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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The Dominican Republic's political rights rating improved from 3 to 2 due to improvements in the country's electoral climate with the election of President Leonel Fernandez Reyna.
Former president Leonel Fernandez, whose previous term in office, from 1996 to 2000, was accompanied by the biggest period of economic growth in the country's recent history, swept back into the presidency in the May 16, 2004, elections amidst the country's worst economic crisis in decades. At the head of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), Fernandez retook the office from incumbent Rafael Hipolito Mejia Dominguez of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) in a generally free and fair election.
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.
In the May 16, 2000 presidential elections, Mejia Dominguez, 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 were then living 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. In the May 2002 legislative elections, the PRD captured the largest number of seats in both houses of parliament.
The largest bank scandal in the history of the Dominican Republic exploded onto the political landscape in May 2003, as the powerful Banco Intercontinental collapsed amid accusations of a $2.2 billion fraud. The scandal was estimated to cost the Dominican Republic the equivalent of 60 to 80 percent of the national budget. The government bailout of the bank, which primarily benefited the 1 percent of the bank's customers holding nearly 80 percent of its deposits, was linked in the public mind to the millions of dollars Intercontinental officials had paid to generals, government officials, and political figures.
According to the Central Bank, the country's gross domestic product fell from $21.7 billion in 2002 to $16.8 billion in 2003. Following the collapse of Banco Intercontinental, the government entered into urgent talks with the IMF for help with the crisis, which cost the national treasury at least $2.2 billion. Opposition to the proposed deal with the IMF and to increased prices for fuel and other basic necessities, as well as continued energy blackouts, led to months of protests in which at least 13 people were killed, frequently as the result of alleged use of excessive force by the police. The scandal also undercut Mejia's lobbying campaign to get the Dominican Republic included in the free trade pact that the United States negotiated with five Central American countries, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). In August, the Dominican Republic entered into a free trade agreement with the countries included in the CAFTA: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States.
In the May 2004 presidential election, Fernandez won 57.1 percent of the vote to 33.7 percent garnered by discredited incumbent Mejia. Because Fernandez won more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round was unnecessary. In an effort to diffuse tensions in the run-up to the poll, the Central Election Board opened the electoral registry to inspection by all political parties and to observers from the Organization of American States before sending copies on to the voting districts. Some 6,000 citizen volunteers and hundreds of OAS observers helped to keep the election free and fair. The contest also marked the first time that Dominicans living abroad - mainly in the United States and Spain - were able to vote by absentee ballot, although bureaucratic snafus contributed to keeping the actual number of registered expatriates low. Inaugurated August 16, Fernandez faced the huge task of combating a ballooning $6 billion foreign debt; a 16 percent unemployment rate; yearly inflation of some 32 percent; and a decrepit and indebted energy sector that left much of the country without electricity for as much as 20 hours a day.
In 2004, the UN Development Program concluded that at least one million Dominicans slipped below the poverty line in three years - putting the total number of people living in poverty at nearly five million, or almost 60 percent of the population. The increasingly desperate situation of the island nation's poor was reflected in the fact that the thousands of Dominicans intercepted by U.S. authorities while trying to reach Puerto Rico by boat far outstripped the numbers of Haitians and Cubans intercepted by the Coast Guard at sea. Fernandez, who first term in office was marred by a scandal involving the disappearance of $100 million in government funds, nonetheless made fighting corruption a central theme in his election campaign. In his inauguration address, he pledged austerity for his government and promised large cuts in the borrowing, government hiring, and heavy spending that had characterized Mejia's term in office.
Citizens of the Dominican Republic can change their government democratically, and the 2004 presidential election was free and fair. The constitution provides for a president and a congress elected for four-year terms. The bicameral National Congress consists of the 30-member Senate and, as a result of a recent census, a Chamber of Deputies that in 1998 went from 120 members to 149. 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 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 on the basis of popular votes.
Official corruption remains a serious problem. The Dominican Republic was ranked 87 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are mostly private. On May 15, 2003, in response to the collapse of the Banco Intercontinental, a court ordered the takeover of several media companies, whose main stockholders the government accused of major money-laundering fraud. Two newspapers, Ultima Hora and El Financiero, were ultimately shut down, and two others, plus four television channels, a cable television company, and more than 70 radio stations, were placed under government control. Some of the media assets were then used to publicize political activity of the then-ruling party, and radio programs of government opponents were suppressed. In September 2004, radio commentator Euri Cabral was attacked by men who fired 10 gunshots at him as he returned home from work; Cabral and a colleague escaped unharmed. Earlier that month, journalist Juan Andujar of Listin Diario was shot and killed in the town of Azua.
Constitutional guarantees regarding religious and academic freedom are generally respected.
The government generally respects the right to organize political parties and civic groups. Civil society organizations in the Dominican Republic are some of the most well organized and effective in Latin America. Labor unions are well organized. Although legally permitted to strike, they are often subject to government crackdowns. On August 6, 2003, police raided a local trade union and opened fire on those inside, reportedly to prevent them from carrying out a protest later that day. Peasant unions are occasionally targeted by armed groups working for large landowners.
The judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court, is politicized and riddled with corruption, although less so in recent years. The courts offer little recourse to those without money or influence, although reforms implemented of late, including those aimed at promoting greater efficiency and due process, show some promise in increasing citizen access to the courts. In September a new Criminal Procedures Code took effect that gave suspects additional protections. The following month, a new Code for Minors was inaugurated that provided for more protection and stiffer penalties in cases of sexual or commercial exploitation. Extrajudicial killings by police remain a problem, although the government has begun to refer cases of military and police abuse to civilian courts, instead of to nontransparent police or military tribunals. Police salaries are low, and there is a high level of corruption throughout the country's law enforcement institutions. Prisons, in which 9 out of 10 inmates have not been convicted of a crime, suffer from severe overcrowding, poor health and sanitary conditions, and routine violence that results in a significant number of deaths. Homosexual and transvestite detainees report frequent incidents of police brutality, including rape, while in detention.
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.
The migration of Haitians, some legally but the vast majority without legal documents, to the Dominican Republic in search of economic opportunity has long been a source of tension between the two countries. Some of the illegal migration was assisted by the authorities, who profit from it. Human rights groups report that children born of Haitian parents in the Dominican Republic, generally denied registration as citizens, frequently were among the thousands of people deported each year as illegal aliens.
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, and an estimated 100,000 Dominican women work overseas as prostitutes. Only 25 representatives in the lower house of congress and 2 senators are women.