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Puerto plataPunta cana


First inhabitants

Not much is known about the first inhabitants of Hispaniola. It is generally assumed that they were the Ciboney, a people closely related to the Arowak from Venezuela. These people lived from fishing and lived in caves in the mountains. At a later stage, from both Guianas and from Venezuela came the Taínos, a more developed Arowak people. These were hunters and gatherers who lived in groups in villages. These villages together formed a province.

Later, they adopted a sedentary lifestyle and cultivated cassava, maize and yams. A favourite pastime was smoking tobacco, and otherwise the Taínos were a peaceful people. The Taínos were violently subjugated by the Caribs, who at the end of the 15th century "owned" most of the small islands in the Caribbean.

Colonisation by the Spanish

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the island on his first voyage and named it Hispaniola or "Little Spain". In his second voyage in 1493, a number of gold, silver and copper mines were developed and sugar cane was also introduced in this period. It soon became apparent that the gold reserves were not large, but the production of sugar cane was successful, and trade with Europe soon began. In order to produce enough, many cheap labourers were needed, and the first people to qualify for this were, of course, the Indians.

However, the labour relationship between the Spaniards and the indigenous population began to look more and more like slavery. The consequences were devastating, for of the original population of 200,000 to 300,000 Indians, only 14,000 remained in 1514. Even the missionary work of the Franciscans was filled with violence. Only the Dominican Fathers really resisted these degrading situations. It was the Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas who let the world know how the indigenous population suffered under Spanish rule.

In 1533, Emperor Charles V abolished slavery among the Indians. At that time, Hispaniola was an important transshipment point in Spain's trade with the New World, with gold, sugar and slaves as the main commodities. These slaves came from West Africa and in one year tens of thousands of African slaves were shipped to Hispaniola. Another lucrative business was smuggling.

Western Hispaniola becomes French territory

Meanwhile, Spain was facing stiff competition from the Dutch, English, French and buccaneers. The buccaneers settled in the sparsely populated north and west of Hispaniola. From Tortuga, these buccaneers inflicted great damage on the Spaniards and gained increasing power in this region, even receiving help from the other European colonial powers, who tried to break Spain's political and military power.

In 1639, Tortuga was conquered by the French and from there they crossed over to western Hispaniola. Spanish plantations were taken over and they controlled an increasing part of the island. With the Peace of Rijswijk in 1697, the western part of Hispaniola became definitively French colonial territory.

The economy of Santo Domingo stagnated completely in the first decades of the 18th century. The economy in Spain was not doing too well and England as a colonial power was getting stronger and stronger and began to outstrip all other colonial powers. The only economic activities were the sale of meat and skins to passing ships. Some coffee was also produced for trade.

The demographic situation at the end of the 18th century was very striking: free blacks and mulattos 60,000, 15,000 slaves and 20,000 whites. One reason for this was that on Santo Domingo they did not need as many slaves as elsewhere, and therefore the blacks and mulattos had reasonable freedom.

On the French side of Hispaniola, the economic situation was completely different. The French knew well the opportunities of the island and threw themselves into the production of sugar on their sugar plantations. They were helped in this respect by the fertile soil on 'Saint Domingue', compared to some English colonies. The French colony soon became a textbook example of an economically successful colony, with 800 sugar plantations, 3000 indigo, 3000 coffee and 800 cotton plantations in 1789. These products were exported to many countries in Europe. This success was in fact due to the enormous number of slaves, almost 500,000 at the end of the 18th century. Ninety out of every hundred inhabitants at that time were slaves. Because of the serious abuses among the slaves, such as malnutrition, ill-treatment, terror and even murder, this situation could not last long. It was only a matter of time before the slaves revolted.

Rebellion led by Toussaint l'Ouverture

Already in the second half of the 18th century, several small revolts broke out under the leadership of voodoo priests (houngans). In August 1791, a major revolt broke out in the north of the country under the military leadership of the literate slave Toussaint l'Ouverture. The slave uprising cost about a thousand whites and tens of thousands of slaves their lives. Even the assistance of English and Spanish troops to the plantation owners was to no avail. They helped the former arch-enemy France because their colonies were also in danger.

Toussaint l'Ouverture was finally won over by the French by promising to cooperate in self-government. Furthermore, the mulattos were given equal rights with the whites and slavery was abolished. Thus, eventually, the French came to face the Spanish and the English again.

