Introduction to the Dominican Republic

For many readers, the Dominican Republic means but one thing—baseball players! It is true that on a per capita basis, no place in the world produces more highly skilled professional baseball players than does this small Caribbean country. But the Dominican Republic offers so much more. In this book, you will learn why the “D.R.” is a hotbed of baseball. But you will also learn many other things that make the island nation such a fascinating and unique land.

Location

The Dominican Republic, located on the island of Hispaniola, is one of nearly 20 countries within the Caribbean Basin. The island and country are bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and Caribbean Sea to the south. Relative to the United States, the Dominican Republic is located about 750 miles (1,200  kilometers) southeast of Miami, Florida. Collectively, the huge archipelago (island chain) of which it is a part is called the West Indies. It is one of the large islands that make up the Greater Antilles. Cuba and Jamaica lie a short distance to the west, separated by the Windward Passage (strait). (A chain of much smaller islands extends from off the Venezuelan coast northward as an arc to the islands lying to the east of Puerto Rico. Collectively, this group is called the Lesser Antilles.) Hispaniola is the second largest island within the Caribbean. Only Cuba is larger. It is one of only two Caribbean islands that is shared by two countries (the other being Saint Martin). Densely populated and impoverished Haiti occupies the western one-third of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island.

The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. It is the second-largest Caribbean nation, with an area of 30,242 square miles (48,670 square kilometers), which is slightly more than twice the size of New Hampshire.

A country of extremes

Among Caribbean island countries, the Dominican Republic stands out in many ways. Its area of about 18,800 square miles (48,700 square km) is second only to that of Cuba. With nearly 10 million people, its population also is exceeded only by that of its larger neighbor across the Windward Passage. Economically, its gross domestic product (GDP) also trails only that of Cuba among Caribbean nations. And its capital and largest city, Santo Domingo, is the second largest urban center in the region—behind Havana, Cuba. As a growing Caribbean tourist destination, the Dominican Republic also ranks second, in this category, behind leading Puerto Rico.

There are several categories in which the Dominican Republic ranks number one among its Caribbean neighbors. As mentioned, on a per capita basis it is far and away the world’s leading producer of professional baseball players. It also has the highest mountain, the lowest spot of dry land, and the largest lake in the Caribbean. Pico (“Peak”) Duarte rises to an elevation of 10,417 feet (3,175 meters), a giant among Caribbean mountains. About 80 miles (128 km) to the southwest, the Enriquillo Basin plunges to an elevation of 151 feet (46 m) below sea level, the lowest point of dry land in the Caribbean Basin. Much of the basin floor is occupied by Lago (“Lake”) Enriquillo, which covers an area of more than 100 square miles (260 square km), making it the largest lake in the Caribbean region. Because it occupies a basin of interior drainage (all water flows in and none flows out), its water is saline (salty).

It is in terms of history that the Dominican Republic really stands out among countries within the New World. (The “New World” is composed of the Americas, Australia, and Oceania. These are the places that were “discovered” during the fifteenth and sixteenth century European Voyages of Discovery.) In late 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola, which he called La Española. His first settlement, located on the north coast of present-day Haiti, ended in tragic failure. The following year, in 1493, the Spaniards founded a settlement on the south side of the island, and they have been there since. This makes the Dominican Republic the oldest permanently settled European land in the Americas. The Dominican Republic’s capital, Santo Domingo, which was founded in 1496, holds the distinction of being the oldest permanently settled European community in the Americas. The country also is home to the oldest university in the Americas and, by far, the largest college in the West Indies.

Diverse lands and people

Geographically, the Dominican Republic is a land of diverse natural environments and people. Land features of the island offer a variety of terrain. In fact, roughly half of the country is marked by rugged uplands and high mountains, with the other half being relatively flat low-lying valleys or coastal plains. Hispaniola, as is true of all Caribbean islands, lies within the tropics. Some would say the balmy climate creates a tropical paradise. Temperatures are warm throughout the year and lack extremes. In the Dominican Republic and, in fact, throughout the Caribbean region, sharp climate changes occur during the rainy season. The high sun (summer) period is the wet season; during the low sun (winter) time of year, conditions are quite dry. (Because seasonal temperature changes are insignificant, within the tropics summer and winter really do not exist as we know them in the middle latitudes—the areas between the tropics and the Arctic and Antarctic.) Plant life responds to seasonal availability of moisture, with much of it becoming dried or dormant during the dry season.

Throughout much of the year, and particularly the wet season, humidity is high, which makes the weather feel muggy. This condition is somewhat countered, however, by the steadily blowing northeast trade winds. The constant breeze tends to keep temperatures in the pleasant range in terms of how people actually feel. If one wants to escape the heat, it is always possible to drive into the mountains, where temperatures are much cooler and more pleasant. Surprisingly, during the summer months, conditions are much more pleasant in the Dominican Republic than they are throughout much of the United States. In fact, tourism, which once was almost exclusively a winter event, has become a year-round activity. The warm sun, beautiful sandy beaches, off-shore coral reefs, and pounding surf lure tens of thousands of tourists to the island each year.

Besides the varied landscape, the island has a mosaic of features and cultural backgrounds that contribute to the Dominican Republic’s richly diverse population. When the Spaniards arrived in the Caribbean, they “discovered” a region that had been settled by Native peoples, the Taino, for thousands of years. As was true throughout the Caribbean, Spaniards sought riches from the earth. Much of the early Spanish attention turned toward the region’s mineral wealth: gold, silver, and other metals. But the Spanish and other Europeans, particularly the British and French, also established a plantation-based agricultural economy. Sugar cane, in particular, brought tremendous wealth to plantation owners. Still, the Europeans had no taste for hard labor under—to them, at least—humid, tropical conditions. Furthermore, besides bringing colonization to the island, the arriving Europeans brought diseases, which took a terrible toll on the Taino. Left with a shortage of labor to work the fields, Europeans imported slaves from Africa. Today, most Dominicans are of mixed ancestry, representing the biological and cultural blending that is so typical of the Caribbean region.

Institutional instability

The success or failure of any country is based upon how well its institutions function. If people work together as a common society with unified goals, a firm foundation exists upon which other institutions can build. (This is the idea of nationality; one’s nationality is how he or she identifies himself or herself. In the United States, for example, regardless of biological, ethnic, or former country of origin, most people identify themselves as American.) A stable government that is responsive to the people and their needs is a second essential ingredient to the success of a country. People must be equally protected by laws. And they must be free to pursue their own goals and develop their individual potentials (within the limits of the law, of course). Finally, if people can work together within the framework of a protective government responsive to their needs, the economy will thrive.

Unfortunately, these three essential elements of success have failed to evolve in the Dominican Republic. From the very outset of European settlement, society was sharply divided between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. More often than not, one’s position was determined by a caste system (organization of classes within a society). Spaniards were at the top of the socioeconomic ladder and those of African ancestry languished at the bottom.

Throughout its five centuries of European history, the Dominican Republic rarely has enjoyed political stability. Only during recent decades has some form of political stability begun to take root. As this has occurred, the economy has begun to develop accordingly. For perhaps the first time in its long history, the Dominican Republic has established a foundation upon which the country and its people can begin to realize their full potential.