The Dominican Republic Through Time

Studying the history of a place is an important process. It helps to examine the various pieces and elements that have come together to form the country and culture being examined—in this case the Dominican Republic. What are these pieces? They range from the first peoples who inhabited the island to the outside influences that swept in and changed the indigenous culture in new and different ways—some good and some not so good. The land is a part of the story, too. It sets the stage on which the stories of the Dominican people have been played out through time.


A walk through the streets of Santo Domingo provides a quick and informative introduction to the Dominican Republics past. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes all provide insights into the rich past of the country and its culture. Passing the El Faro a Colon monument, where many say the bones of Christopher Columbus are buried, one cannot help but be gripped by a deep sense of history. Another street shows an impressive structure called the Alcazar de Colon, which was built for Diego, the son of Columbus, who was appointed the colony's governor in 1509. In this building, Diego greeted history-making explorers like Vasco Nuftez de Balboa, Hernan Cortes, and Ponce de Leon. Each building seems to tell a story, with some buildings dating back nearly 500 years.

The sounds also yield insight into the Dominican Republic's past. Spanish is heard almost everywhere, but it is spoken differently than in Spain. Local inflections and dialects are evident and provide evidence of Taino (the native Amerindian tongue) and African influences, along with a tinge of Haitian Creole. English is also commonly heard, perhaps from tourists or local vendors, which shows the connections that have developed with the United States and Canada.

The smells of the nearby sea and local foods tantalize visitors and Dominicans. Foods on the streets of Santo Domingo include American influences such as McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Domino's, and Pizza Hut. More revealing of the country's past, however, are the numerous local vendors and restaurants whose foods reflect the deeper Spanish, Taino, and African cultural elements. Some of the foods are as simple as fresh fruit sold by a street vendor or a coconut with a hole punched in it and a straw inserted from which one drinks the juice inside. This walk has provided only a few of the puzzle pieces that can be found in the capital city. This chapter will further investigate the history of the country and its people.


Pre-Columbian Dominicans are believed to have emigrated from the Amazon region of South America more than 5,000 years ago. These people were ancestors of the Arawak Indian people who settled on Hispaniola, bringing their language, also known as Arawak. The name these people called themselves was Taino, which meant “good” or “noble.”

In addition to Hispaniola, the Taino also had settled in Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The Taino lived in villages with a chief as the head of the tribe. People in the tribe paid tribute to the chief, who was called a cacique. Chiefs inherited their position. Five major tribes existed and lived harmoniously with one another. Most men practiced polygamy, or had two or three wives. The cacique, however, often had as many as 30 wives. The wives of the cacique were held in high prestige in the patriarchal Taino society. The cacique and his family usually had a large home, whereas common people might have nearly 100 people living together in a round house called a bohio. These buildings were constructed with wooden poles, straw, and palm fronds (leaves). As many as 15 families would live in a single bohio.

Agriculture was very important. Most Taino lived by farming but also were involved in fishing and hunting small mammals, ducks, and turtles. Cassava (manioc) was an important crop and was baked into flat bread. Other agricultural products included corn, hot peppers, beans, squash, and sweet potatoes. According to some historians, the Taino population on the island had reached 1.5 million to 3 million by the time the Spanish arrived. This number would change dramatically after the Europeans settled on Hispaniola.

The Taino religion was polytheistic, meaning that they believed in many gods. Their gods were called zemi and were often depicted in stone-carved idols. These gods were believed to control different parts of the universe, much like the Greeks once believed with their gods. One important zemi was called Yucahu. This god was the spirit of the cassava plant, which was very important and served as a mainstay in the Taino diet. The cacique and priests would use the zemi idols to contact the gods for advice and assistance. People would use body piercings and tattoos as expressions of their faith. Festivals with dancing, worship, and healing practices were often held to celebrate Taino religious beliefs. Some of these festival practices have had a lasting impact upon Dominican festivals today.

