Government and Politics

Santo Domingo is the capital and largest city of the Dominican Republic. It has a history that stretches back more than 500 years to the time of brothers Christopher and Bartholomew Columbus. Bartholomew founded the settlement of Nueva Isabella (New Isabella) in 1496, which officially became Santo Domingo in 1498. Santo Domingo is the first city built in the New World by Europeans that has endured through time. The city served as the base for the Spanish, who used Santo Domingo as a launching pad for exploration, conquest, and settlement in lands around the Caribbean Sea. Thus, the city has served as the location for governmental leadership for more than five centuries.

With some 3 million residents in the city and its surrounding district, Santo Domingo is home to nearly a third of the country's citizens. It also is home to all three branches of the Dominican government. This includes the president's office, called the National Palace; the legislature, called the National Congress; and the highest court, which is called the Supreme Court of Justice. When looking toward the government, all eyes in the Dominican Republic turn toward Santo Domingo, the seat of the country's political power.

The government of the Dominican Republic has jurisdiction (authority) over all of the lands and people in the country. This jurisdiction includes the eastern side of Hispaniola, Saona Island, Beata Island, Alto Velo Island, and other smaller nearby islands. As the co-inhabitant of Hispaniola with the country of Haiti, that relationship is important and will be explored later in this chapter.


The government of the Dominican Republic has had some historic bumps and upheavals since its separation from Haiti and, later, Spain. These situations led the country into military rule, dictatorships, and elections tainted with unfairness and corruption—all problems that the country and its citizens have worked to correct in recent years.

The role of the military decreased in the 1960s, but political corruption and questionable elections followed until the 1990s. Finally, at the end of the twentieth century, most international observers found the country's elections to be fair and free. These new traditions are the ones that Dominicans are hoping to keep alive in the future.


The most fundamental law of a country is its constitution. This represents the highest law in the land and establishes the structure of government. It also provides its citizens rights and protections from the government. However, constitutions in the Dominican Republic have been fragile. In fact, there have been 32 of them, more than any other country, since it became independent in 1844. This suggests that there have been many problems and that powerful people and groups have used their influence to render past constitutions ineffective. Thus, new constitutions continued to be written in an attempt to improve the situation.

Democratic societies seek to provide and preserve the rule of law. This means that all citizens, even leaders, are expected to follow the laws of the country. This situation is not found in all societies, as many have a government in which the rule of man (a government in which rules of government and conduct are presided over by a single person or a select group of persons) prevails. This rule of man allows some powerful people to operate above the law and allows them to abuse their positions without legal consequences. This was true during the dictatorial reign of Rafael L. Trujillo, when corruption and violations of human rights were rampant. The Dominican Republic has struggled to move forward from the way things were during Trujillo's rule. The country is working to prevent the rule of man and become a modern democracy with the rule of law prevailing, but a widespread lack of respect for the rule of law is still a significant problem in the country.

The country's current constitution was adopted in 1966 and amended (changed) in 2002 to allow the president to seek a second term. This action was deemed necessary as the 1966 constitution only allowed the president to serve a single fouryear term of office. The constitution establishes a legislative branch with two houses: a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. A judicial branch also is established by the constitution. It includes the country's highest court, called the Supreme Court of Justice. Finally, the constitution creates an executive branch that is headed by the country's president.

Legislative Branch

The bicameral (two house) legislative branch has responsibility for making laws in the Dominican Republic. There are 32 members of the Senate who are elected to four-year terms of office by a popular vote of the citizens. The 178 members of the Chamber of Deputies also are elected to four-year terms. Elections for the two groups alternate every two years with the presidential election.

The country has a multiparty system. This means that there are many political parties that participate in the elections and in governing. It also may require different parties to work together at times to form a coalition government. The three major political parties are the conservative Dominican Liberation Party (Spanish: Partido de la Liberacion Dominicana, or PLD), the democratic socialist Dominican Revolutionary Party (Spanish: Partido Revolucionario Dominicano, or PRD), and the conservative populist Social Christian Reformist Party (Spanish: Partido Reformista Social Cristiano, or PRSC). The PLD is the party of social liberals, the PRD supports elements of both socialism and capitalism, and the PRSC is the party of business. The PLD was elected to a majority in both houses in the 2006 elections with the PRD holding the second most seats and the PRSC third. All three of these parties have held power at some time since 1966.

Judicial Branch

Courts interpret the laws and act as the final arbitrator in both criminal and civil cases. The highest court in the Dominican Republic is the Supreme Court of Justice, which has 16 justices. These justices are appointed by the National Judicial Council, which includes as members the president, the leaders of both legislative houses, the president of the Supreme Court, and others.

