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In 2005, the Dominican economy began to recover from the severe economic crisis that had paralyzed the previous government and had laid the foundation for former president Leonel Fernandez Reyna to handily oust his predecessor in 2004. Public support for Fernandez has slipped as a result of the government's apparent inability to effectively address concerns about corruption. The Dominican government was criticized by human rights groups for implementing mass deportations of Haitian migrants in response to a swelling influx of illegal immigration.
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 2000, presidential elections, Rafael Hipolito Mejia Dominguez, a former agriculture minister and a Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) outsider, struck a chord among citizens who felt left out of the country's economic prosperity; 20 percent of the population was then living below the poverty level. Mejia won 49.9 percent of the vote, compared with 24.9 percent for ruling party candidate Danilo Medina and 24.6 percent for Joaquín 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 the National Congress.
In May 2003, the largest bank scandal in the history of the Dominican Republic exploded onto the political landscape when 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 widely perceived by Dominicans as an extension of the bank's corrupt practices; Intercontinental officials had paid million of dollars 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 International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help with the crisis. 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. Although he eventually succeeded, the signing of the final trade pact was presided over by Fernandez. In July 2005, the U.S. Congress ratified DRCAFTA, a free-trade agreement that included Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and the United States.
Fernandez, of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), whose previous term in office, from 1996 to 2000, was accompanied by the biggest period of economic growth in the country's recent history, returned to the presidency during the country's worst economic crisis in decades. He retook the office from incumbent Mejia in a generally free and fair election held in May 2004. Fernandez won 57.1 percent of the vote to Mejia's 33.7 percent. 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 (OAS) 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 problems resulted in low registration levels among expatriates.
Inaugurated in August 2004, 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. Annual inflation has since been brought into the single digits, and macroeconomic stability has improved. In return for IMF financing, the government was prompted to cut subsidies on gas and electricity, while reducing the bloated government payroll. Fernandez has also focused on reducing the frequent blackouts and power outages that have emerged as a strong source of citizen discontent.
In 2004, the UN Development Program concluded that at least one million Dominicans had 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 temporarily outstripped the numbers of Haitians and Cubans intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard at sea.
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, both elected for four-year terms. The bicameral National Congress consists of the 32-member Senate and a 150-member Chamber of Deputies; a 1998 census led to the expansion of the Chamber of Deputies from 120 to 150 members.
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.
The Dominican Republic has three major political parties: the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), which controls both chambers of Congress; the Dominican Liberation Party, which won the presidency in 2004; and the Revolutionary Social Christian Party (PRSC), which holds a minority of seats in congress.
Official corruption remains a serious problem. Fernandez, whose 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 of his election campaign. In his inaugural address, he pledged austerity for his government and promised large cuts in the borrowing, government hiring, and heavy spending that had characterized Mejia's administration. While Fernandez made progress toward fulfilling these promises in the first year of his term, polls conducted in 2005 showed that a large majority of Dominicans are unsatisfied with Fernandez's tackling of corruption. According to one poll, 84 percent of the country believed that corruption among politicians was widespread. The Dominican Republic was ranked 85 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respects these rights. There are five national daily newspapers, and a large number of local publications. The state-owned Radio Television Dominicana operates radio and television services. Private owners operate over 300 AM and FM radio stations, and more than 40 television stations, most of them small, regional broadcasters. In March, President Leonel Fernández signed a ruling providing the mechanisms to implement a freedom of information law passed in 2004. Despite an advanced telecommunications infrastructure, the Dominican Republic lacks widespread access to the internet outside of large urban areas, although internet access is unrestricted.
Constitutional guarantees regarding religious and academic freedom are generally respected. The government generally respects the right to organize civic groups and political parties. Civil society organizations in the Dominican Republic are some of the best organized and effective in Latin America. Labor unions are well organized. Although legally permitted to strike, they are often subjected to government crackdowns. In 2003, at least seven people were killed and over 500 arrested during a violent general strike over the government's economic policies in the midst of the country's economic crisis. Another general strike in January 2004 resulted in the deaths of three demonstrators at the hands of security forces; protestors employed violent means as well. 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; however, reforms implemented of late, including those aimed at promoting greater efficiency and due process, show some promise of increasing citizen access to the courts. In the fall of 2004, a new Criminal Procedures Code that gives suspects additional protections took effect. The following month, a new Code for Minors was inaugurated; it provides 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. The new Criminal Procedures Code implemented in 2004 limited detention without charges to 48 hours, but it has not been applied retroactively and two-thirds of Dominican inmates are sentenced preventatively and indefinitely. In March 2005, a riot resulted in a prison fire that killed at least 134 inmates at a badly overcrowded detention center in Higuey.
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 docu-ments-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, were frequently among the thousands of people deported each year as illegal aliens. In 2005, the Dominican government stepped up forced repatriations of Haitian migrants, including 4,000 people in May and another 1,000 people in August.
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. An estimated 100,000 Dominican women work overseas as prostitutes, many in other Caribbean islands or the United States. Women's reproductive rights do not extend to abortion, which remains illegal although widely practiced.