Isolated for centuries and protected by the seas, the Taino had enjoyed a very good life, and the population had increased to its highest levels. All of this was destined to change radically right before the dawn of the sixteenth century.


As is commonly known, Christopher Columbus “discovered” America on October 12, 1492. His landfall is believed by most geographers and historians to have been on one of the outer Bahamas, perhaps San Salvador (Watling Island). Columbus and his crew were greeted by Native peoples who had found and settled the Americas thousands of years earlier. Poor Columbus, in fact, was quite lost. The Native American population bears evidence of the explorer's gigantic geographical mistake. Even today, they are known as “Indians.” Why? Because Columbus believed that he had reached the East Indies (today's Indonesia and its neighboring islands)—a location half the world away.

After exploring the Bahamas and Cuba, on December 5, 1492, Columbus reached the north shore of a large island that he named La Isla Espaftola (Hispaniola). There, along the northern coast of present-day Haiti, he decided to build a small fort from which he and his men could lay claim to the island for the Spanish crown. Because these events occurred around Christmas Day, Columbus named the fort La Navidad. Once the fort was built, Columbus left about 40 men at the garrison and sailed back to Spain. Upon his return to the Caribbean in November 1493—with 17 ships and about 1,200 men—he found La Navidad in ruins and no sign of survivors. It is assumed that the settlers were killed by Taino warriors, but their actual fate remains a mystery.

Columbus decided to rebuild nearby and named the town Isabella in honor of the Spanish queen. It became the first Spanish colony in the Americas. Yet the site proved to be unsat-isfactory. After three years along the north coast, Columbus decided to move his settlement to the drier leeward (downwind, or south) side of the island.

In 1496, Columbus, his brother Bartholomew, and his men founded yet another town, Nueva (New) Isabella. But it, too, was short-lived. The settlement was destroyed by a hurricane, so its inhabitants rebuilt it at a new site across the Ozama River. This town was named Santo Domingo de Guzman and today is known as Santo Domingo. The new settlement would serve the Spaniards well. It became the capital and center of their colonial operations in the New World, a position that it held for nearly a century. In fact, Santo Domingo holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously settled European community in the New World. (It should be noted that there are many Native American communities that have been continuously settled for a much longer time.)

According to geographer Carl O. Sauer, the Santo Domingo-based colony established the pattern for all subsequent Spanish colonization of the New World. In Sauer's words:

It began with trade, including ornaments of gold. The quest for gold brought forced labor and the dying-off of the natives, and this, in turn, slave-hunting and the importation of black slaves. Decline of natives brought food shortages and wide abandonment of conucos (small native farm plots]. Cattle and hogs were pastured on the lately tilled surfaces; and Spaniards, lacking labor to do gold-placering, became stock ranchers One hope of fortune failing, another was tried; the stumbling into Empire was under way by men who had scarcely any vision of founding a new homeland.

Vast differences exist between the social, economic, and political stability of North America and Latin America. Sauer's concluding comment helps us to better understand why this condition exists. Most early settlers in North America came to settle the land permanently and begin a new—and hopefully better—life. Most Spaniards, on the other hand, were soldiers of fortune. Their goal was to get rich and get back to their homeland. They paid little attention to developing those institutions and other foundations of a stable New Spain here in the New World.

According to a 1496 census taken by Bartholomew Columbus, it is estimated that the island had a population of about 1.1 million Taino Indians. The Spaniards soon enslaved them to work in the island's gold mines. It was not long before a variety of factors combined to take a dreadful toll on the Taino population. Forced labor, hunger, and the outright killing of Taino by the Spaniards resulted in the deaths of thousands. The greatest killers, however, were the various European-introduced diseases against which the Taino had no natural immunity. Within a decade of the arrival of the Spaniards, the Taino numbers had plunged to around 50,000, or between 10 and 15 percent of its former total. By 1516, the numbers were reduced to 12,000 and by 1542, there were fewer than 200 Taino. This tragic loss was repeated throughout much, if not most, of the New World.