The Supreme Court hears cases that are appealed from lower courts, and the court also serves to manage the country's judicial system. It is the only court to have power in cases brought against the president. The court is also relatively independent, a vitally important factor that assists in rendering fair decisions.

Executive Branch

The executive branch is responsible for carrying out and enforcing the laws in the country. This branch is headed by the president, who is elected on the same ballot as the vice president for a term of four years. With the constitutional change in 2002, a president can now serve two terms in office.

During his term in office, President Fernandez has worked to update the Dominican Republic technologically. One major area of concentration is transportation. Since the beginning of 2009, a new and modern mass-transit system called “El Metro” has been operating in Santo Domingo. This subway system was the first step in implementing Fernandez's national plan for a modern transportation system. The president has also worked to expand energy sources for the country.

The cabinet assists the president in governing the country and provides leadership in many areas of government. These subdivisions are called ministries and are headed by secretaries, or ministers, who are nominated by the president. Examples of Dominican ministries include departments for the armed forces, foreign relations, finance, education, labor, public works, agriculture, and tourism.


Governments are responsible to their citizens and must provide a number of important services. The national government supports the armed forces and a variety of other services, including education, health care, and law enforcement. For example, in 2000, the government established universal health care insurance in an effort to improve maternal and children's health care in the country.

Many of these programs are managed by civil servants—government officials who are appointed to their position to administer the public policies of the government. Unfortunately, many of these positions, even at lower levels, are filled with political party loyalists after elections, regardless of their qualifications. This practice is called cronyism and it is corrupt and costly to society. Instead of carrying out their responsibilities to citizens, the appointees provide their loyalty to the person who appointed them. The social costs include reduced business opportunities for the public, reduced competition in the marketplace, inflated prices on products, decreased economic performance, and poor workmanship in public and private projects. In contrast, lowerlevel civil servants in Western countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are not replaced after elections. This allows for effective management of government programs, increases government transparency, and decreases corruption.


The Dominican Republic has local governments that have jurisdiction over and responsibility for the region they serve. Local governments address nearby problems or services that are important to citizens such as roads, schools, and police. Until the 1960s, local governments had little power because the national government held most of the power. Local governments couldn't tax, and this factor alone limited their influence. A remedy was proposed that intended to increase the power of local governments. This gave rise to a municipal league (a union of various local reform groups) that came into existence in 1962. However, these efforts have had limited success as the old habits of national control often sabotaged efforts to move greater authority to the local levels.

Even with these limitations for local governments, the Dominican Republic now has 31 provinces and a national district, 31 municipal districts, and 95 municipalities. Each province has a governor who is appointed by the president. Santo Domingo is the national district and the capital. Each of the municipalities has a mayor and a municipal council with at least five members. The council members and mayors are elected to their positions.


Citizens in the Dominican Republic have the responsibility to elect people to govern, along with other duties required of citizens in a civil society. Duties of the citizens identified in the country's constitution include acting in a responsible, moral, and legal manner. Citizens also are expected to protect social justice, public order, and the common good of all citizens. The constitution provides rights and liberties to its citizens. These include equality, security, liberty, property, and other social guarantees. The constitution also provides protections for unemployment, illness, old age, and disability. Citizens have the right to vote and hold public office along with freedoms that include freedom of movement, conscience, worship, expression, association, and the freedom to work. Citizens are provided with due process, a fair way of doing things in legal processes that includes the right to defense, the presumption of innocence, and the guarantee of a hearing. Citizens have the right to an education, and a person's life is protected by law.

The Dominican Republic has also signed important international agreements designed to protect human rights in the country. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the Dominican Republic was one of the founding signers on December 10, 1948, and the American Convention on Human Rights, which was adopted by the nations of the Americas in 1969 and came into force on July 18, 1978. The country also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1978.


Foreign relations focus mainly on the Caribbean region and the Americas. The close proximity of neighboring countries provides for important economic, political, and social relationships. The United States is a dominant player in the region and is a key political and economic factor in Dominican affairs. This relationship is discussed in greater depth later in this chapter.

Even with its primary relationships in the Caribbean and Americas, the Dominican Republic is active in the international community. The country belongs to many international organizations such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, Organization of American States, World Bank, World Health Organization, International Court of Justice, and others. The country has also signed on to important international agreements including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Ozone Layer Protection, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban.

Many internal problems confront the country. One of these is drug smuggling, and another problem is forced labor, including sexual slavery. Many of the drugs smuggled out of the Dominican Republic end up in the United States, and people forced into prostitution or slavery end up in locations around the world, ranging from Australia to Western Europe. This is called human trafficking. Because there is a huge discrepancy among the wealthy and the poor and a high rate of unemployment, trafficking in women and children remains a serious problem. According to the U.S. State Department's 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report, a significant number of women, boys, and girls are enslaved within the country and forced into domestic servitude and prostitution, particularly in coastal resort areas. In some cases, parents push their children into this work to help support the family. Dominican officials are intensifying efforts to eliminate trafficking by educating the public about the dangers of this practice, improving government assistance to the victims, announcing a national plan to combat trafficking, and taking disciplinary action against lower-level officials suspected of participating in trafficking.