Because of Toussaint l'Ouverture's excellent military insight, the Spanish and English were defeated and Saint Domingue remained French territory. Toussaint l'Ouverture even became governor general afterwards. In 1795, at the peace of Basel, the Spanish part of Hispaniola also became part of France. Toussaint l'Ouverture was appointed governor general. He started off very ambitiously and wanted to introduce all kinds of economic and administrative reforms, including a new constitution and the abolition of slavery throughout the island.

However, along the way he came across the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. He tried to restore things to France's favour on the island and l'Ouverture was exiled to Europe where he died a few years later. From 1795 to 1801, France occupied the entire island.

Haiti independent

However, the struggle of the coloureds and blacks continued under the leadership of Toussaint's main helpers, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. On 19 November 1803 the French troops surrendered and on 1 January 1804 Dessalines proclaimed the independence of the new Republic of Haiti. It was the first fully independent black state and also the only place in the world where slavery was definitively abolished.

The Spanish part of Hispaniola also became very restless as a result of all these events. Many Spaniards had already left for Cuba or Puerto Rico and Dessalines took the opportunity to advance to Santo Domingo and tried to abolish slavery there. However, he did not get there due to the problems in Haiti caused by the mulattos and the black officers of Toussaint's and Dessalines' army. Moreover, he was assassinated in 1806.

In 1807, Spanish colonists seized power in Santo Domingo with the help of English troops. Due to the many economic and political problems, the Spaniards were unable to establish a proper government. Moreover, the population wanted more rights than the Spanish and the mulattos unilaterally declared independence in 1821. Moreover, they called in the help of the famous South American liberator Simón Bolívar. Meanwhile, the power struggle between the mulattos and the blacks in Haiti continued, and the republic fell apart around 1807 into a 'black' republic in the north and a republic led by mulattos in the south.

Unity was restored in 1822 by the new president Pierre Boyer, whose first notable act was to annex the Spanish part of Hispaniola. Politically, a quiet period of about 20 years followed, but economically things went very badly. The plantations could no longer be kept running due to a lack of labour and internationally Haiti ended up in isolation. The Haitian revolution was a scare for the large colonial powers. France only recognised Haiti's independence in 1825, but demanded 125 million francs in compensation for lost property. When the chips were down, that amount was halved, but the remainder remained like a millstone around Haiti's neck.

Dominican Republic independent

In 1843, Boyer was overthrown and murdered. The Haitians had appropriated all important posts, closed universities and discriminated against the Catholics. Therefore, the Haitians were hated by the Spaniards and, under the leadership of Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez and Ramón Matías Mella, there was opposition and, on 27 February 1844, the independent Dominican Republic was proclaimed. However, it was the caudillo Pedro Santana who put his money where his mouth was and chased the Haitians out of the country.

In July 1844, he proclaimed himself president of the Dominican Republic. However, the Haitians kept trying to come back and in 1860 Santana even asked the Spanish for help. Under the condition that Santo Domingo would become a Spanish province again, the Spanish agreed. However, the Spaniards then made the big mistake of again introducing a disguised form of slavery. Therefore, in 1865, another big rebellion occurred and the Spaniards were forced to leave the country. The Dominican Republic was once again independent.

The United States is gaining influence

Under the rule of President Buenventura Báez, the republic sought economic and political rapprochement with the United States. As a result, however, the Americans gained increasing influence over the Dominican Republic's domestic politics.

Under Báez's successor, the dictator Ulises Lilís Heureaux, both the Americans and some European countries invested heavily, especially in the plantation and trade sectors. The fact that the Dominican Republic also became dependent on Europe was against the wishes of the Americans who, at the time, had just launched the so-called Monroe Doctrine. In short, this meant that the Americans believed that Europe had no business in Central and South America. The Americans also appropriated the right to intervene militarily if the political situation in a country became unstable and 'foreigners' gained too much influence. An attempt to join the United States was rejected by the latter in 1867.

The Americans were served in 1899 by the assassination of President Heureaux and the subsequent violent political unrest and threat of foreign (European) intervention.

In 1905, the Dominican Republic was effectively put under guardianship by the Americans by taking over foreign trade and payments. This was important in order to clean up the large debts, but the internal political situation remained explosive.

The president at the time, Ramon Cáceres, was assassinated in 1911 and a bloody struggle ensued among his intended successors, Horacio Vásquez and Juan Isidro Jiménez. In May 1916, the Americans had had enough and literally took over. The Americans stayed until 1924 and they not only ensured economic progress but also improved education, healthcare and infrastructure. That American business profited most from this and openly discriminated, and that in response, gangs and guerrillas made the country unsafe, was accepted.