French Interests on Hispaniola by the dawn of the seventeenth century, Spain's interests had shifted from the Caribbean region to possessions on the mainland of the Americas. Much of the island of Hispaniola had been abandoned by Spanish settlers, who had flocked to Santo Domingo (the city and its surrounding territory). This allowed French and other European pirates to establish footholds on the island, particularly in the western portion of the island. Over the years, French influence grew to the point that, by 1665, France had gained control of a large colony named Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). In 1697, Spain formally ceded Saint-Domingue to France. It was not long before the Spanish-held territory on Hispaniola dwindled into a social, economic, and political backwater. Meanwhile, Saint-Domingue, on the island's west end, had become the wealthiest colony in the New World.

By the late 1700s, Saint-Domingue was involved in a bloody revolution. Spain decided to take advantage of the conflict and attempted to gain control of the western portion of the island. The decision proved to be ill-advised and costly. A native-born black general, Franois-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture soundly defeated the Spanish forces. By 1795, France controlled the entire island. Thus began a half-century of animosity and political ping-pong between eastern and western powers on Hispaniola.


Saint-Domingue had fought for and won its independence in 1804 and renamed the country Haiti after one of the Taino names for the island. Now free, Haitian forces invaded the east end of the island four times in efforts to retake the whole island. Fortunately for the Dominican Republic, none of these Haitian efforts succeeded. After many unsuccessful attempts at gaining its independence, the Dominican Republic finally won its freedom on February 27, 1844. A secret Dominican society called La Trinitaria had been working toward independence since 1836. Led by Juan Pablo Duarte, a founder of La Trinitaria, the Dominicans revolted against Haitian rule.

The Dominican Republic adopted its first constitution on November 6,1844. This document was based on the U.S. Constitution. Pedro Santana was elected as the first president of the country and served three terms. His presidency was marked by internal divisions. Some people wanted the country to return to Spanish rule, which it did briefly during the early 1860s.

Others wanted the United States to take over the country. The United States did intervene during a brief period in the 1860s when Spain had once again annexed the Dominican Republic. In 1865, the second Dominican Republic was declared, and the United States forced the Spanish to withdraw. The next 14 years were marked by turmoil and instability. Between 1865 and 1869—a turbulent period of only four years—the country had no fewer than 20 presidents!


In 1869, the Dominican president, Buenaventura Baez, negotiated a treaty with the United States that would have had the Dominican Republic annexed by, or become a territory of, the United States. In return, the United States would assume all of the debt of the Dominican Republic. The idea was supported by American president Ulysses S. Grant, but the treaty was not ratified (approved) by the U.S. Senate. Grant believed that annexing the Dominican Republic would give newly freed American slaves a new home in an all-black country where they would be protected. He also believed that the Dominican Republic would provide important natural resources for the U.S. economy. The opposition was led by Massachusetts Republican Senator Charles Sumner. He believed that southern blacks should be protected by the U.S. government rather than be shipped off to a new country, as many advocated. In the end, Sumner s view prevailed and the treaty failed by a single vote in the U.S. Senate.


After the treaty failed to pass, President Baez was ousted in a coup in 1878 and sent into exile to Puerto Rico. Ulises Heureaux, the son of a Haitian father and a mother from the island of St. Thomas, was handed the reins of government in 1882 for a two-year term. His term was not particularly noteworthy, because the previous administrations had achieved stability throughout the country. General Francisco Billini won the 1884 presidential election, but Heureaux spread dangerous rumors against Billini that caused him to resign. Heureaux continued to have a dominant role in government and was reelected to the presidency in 1886. He then forced Congress to change the constitution to abolish the two-year presidential term and eliminate popular elections. Although Heureaux faced no serious challenges, the Dominican Republic became a military state and the number of political prisoners expanded. He sought the protection of a foreign power, principally the United States, offering his northern neighbor the lease to the Samana Peninsula. Although this deal failed due to opposition from European powers, in 1891, Washington and Santo Domingo concluded a treaty that allowed 26 U.S. products free entry into the Dominican market in exchange for similar duty-free access for Dominican goods. The governments of Germany, Great Britain, and France filed official protests over the treaty, stating that it harmed their most-favored-nation trading status. When awarded this status by another country, the receiving nation is granted trade advantages, such as low tariffs, that would not be awarded to any other nation. The Dominican-U.S. treaty would give both countries unfair advantages.