Haitian Relations

Sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti has proved to be difficult at times, as relations between the two countries have often been hostile. In the nineteenth century, Haiti frequently invaded the Dominican Republic and plundered the population and land during periods of occupation. Dominicans also have long held a prejudice against the darker-skinned Haitians who were viewed as African in origin and inferior. Each country has tried to influence elections and politics in the other country, and the border between the two often has been closed.

Haiti is a very poor country that lies directly to the west of the Dominican Republic. The countries share a rather porous 224 mile (360 km) border through which thousands of Haitian immigrants have crossed illegally into the Dominican Republic. Most of these Haitians are searching for work, which is hard to find in their impoverished country. The per capita income of Dominicans is nearly six times higher than that of Haitians.

Not only is Haiti very poor, but the country also has nearly as many people as the Dominican Republic living in only half the amount of land. As a result, the Dominican Republic is home to an estimated one million Haitians who are not citizens; rather, they are living in the country illegally.

The Organization of American States has taken an interest in the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In 2008, the organization urged the two countries to establish mechanisms designed to foster better relations and promote peaceful coexistence. Small actions are being taken that could lead to better and more extensive relationships. One of these efforts involves beekeepers from the two countries. In 2008, beekeepers from Haiti and the Dominican Republic got together to discuss how to reduce deforestation and pests that harm bee populations and honey production in both countries. This effort has led to agreements to cooperate on pest control of barroasis, a parasite that ravages bee populations, and to improving environmental conditions for bees.

Even with these small efforts, the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is in need of much more work. A mutual history filled with two centuries of conflicts, prejudice, and illegal immigration will not be quickly or easily resolved.

Relations with the United States and Canada

While the United States has previously interfered in Dominican political affairs, today the United States represents the most important foreign relationship with the Dominican Republic. With American tourists visiting and sometimes settling in the Dominican Republic and Dominican baseball players moving to and working in the United States, the relationships today are complex. For example, the U.S. Embassy estimates that 100,000 Americans now live in the Dominican Republic. It is estimated that more than one million Dominicans live in the United States, primarily in Florida and the Northeast. The ties between these two countries come in many forms.

The two countries today have friendly relations and work together on a number of issues, including trade, drugs, and illegal immigration. Trade is extensive and U.S. investment in the Dominican Republic accounts for the largest share of outside money invested in the country. Nearly half of the country's imports come from the United States, while two-thirds of the exports are to the United States. The United States exported $6 billion to the Dominican Republic in 2007, while the Dominicans exported $4.2 billion to the United States. Much of the U.S. investment is in the apparel, footwear, and electronics industries.

In 2009, Canada and the Dominican Republic celebrated 55 years of diplomatic relations. While the relationship does not have the history and complexity of the one between the Dominican Republic and the United States, the association has been of great importance to both countries. For one, the Dominican Republic has been dependent economically on Canadian tourists, who visit the Dominican Republic to escape cold Canadian winters. In 2003, an important agreement was struck between Canada's prime minister and the Dominican president that expanded cooperation in trade, construction, power generation, and renewable energy. The Dominican Republic has been an important trading and investment partner for Canada. According to the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada Web site, in 2006, the Dominican Republic was Canada's fourth largest export destination for goods in the Caribbean. It was also an important destination for tourism, investment, and services. Canadian exports to the Dominican Republic totaled S163 million, and imports from the Dominican Republic to Canada totaled $114 million. Recently, the two countries initiated free-trade-agreement discussions. A successful conclusion of a two-way commercial trade agreement between them would benefit both countries, resulting in fewer barriers to trade and expanded opportunities for exporters and investors in a
broad range of sectors.


Since Trujillo's iron-fisted dictatorship, government in the Dominican Republic has changed greatly. Today, the country has a democratic government that provides greater rights and protections for citizens than at any previous time in its history. Elections are now freer than they have ever been. Still, problems persist with the country's government. Corruption and cronyism are rampant, and the government and various public institutions lack transparency. A lack of respect for the rule of law remains an important problem that plagues the country and its citizens.

Other problems include human trafficking, illegal immigration, and drug smuggling. The tense border situation with Haiti needs serious attention; if it's resolved, both countries will greatly benefit. There is room for optimism as the government continues to work, even if slowly, toward achieving better ethics and greater transparency.