To restore peace, the Americans set up a National Guard and prepared elections, which were held in 1924. The winner was Horacio Vásquez and the Americans left. They still retained a large share of foreign trade and financial control over the country.

part of Hispaniola. Politically, a quiet period of about 20 years followed, but economically things went very badly. The plantations could no longer be kept running due to a lack of labour and internationally Haiti ended up in isolation. The Haitian revolution was a scare for the large colonial powers. France only recognised Haiti's independence in 1825, but demanded 125 million francs in compensation for lost property. When the chips were down, that amount was halved, but the remainder remained like a millstone around Haiti's neck.

Period Trujillo

Vásquez was succeeded in 1930 by the commander of the National Guard established by the Americans, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. This took place through manipulated elections after Vásquez had been ousted by a group of revolutionaries. Trujillo soon proved to be a ruthless dictator. He was helped by an earthquake that struck the capital Santo Domingo and by the economic depression that swept the world. This allowed Trujillo to declare a state of emergency without much difficulty, giving him free rein to glorify and enrich himself.

He built up a gigantic business empire at the expense of the country and everything was under the sign of this "great" statesman. Statues and portraits of him could be seen everywhere and even the capital was named after him, 'Ciudad Trujillo'. Politically, nothing was possible anymore. Repression, torture and censorship ruled, and only Trujillo's party was allowed. The National Guard and the army made sure that any form of resistance or protest was suppressed. Those who did protest were often simply eliminated, and the Haitians who worked on the plantations had a particularly hard time. They worked as guest workers on the sugar plantations, but Trujillo was constantly afraid of the so-called Haitianisation. This regularly led to massacres and in October 1937 even to outright genocide; 20,000-30,000 Haitians were murdered in cold blood.

At the end of the 1950s, there was some movement in the Dominican Republic through domestic and foreign protests. The ousting of dictator Batista in Cuba (1959) by Fidel Castro also brought hope to Dominican hearts.

Cuba and other progressive Central American and Caribbean countries openly expressed their support for Dominican dissidents. The United States sought to replace Trujillo with a humane government. Trujillo then made the grave mistake of ordering the assassination of Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt. That failed and Trujillo was immediately isolated, both politically, by the Organisation of American States (OAS), and by the Americans with an economic boycott. On 30 May 1961, Trujillo was assassinated by the military and the state of emergency that had lasted for years finally came to an end.

Free elections at last

Joaquín Balaguer, in fact a stooge of Trujillo, became president until the elections of 1962, but still had much trouble with the Trujillo clan. When this clan had finally disappeared, by confiscating all their possessions, the first free elections since Trujillo had come to power were held. They were won by the Revolutionary Democratic Party of the leftist Juan Bosch, popular among the peasants and urban workers. Relations with the army were much more problematic and ultimately cost him his head. He wanted to limit the power of the military, but they would not allow it.

After only six months, Bosch was deposed and exiled by Colonel Wessin y Wessin. A split emerged in the country: the Catholic Church, the military and landowners versus the trade unions, students and the Bosch party. In 1965, the military joined forces with the progressives and together demanded the restoration of democracy. A civil war threatened to break out, but the United States quickly intervened. On 28 April 1965, the first US troops landed to keep things under control and prevent a second Cuba.

Period Balaguer

The first eight years under Balaguer (1966-1974) were economically very successful with an average growth of 10% per year. Due to the high sugar prices and increasing exports, much could be done about the infrastructure, the energy supply, and especially the cultural development of the country, which Balaguer pursued vigorously. Socially and politically, the growth was much less because the people in the rural areas often still lived in great poverty.

After 1974, sugar prices fell and oil prices rose, which had major consequences for the economy and society. The country got into financial difficulties and in order to keep the moribund population somewhat in check, repression increased again and violence, intimidation and killings were the order of the day. There were even special assassination squads that acted against students and trade union leaders.

Period Guzmán

Due to the economic situation and the repression, Balaguer seemed to lose the 1978 elections. The PRD led by Antonio Guzmán was a serious threat to Blaguer. Guzmán seemed to be winning and at that moment the army confiscated all ballot boxes. Mass demonstrations and strikes threatened, but under pressure from US President Carter, the ballot boxes were returned. What was about to happen happened: Guzmán won a resounding victory, but the new government inherited the almost bankrupt estate with a debt of billions of dollars.