Heureaux's presidency was marked by economic corruption and the abuse of the presidential office to enrich Heureaux, the army, and others loyal to Heureaux. At the same time, Heureaux was pushing the country into bankruptcy as the nation's foreign debt was ballooning out of control. Many in the country viewed him as a despicable dictator, and a revolutionary organization formed to lay the groundwork for a rebellion. While the dictator passed through the town of Moca on July 26,1899, Heureaux was fatally shot by Ramon Caceres Vasquez, a young revolutionary. Heureaux's marble tomb is located today in the cathedral at Santiago.


The Dominican Republic entered the new century with overwhelming foreign debts. The late President Heureaux had left the country broke and deeply in debt to France and other foreign creditors. The French and other European nations began to pressure the Dominicans to repay their loans. The United States also had long-term interests in the country. In 1906, under President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States signed a 50-year financial agreement with the Dominican Republic. This agreement had the United States managing the Dominican Republic's customs—the country's main source of income. The U.S. administration would then use the fees to pay off the debt of the Dominican Republic. This agreement had the Americans assuming management and responsibility for much of the country's debt.


Unrest continued in the decades after Heureaux's death. This resulted in the United States establishing a firm military government under the U.S. Marines from 1916 until 1924. Before this time, Dominican financial problems still existed and political instability plagued the country. The era of U.S. military rule was resented by most Dominicans, but it also had positive effects. First, the Marines restored order and brought peace to the country. Second, the United States built an effective Dominican National Guard. Third, the Dominican economy came back to life under U.S. rule. Fourth, the United States built a road system that connected all parts of the country. Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. rule finally balanced the Dominican Republic's government budget and reduced the debt owed to other countries.

While there was some armed resistance to the U.S. occupation, the American governance didn't end until after World War I. The U.S. public had also grown tired of the Dominican occupation. Warren Harding campaigned for the U.S. presidency as an opponent of the U.S. occupation of the two countries on Hispaniola. After Harding was elected president, he ended U.S. rule in the Dominican Republic in 1924. The Dominican Republic election in 1924 installed Horacio Vasquez as the new president. The Dominican Republic was an independent country again.


The first six years of Vasquez's presidency were very successful. Political and civil rights were reestablished and it was a time of economic prosperity. It was a golden age in Dominican history, with new public works and modernization projects in Santo Domingo. Tragically, this positive era in Dominican history came to a rapid end with political infighting that resulted in the election of General Rafael L.TrujiIlo in 1930. Trujillo was elected without opposition, as he had eliminated all potential competitors. His election marked the start of nearly a third of a century of dictatorial rule that had Trujillo and his family controlling all important aspects of Dominican society with an iron fist.

Trujillo wasn't president for all of the 31 years that he ruled the Dominican Republic. At times he would install a puppet president, although Trujillo retained all real power. Feeding his ego, he even renamed Santo Domingo after himself with the name Ciudad Trujillo (Trujillo City). Even with his dictatorial rule, some good things did happen in the country. For example, the greatest strength of Trujillo's reign was the economic development that took place.

Important foundations of Dominican society were strengthened, including education, health care, public works, and transportation. He also instituted important social programs that benefitted lower- and middle-class Dominicans and finally repaid all of the country's foreign debt. However, the damage that Trujillo did to political and civil rights was severe, as he used the military to impose and maintain his will.

