The island of Hispaniola, located in the heart of the Caribbean, was inhabited by indigenous people or Taínos, prior to Christopher Columbus discovering the island on Christmas Eve 1492. The Taíno word means “good” or “noble” and it really reflected the lifestyle that these people lived on a daily basis. They were peaceful, generous and cooperative. However, after Christopher Columbus’ departure, the Spanish settlers found that they were at odds with the Taíno people. The Spanish settlers killed many Taínos while others simply died by transmitted diseases. Those who survived were subjected to brute labour in agriculture and mining.
By the middle of the 17th century the French, envious of Spain’s dominance and wealth, sent colonists to settle in Tortuga, on the northwestern coast of Hispaniola, which was abandoned by the Spanish in 1603. This side of the island was controlled by the French, who called it Saint Domingue, in 1697 and over the next century it would be developed into one of the richest colonies in the world thanks to cane sugar. However, in 1791, a slave revolt broke out, led by a French black man by the name of Toussaint Louverture. Since Spain had ceded their colony to the French in the Treaty of Basilea 1795, Toussaint Louverture and his followers claimed the entire island.
In 1809, the French returned the eastern side of the island to Royal Spanish rule. The Spaniards re-established slavery in Santo Domingo and also went as far as Haiti to enslave blacks as well. As a result, in 1822, Haiti’s President Jean-Pierre Boyer invaded and took over the eastern portion of Hispaniola, abolishing slavery and incorporating Santo Domingo into the Republic of Haiti. For the next 22 year, the Dominican Republic would be part of Haiti in what is now called ‘The Haitian Occupation.’ During the late 1830s, and underground resistance group, La Trinitaria, led by Juan Pablo Duarte, attacked the Haitian army and eventually took control of the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola on February 27, 1844, adopting the name La Republica Dominicana. The next 70 years after announcing independence were characterised by multiple outbreaks of civil war and the political and economic instability.
During the 19th century, the country’s economy shifted from ranching to sources of revenues such as cigars and coffee. In 1882, General Ulysses Heureaux came into power and under his brutal dictatorship and corrupt regime his opponents were violently repressed and the country suffered more distress, politically and economically. He was assassinated in 1899.
Around this same time, the sugar industry revived and as a result, many Americans came to the DR to buy plantations. In 1916, Americans invaded the Dominican Republic, using the First World War as their excuse. They took complete control, ordering the dispersion of the Dominican army and forcing the population to disarm. Although many businessmen suffered during this period, political violence was eliminated and many improvements in the infrastructure and educational system were put in place. The Americans left in 1924 amidst revolt from the Dominican people.
In 1930, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, Quartermaster of the new Dominican Army, took control of the country and using the army as his enforcer, Trujillo set up a repressive dictatorship. He consolidated his power to such a degree that he began to treat the Dominican Republic as his own personal kingdom. Trujillo gained the support of the United States because he offered generous and favourable conditions to American businessmen. Also, Trujillo showed his political support of the US against communism. Trujillo remained in power for more than 30 years, but towards the end of his regime, he succeeded in alienating even his most loyal supporters, including the United States. On May 30, 1961, Trujillo was assassinated after amassing a fortune exceeding US$500 million.
In 1966, the Americans left the country and President Dr. Joaquín Balaguer, leader of the Reformist Party (now called the Social Christian Reformist Party – PRSC), was elected. He was re-elected in May 1970 and May 1974. Over 12 years, he maintained a tight grip on power. In 1978, Balaguer was defeated and for the first time there was a peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to another, Antonio Guzmán.
In 1979, two hurricanes left more than 200,000 people homeless and caused damage worth US$1 billion as the economy continued to deteriorate due to high fuel prices and low sugar prices. As a result, the PRD’s presidential candidate, Salvador Jorge Blanco, won the 1982 election. In 1986 Balaguer returned to power and remained in office for the next ten years. In 1994, Balaguer was reelected, but agreed to serve only a two year-term after being accused of fraud.
In 1996, Leonel Fernández Reyna of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), was elected to a four- year term as president. His political agenda was one of economic and judicial reform. On May 16, 2000, Hipólito Mejía, the PRD candidate, was elected president in another free and fair election. During his government, the Dominican Republic signed a free trade agreement (CAFTA-DR) with the United States and five Central American countries. Mejía faced mounting domestic problems as deteriorating economy caused in large part by the government’s measures to deal with massive bank fraud, and constant power shortages deteriorated his administration. During Mejia’s administration the constitution was amended to permit a second term, and Mejía ran for re-election.
On May 16, 2004, Leonel Fernández was elected President – defeating Mejía with 57.11% of the vote. In his inaugural speech he promised to promote fiscal austerity, to fight corruption and to support social concerns. He would support policies favouring International peace and security. During 2004, severe floods in the southwest, and in parts of neighbouring Haiti, left more than 2,000 dead or missing. In September 2005, the Congress approved a proposed free trade agreement with the US and the Central American nations. The DR entered the accord in March 2007. On May 16, 2008 President Fernández was re-elected with 53.8% of the vote. In May 2012, Danilo Medina won the presidential election with 51% of the vote. Mr. Medina’s main rival, former President Hipólito Mejía, received 47% of the ballot.
In May 2016, President Medina was re-elected and is expected to remain in office until 2020.