Dominican Republic | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Dominican Republic received a downward trend arrow due to increasing militarization of public security and an upsurge in narcotics related crime.


In 2001, an economic downturn, coming on the heels of an economic boom that, during the 1990s, was the envy of the Dominican Republic's neighbors, sparked an upsurge of social unrest that was taken advantage of by narcotics traffickers to settle scores and set boundaries for their illicit trade. Frequent power cuts due to insufficient energy resources resulted in a series of violent clashes between police and protestors. At midyear the government announced it was increasing the size of its special military riot unit from 150 to 600 members. Growing street crime and the protests are believed to have been responsible for a sharp downturn in the vital tourism industry before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and these continued to hold travel down for the rest of the year. Although harshly criticized at home for its economic stewardship, the center-left government of Hipolito Mejia, which came into office in 2000, won significant international support after it pledged full cooperation with the United States and other countries in counternarcotics efforts. In December 2001, a maverick senator from Mejia's own party was murdered by unknown assailants. The night he was shot, the senate almost unanimously passed a bill setting up strict penalties for drug-money laundering.

After achieving independence from Spain in 1821 and from Haiti in 1844, the Dominican Republic endured recurrent domestic conflict. The assassination of General Rafael Trujillo in 1961 ended 30 years of dictatorship, but a 1963 military coup led to civil war and U.S. intervention. In 1966, under a new constitution, civilian rule was restored with the election of the conservative Joaquin Balaguer.

The constitution provides for a president and a congress elected for four-year terms. The congress consists of a 30-member senate and, as a result of a recent census, a house that in 1998 went from 120 members to 149. Balaguer was reelected in 1970 and 1974, but was defeated in 1978 by Silvestre Antonio Guzman of the social-democratic Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). The PRD was triumphant again in 1982 with the election of Salvador Jorge Blanco, but Balaguer, heading the right-wing Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC), returned to power in 1986 and was reelected in 1990 in a vote marred by fraud.

In the May 1994 election, the main contenders were Balaguer, fellow-octogenarian Juan Bosch of the Dominican Liberation Party(PLD), and the PRD's Jose Francisco Pena Gomez. The Balaguer machine attacked front-runner Pena Gomez, who was black, as a Haitian who secretly planned to unite the neighboring countries. Balaguer was declared the winner by a few thousand votes in an election rife with fraud and tinged with racial hatred. Amid street protests and international pressure, Balaguer agreed to hold new presidential elections in 18 months. The legislative results stood. The PRD and its allies took 57 seats in the house and 15 in the senate; the PRSC, 50 and 14; and the PLD, 13 and 1.

When congress convened, the PLD backed the PRSC's plan to lengthen Balaguer's shortened term from 18 months to two years, with elections in May 1996. In exchange, Balaguer made a PLD legislator president of the house. The PRD protested, but tacitly conceded by announcing that Pena Gomez would again be its standard-bearer in 1996.

Vice President Jacinto Peynado won the PRSC primary in 1995. The PLD's lavish spending campaign tended to confirm the view that the money was coming from Balaguer, who wanted to stop Pena Gomez, and thus avoid any future corruption investigation. In promoting its candidate, Leonel Fernandez, a U.S.-trained lawyer, the PLD took a page from the race-baiting book of the PRSC. In May 1996, Pena Gomez won 45.9 percent of the vote; Fernandez, 38.9 percent; and Peynado, 15 percent. Fernandez won 51.3 percent, and the presidency, in a May 16, 1996, runoff.

The May 1998 legislative and municipal elections were held for the first time since Balaguer was forced to cut short his term. The campaign was violent; more than a dozen people were killed, mostly in clashes between PRD and PRSC groups. Pena Gomez died of natural causes on election eve. Because of the resulting sympathy vote, the PRD made a clean sweep of the legislative contest, although the ruling PLD actually increased its parliamentary strength and maintained enough votes to uphold presidential vetoes.

Fernandez's program of economic liberalization spurred the fastest-growing economy in Latin America. His government also won plaudits for efforts to reach out beyond his party to create consensus around social issues and to improve the administration of justice. However, critics charged that a wave of foreign investments undertaken under his rule were mishandled.

In the May 16, 2000, presidential elections, Mejia, a former agriculture minister and a PRD outsider, struck a chord among those who felt left out of the economic prosperity, particularly the 20 percent who live below the poverty level. Mejia won 49.87 percent of the vote, compared with 24.9 percent for ruling party candidate Danilo Medina, and 24.6 percent for Balaguer, who was running for his eighth term in office. With Mejia coming within a hairsbreadth of the 50 percent of the votes plus one needed to win an absolute majority in the first round of the presidential contest, Medina and Balaguer surprised the country by announcing, after a bitterly fought contest, they would not force a runoff vote.