Trujillo was ruthless. In 1937, over a six-day period, his troops killed 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians who were living on the Dominican side of the border. This slaughter is called the Parsley Massacre, an event that horrified people and countries around the world. The massacre was in response to a report that Haitians were stealing cattle and crops from borderland Dominicans who subsisted mostly on agriculture. Haitians were also taking farm land, which posed a possible threat to Trujillo's regime because of long-standing border disputes between the neighboring nations. From October 2 to 8, Haitians were killed with machetes, guns, clubs, and knives by Dominican troops, civilians, and local political authorities. This horrible event was called the Parsley Massacre because Trujillo had his soldiers hold up a sprig of parsley and ask citizens to identify it. If they could not pronounce the Spanish term for the word, perejil (pesi in Haitian Creole and persil in French), they then were identified as Haitian and killed. The genocide of Haitians was ironic in that Trujillo himself was one-fourth Haitian.

Trujillo also used an extensive secret police network to monitor and control Dominicans. Resistance to the rule of Trujillo expanded both within and outside the country as human rights violations increased. His 1960 attempt to assassinate Venezuela's president, for example, failed. He installed Joaquin Balaguer as his new puppet president in 1960. Balaguer tried to institute some political reforms, but the Trujillo era of ruling ended harshly with the dictator's assassination in May 1961. Having bled his country dry, Trujillo was one of the richest men in the world at the time of his death. The military then seized control and ousted Balaguer in 1962.


After the military took over the government in 1962, free elections were held. Juan Bosch was elected president and inaugurated early in 1963; however, he was also overthrown by the military. The country then fell into economic, social, and political chaos until the United States intervened, sending the Marines to restore order. In 1966, elections once again were held, and Joaquin Balaguer was again elected president. Many accused the United States and Balaguer of election fraud, but the results stood and Balaguer was reelected twice and remained president until 1978. Other political parties did not participate in the 1970 and 1974 elections, as they believed the elections would be unfair.

Balaguer's presidency also was marked by the repression of individual freedoms and human rights abuses. Yet, he did continue to develop the country's infrastructure with roads, housing, water systems, and other projects. He also promoted land reform by redistributing lands to the poor. The United States backed Balaguer, as they saw him as a strong anti-communist who would work with them to fight communism. The United States also wanted to make certain that the Dominican Republic didn't become another Cuba, which had undergone a communist takeover in 1959 under Fidel Castro.

In the 1978 election, Balaguer was defeated by Antonio Guzman. During Guzman's presidency, corruption continued to be a problem. In 1982, facing charges that his family had embezzled from the government, Guzman committed suicide. Salvador Jorge Blanco was elected president later that year. Guzman and Blanco were members of the Dominican Revolutionary Party, and both worked to improve human rights and individual freedoms. However, both presided over a corrupt government and a declining economy. Blanco was found guilty of corruption and misuse of government funds and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Instead he sought political asylum (protection) in Venezuela. His sentence was overturned by the Dominican Supreme Court in 2001, and today he is practicing law in Santo Domingo.


Joaquin Balaguer was again elected president in 1986. Opposing parties were disorganized, and Balaguer's victory brought a return of more dictatorial government. He was reelected again in 1990 and in 1994 at the age of 88. Most observers outside the Dominican Republic believed that these elections were rigged and stolen by Balaguer, a suspicion that increased international pressure on his leadership. He agreed to serve only a two-year term, and Leonel Fernandez was elected president in 1996. Balaguer died in 2002 at the age of 95 after being involved in the highest levels of government for 40 years.

Hipolito Mejia was elected president in 2000 but served only one term, as Fernandez won both the 2004 and 2008 elections. Fernandez has brought economic reform to the country and has modernized ports, roads, mass transit, and other parts of the infrastructure. Corruption is still a problem in the country, and Fernandez seems less concerned about social problems and remains more focused on economic problems and development. Another step toward progress has been taken in the twenty-first century with free and fair elections. This is in stark contrast to the Trujillo and Balaguer eras, when rigged elections were common.

Thus, the Dominican Republic has entered the new century with the strongest democratic government in the country's history. Economic problems remain but at a diminished scale. Still, further action against corruption and political incompetence is desperately needed. So is continuing development of the economy and a much improved quality of life for the country's citizens.