In addition, the Dominican Republic was hit hard by Hurricane David in 1979: more than 1,000 dead, 400,000 homeless and hundreds of millions of euros worth of damage. Little came of Guzmán's intended economic and social reforms.

The standard of living did improve slightly and food production increased considerably. Guzmán would not stand in the next elections. Shortly after the elections, he committed suicide when it turned out that his daughter and son-in-law were involved in corruption.

Period Blanco

Guzmán's successor was Salvador Jorge Blanco, who was immediately put under pressure by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In a very difficult economic time, the Dominican Republic was forced by these two organisations to liberalise the economy. In 1984 and 1985, constantly rising food prices led to uprisings that were violently suppressed by the army and cost the lives of more than a hundred people.

Balaguer took advantage of this situation by winning the parliamentary elections in August 1986 with the new Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC). This made him President of the Dominican Republic for the fifth time. Although economic conditions were still difficult, he continued with his recovery programme, releasing funds for new roads, schools and hospitals. Also in 1990 and 1994, Balaguer defeated the opposition candidates of PRD and PLD, and was accused of electoral fraud both times.

Period Fernández

The 1996 presidential elections were won by technocrat Lionel Fernández Reyna of the Dominican Freedom Party (PLD). The oldies Balaguer (89) and Bosch did not participate this time. Some of his goals were to thoroughly tackle bureaucracy and corruption in the government and he aimed to privatise loss-making state companies. One bright spot was that the 1998 municipal and congressional elections went off without a hitch, which was unique in the country's history.

In the economic sphere, he also strove for greater cooperation with other countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.

In an attempt to put an end to corruption in the judiciary, President Fernández replaced all members of the Supreme Court in August 1997. In order to avoid political appointments, the power to appoint judges shifted from the Senate to the newly constituted Supreme Court.

In September 1998, Hurricane Georges wreaked havoc in agricultural areas. Although the sector has been able to recover, its importance in the national economy is declining.

21th century

The presidential elections of May 2000 were won by the PRD with 49.86% of the votes, making Hipólito Mejía president. In the general elections of May 2002, the ruling PRD was able, to everyone's surprise, to consolidate its position at both the congressional and municipal levels.

On 14 July 2002, former President Balaguer died at the age of 96.

In September 2003, a massive earthquake struck the north of the Dominican Republic. The quake, measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale, was the worst to hit the country since 1948 and killed one person. The epicentre was off the coast of the seaside resort of Puerto Plata.

At the end of May 2004, the Dominican Republic and Haiti were hit by floods due to prolonged rainfall. In the Dominican Republic hundreds were killed and injured and more than 10,000 people were made homeless. There was talk of the worst natural disaster in a hundred years.

On 16 August 2004, Leonel Fernández of the Partido Liberación Dominicana (PLD) was again installed as president. The run-up to the elections was very chaotic, partly due to the 2003 bank scandal under President Hipólito Mejía. Nevertheless, the elections themselves were fairly orderly. However, an immense task awaits the President. In local and parliamentary elections in May 2006, the PLD won a large majority, which strengthened governability. This will pave the way for progress on the agenda of strengthening state institutions and modernising the economy. The President still has an immense task ahead of him. Not only in the area of economic stabilisation. But also in terms of reforming the electricity sector, fighting crime, improving the education system, modernising the healthcare system and eradicating corruption. In May 2008, Leonel Fernández was re-elected president of the Dominican Republic.

In May 2012, Danilo Medina narrowly wins the presidential election over Hipólito Mejía. In May 2014, the parliament passed a law granting citizenship to children of immigrants (mainly from Haiti). Danilo Medina again won the presidential election in May 2016, this time with a large majority. In November 2016, the government declares a state of emergency after severe floods, more than 20,000 people lose their homes.

Luis Abinader, a US-educated scion of a political dynasty, was elected president in 2016 and again in 2020. He wants to lead the country out of the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.


Bayer, M. / Dominicaanse Republiek

Creed, A. / Dominican Republic
Chelsea House Publishers

Dominicaanse Republiek
Het Spectrum

Foley, E. / Dominican Republic
Times Books International

Froese, G. / Dominicaanse Republiek
Van Reemst

Langenbrinck, U. / Dominicaanse Republiek

Latzel, M. / Dominicaanse Republiek

Stow, L. K. / Dominicaanse Republiek

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
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