Mejia named a cabinet containing both long-term PRD stalwarts and young reformers, and promised to make good on his pledges to fight graft, create jobs, and invest in housing and other public works projects. He crowned his party's virtual lock on power at all levels of government by promising to use the Dominican Republic's then seven percent annual economic growth rate to promote more social spending, and to review the privatizations undertaken by his predecessor, Fernandez.

Mejia's plans to harness economic growth to social reform were hard hit in 2001 by the slowdown created by energy problems, a downturn in tourism, and a spate of assaults, carjackings and kidnappings targeting prominent businessmen. On July 1, Balaguer reshaped the leadership of the PRSC to his liking and was proclaimed lifetime president of the political party. The assassination of Senator Dario Gomez came as several other legislators said that they also had received death threats. A controversial figure, Gomez had bucked his party's leadership in order to present a constitutional reform that would permit presidents to be reelected, rather than having to step down after serving one term.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of the Dominican Republic can change their government through elections. Although the country has a history of fraudulent elections and the run-up to the May 2000 presidential elections was marked by heightened tension and outbreaks of interparty violence, the balloting was considered by international observers to have been free and fair. At the end of 2001, the Dominican legislature approved constitutional changes allowing presidents to serve consecutive terms, as part of a package of electoral changes that also included reducing from 50 percent to 45 percent the minimum vote required to win presidential elections in the first round. The reforms also established direct election of the president, eliminating an electoral college system in which representative sectors chose the president based on popular votes.

Constitutional guarantees regarding free expression, freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties and civic groups are generally respected. Civil society organizations in the Dominican Republic are some of the most well-organized and effective in Latin America. However, the violent political campaigns, frequent government-labor clashes, and repressive measures taken by police and the military mean that free expression is somewhat circumscribed.

The media are mostly private. Newspapers are independent and diverse but subject to government pressure through denial of advertising revenues and the imposition of taxes on imported newsprint. Dozens of radio stations and at least six commercial television stations broadcast. In 1997 the National Commission on Public Events and Radio Broadcasting shut down dozens of programs with religious-magic content.

The judiciary, headed by a supreme court, is politicized and riddled with corruption, although significantly less so in recent years. The courts offer little recourse to those without money or influence, although reforms implemented of late show some promise in increasing citizen access to the courts. Prisons, in which nine out of ten inmates have not been convicted of a crime, are grossly overcrowded, with poor health and sanitary conditions, and violence is routine. Torture and arbitrary arrest lead the complaints against the security forces, which are militarized and sometimes operate outside the civilian chain of command. Extrajudicial execution of common criminals is a problem that remains largely unaddressed, in part because the government, the media, and others appear concerned that attention to the issue will negatively affect the key tourism industry. Police salaries are low, and there is a high level of corruption throughout the country's law enforcement institutions.

A major transit country for South American drugs to the United States, the Dominican Republic serves local, Puerto Rican, and Colombian drug smugglers as both a command-and-control center and a transshipment point, mostly for cocaine. The government estimates that some 20 percent of the drugs entering the country remain there as "payment in kind." This phenomenon has contributed to increasing drug abuse and street crime.

In September 1997, then President Leonel Fernandez moved to clean up the country's antinarcotics forces and to restructure the supreme court in an effort to root out corruption and to reduce growing complaints of human rights abuses by the police. He led the effort in his role as chairman of the National Judicial Council, which oversees judicial appointments. Responsibility for appointing judges was in the past held by the senate, which tended to increase politicization and de-emphasize professional criteria. The supreme court has now assumed this role. However, to date the government has not prosecuted any senior official for engaging in, encouraging, or in any way facilitating the production or distribution of illegal drugs, or the laundering of proceeds from its sale.

Labor unions are well organized. Although legally permitted to strike, they are often subject to government crackdowns. Peasant unions are occasionally targeted by armed groups working for large landowners.

Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic has long been a source of tension between the two countries. Their shared border area lacks effective controls; drugs, arms and commercial contraband flow easily across it. An estimated one million Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent live in the Dominican Republic, where many work on sugar plantations and in construction. Haitians working in the Dominican Republic are subject to exploitation, harassment from the police, and deportation. Each year thousands of Haitians and their Dominican-born children are deported. Most of the deportations come after the military rounds up people with dark skin, since Dominicans tend to be lighter skinned than Haitians. Recent efforts by the Dominican authorities to improve control of cross-border migration have created resentment from Haitian workers seeking to escape the lack of opportunities in their own country. In July 2001, human rights groups complained that Dominican authorities had continued their policy of mass deportations despite assurances that they were trying to improve the situation.

Violence and discrimination against women is a serious problem, as are trafficking in women and girls, child prostitution, and child abuse. The Dominican Republic is primarily a source country for trafficked women between the ages of 18 and 25, and girls as young as 15. The women are trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation and domestic servitude to Europe, the Lesser Antilles, and in some cases, to Argentina and Israel. The trade with Argentina is also believed to be drug related.