island was first settled by the Caribes and the Tainos. They were
gatherers and hunters. On Christmas Eve, 1492, Christopher Columbus's
ship Santa Maria ran aground on a reef near the island. Columbus named
the island Hispaniola. The Spanish established a settlement at the
site of present-day Santo Domingo in 1496, and it became a springboard
for their conquest of the Caribbean and the American mainland. Because
of disease and slavery, the native population dropped from almost
a million to 500 in fifty years. Beginning in the 16th century, the
Spanish brought Africans to work as slaves in the island.
In 1697, Spain ceded the western half of Hispaniola to France, where
in 1804 was established the Republic of Haiti. The rest of the island,
by then known as Santo Domingo, sought to become independent in 1821,
but was annexed to and ruled by Haiti for 22 years. It attained independence
as the Dominican Republic in 1844. In 1861, when the country was close
to bankruptcy and Haiti was threatening to invade for a third time
after the declaration of independence, the Dominicans voluntarily
returned to the Spanish Empire. Two years later, Dominican patriots
staged a guerrilla war and the country became independent again in
1865. In 1887, a ruthless dictator called Ulises Heureaux came to
power. When he was assassinated in 1899, the country was deeply in
debt. In 1904, United States President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated
a deal with the Dominican Republic that gave the United States control
of the custom duties in order to pay for the external debt.
In 1916, United States occupied the country claiming political instability.
During the eight-year occupation, a constabulary force was created
and six years after the Americans left, in 1930, Rafael Trujillo came
to power. He had been the head of the constabularies. He and his family
converted the country into a private enterprise, controlling the sugar
industry, monopolies of distribution of basic products, shipping lines,
airlines and the national lottery. The totalitarian state created
by Trujillo lasted until his violent death in 1961. Joaquin Balaguer,
figurehead president under Trujillo, remained in power but was forced
into exile in 1962. Juan Bosch, elected president in 1963, was overthrown
in a military coup and left the island. In 1965, his supporters staged
a rebellion and civil war broke out. The United States again occupied
the country for a brief period. In 1966, Balaguer won national elections
with the help of the occupying forces. He maintained a tight grip
on power for the next 12 years, after which international reaction
to flawed elections forced him to concede defeat to the opposition
party in 1978. He was returned to power in free elections in 1986
and won again in 1990. Accused of electoral fraud in 1994, he was
forced to curtail the presidential term by two years. In 1996, Leonel
Fernández was elected to a first term, but his party lost the
elections in 2000. Since August 2004, his Government is serving a
second term of office.
The democratically represented government is divided into three branches.
The Executive is represented by the President and his cabinet, the
legislative by two houses, and the judicial by the Supreme Court.
The President is elected by direct vote for a term of four years,
and governs with an appointed cabinet of secretaries of state. He
is the official head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed
forces. Legislative power is exercised by a bicameral congress - the
senate (32 members) and the chamber of deputies (120 members). Under
the constitutional reforms negotiated after the 1994 elections, the
16 member Supreme Court of Justice is appointed by a National Judicial
Council. The Court has sole jurisdiction over actions against the
President, designated members of his cabinet, and members of Congress.