the PRSC’s support is freefalling the PRD could no longer see the value in it). This alliance also involved various smaller parties of the right, left, and centre; although the big two also dominated the coalition to the extent that none of the other parties have any seats.

At the last congressional elections in 2010 the PRSC, who had been in big trouble for at least four years, slumped utterly to an absolutely dreadful 1.4% of the vote, picking up a mere 3 deputies as a result. They did however win one senate seat – which is more than the PRD managed – as elsewhere the split in the opposition allowed the PLD to sweep up and win all the other 31 senate seats.

The PRD did however do somewhat better in the chamber where their vote held up and they won 75 seats. Meanwhile the PLD completed a superb night for them, winning 105 seats and so an outright majority in both houses. PRD-PRSC coalitions were more successful at a local level and managed to keep hold of about half the municipal administrations.

dominican republic political parties

The writing should have been on the wall from the 2008 Presidential election when the PLDs Leonel Fernández became the first president to be re-elected under the new rules; winning on the first round with 53% of the vote to the PRD’s 40% whilst the PRSC slumped to 5%.

Labour unions and civil society organisations are very well organised and amongst the most developed in the Caribbean. However they traditionally enjoy an antagonistic relationship with government.

What does it look like?: It takes up about 60% of the island of Hispaniola. It contains the Caribbean’s highest mountain (Pico Duarte 3,098m), its lowest point (-40m) and its largest lake (Lake Enriquillo, 102 sq miles and one of the only saltwater lakes in the world with a population of crocodiles).

Dominican Republic

What are the issues?: The vexed issue of illegal immigration from Haiti and the integration of Haitians; and how it ties in with complicated questions of identity, nationality, and history is one of the main questions for the nation. The view of the international community is that the nation is badly mistreating Haitian migrants. This is vehemently denied by the Dominican political establishment.

There is also a major issue with drug smuggling and the level of institutional penetration of the police and judiciary by organised crime. Whilst still considerably better off than much of Haiti the economic climate is worsening, and that country’s earthquake and cholera epidemics did not stop at the border.

Sadly seemingly not up for discussion are social issues: the Dominican Republic has just ratified constitutional amendments making abortion and gay marriage unconstitutional – which means the Dominican Republic has some of the most aggressive anti-abortion and gay marriage legislation anywhere on the planet.

A good source of impartial information is: there is a vibrant free press but much of it is in Dominican Spanish. DR1 is about the only English language news source.

A good book is: a lot has been written about the island, in particular concentrating on its history and its ethnic tensions. Particularly relevant to the modern day are Race and Politics in the Dominican Republic and The Struggle for Democratic Politics in the Dominican Republic.

The Great Dominican Novel was actually written by a Peruvian – Mario Vergas Llosa (him of the punching Marquez in the face). The Feast of the Goat is very well thought-of as a novel, gives a very good portrait of the personalities and politics of the end of the Trujillo regime and the few years immediately afterwards, and a lot of insight into Dominican culture and society. However I think I should mention that I really really didn’t like it. The stomach turning and totally gratuitous torture scenes didn’t help, nor did the constant apologizing for Balaguer. But I think it was more that I thought his additional storyline was crap; and whilst some sections demonstrate he can clearly write, other sections demonstrate that maybe he should have had another go – sorry.

When are the next elections?: Elections for the President are due in 2012, Parliament 2014.


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