Dominican Republic | Freedom House

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Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic

Freedom in the World 2007

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In 2006, the Dominican Liberation Party of President Leonel Fernandez won majorities in both the upper and lower houses of Congress. That electoral victory validated the president’s successful handling of the economy, which had posted a 9 percent growth rate the previous year. Building on his political gains, Fernandez in August named 13 judges to head a commission of experts charged with reforming the country’s constitution.

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 conservative President Joaquin Balaguer.

In the May 2000 presidential election, term-limited President Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) was replaced by Rafael Hipolito Mejia Dominguez, a former agriculture minister and a Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) outsider. Mejia struck a chord among citizens who felt left out of the country’s economic prosperity, including the fifth of the population 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 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 have cost the Dominican Republic the equivalent of 15 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). 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. Officials of the defunct institution had paid millions of dollars to generals, government officials, and political figures over the years.

According to the Central Bank, the country’s GDP 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, combined with continued electricity blackouts, led to months of protests in which at least 13 people were killed. Police allegedly caused many of the deaths by using excessive force.. The bank scandal also temporarily undercut Mejia’s lobbying campaign to have the Dominican Republic included in a free-trade pact that the United States negotiated with five Central American countries.

Fernandez, whose previous term in office, from 1996 to 2000, had featured the most substantial economic growth in the country’s recent history, returned to the presidency during the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. He retook the post from Mejia in a generally free and fair election held in May 2004. Fernandez won 57.1 percent of the vote, compared with 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 had 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, though 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, annual inflation of some 32 percent, and a decrepit and indebted energy sector that left much of the country without electricity for as many as 20 hours a day. Within a short period, however, annual inflation had been brought into the single digits, and macroeconomic stability had improved dramatically, with the Dominican economy posting a 9 percent growth rate in 2005. In return for IMF financing, the government agreed to cut subsidies on gas and electricity, while reducing the bloated government payroll. In July 2005, the U.S. Congress ratified the regional free-trade agreement, DR-CAFTA, which included Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.

In May 2006, Fernandez’s successful handling of the economy yielded strong political benefits when his PLD won a majority of seats in both the upper and lower houses of Congress. In the Senate, it won 22 seats while the opposition PRD won only six. In the chamber of deputies, the PLD won 96 seats, the PRD won 60 seats, and 22 seats went to the Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC). The OAS observation mission declared the elections to be free and fair. Backed with a solid parliamentary majority, Fernandez moved to place constitutional reform at the top of the national agenda. In August 2006, he named 13 judges to head a commission of experts that would formulate and review reform proposals, which could include allowing Dominicans residing abroad to run for elected office. Supreme Court President Jorge Subero Isa responded to the president’s moves by declaring that the Dominican Republic’s problems could be better addressed by encouraging greater respect for the rule of law across all sectors. However, he did not explicitly object to the constitutional reform agenda.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The Dominican Republic is an electoral democracy. The 2004 presidential election and the 2006 legislative elections were determined to have been free and fair. The constitution provides for a president and a Congress, both elected to four-year terms. The bicameral National Congress consists of the 32-member Senate and the 150-member Chamber of Deputies; a 1998 census had led to the expansion of the Chamber of Deputies from 120 to 150 members.

At the end of 2001, the Dominican legislature approved a package of constitutional and electoral changes that allowed presidents to serve two consecutive terms and reduced, from 50 percent to 45 percent, the minimum vote required to win presidential elections in the first round. The reforms also established the direct election of the president, eliminating an electoral college system in which representative sectors chose the president on the basis of popular votes. In 2006, President Leonel Fernandez established a new commission to review the prospects for additional constitutional reforms.

The Dominican Republic has three major political parties: the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), which won the presidency in 2004 and took both chambers of Congress in 2006; the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), now the main opposition; and the Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC), which holds a small 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, made fighting corruption a central theme of his 2004 election campaign. In his inaugural address, he pledged austerity for his government and promised large cuts in the borrowing, hiring, and heavy spending that had characterized the administration of outgoing President Rafael Hipolito Mejia Dominguez. While Fernandez made progress toward fulfilling those pledges in the first year of his new term, polls conducted in 2005 showed that a large majority of Dominicans were unsatisfied with his handling of corruption. The Dominican Republic was ranked 99 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. In February 2006, Fernandez announced the implementation of new anticorruption legislation that will increase oversight for the public contracting of goods, services, and government projects.

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respects those 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 more than 300 AM and FM radio stations, and more than 40 television stations, most of them small, regional broadcasters. In March 2005, Fernandez 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, though internet access is otherwise unrestricted.

Constitutional guarantees regarding religious and academic freedom are generally observed. The government also upholds the right to organize civic groups and political parties. Civil society organizations in the Dominican Republic are some of the best organized and most effective in Latin America. Labor unions are similarly well organized. Although legally permitted to strike, they are often subjected to government crackdowns. In 2003, at least seven people were killed and more than 500 arrested during a violent general strike over the government’s economic policies in the midst of that year’s economic crisis. Another general strike in January 2004 resulted in the deaths of three demonstrators at the hands of security forces; protesters 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, and the legal system offers little recourse to those without money or influence. However, reforms implemented in recent years, including measures aimed at promoting greater efficiency and due process, show some promise of increasing citizen access to justice through the courts. In the fall of 2004, a new Criminal Procedures Code that gives suspects additional protections took effect. Later the same year, a new Code for Minors was inaugurated; it provides for more protection and stiffer penalties in cases of sexual or commercial exploitation. In June 2006, the high commissioner for human rights, Porfirio Rojas, submitted a draft bill to the Senate that would allow the death penalty for those found guilty of murder or rape and raise the maximum prison sentence for homicide from 30 to 65 years.

Extrajudicial killings by police remain a problem, though the government has begun to refer cases of military and police abuse to civilian courts, instead of 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 suffer from severe overcrowding, poor health and sanitary conditions, and routine violence that results in a significant number of deaths. The 2004 Criminal Procedures Code limited detention without charges to 48 hours, but it has not been applied retroactively and, in March 2005, a riot at a badly overcrowded detention center in the city of Higuey resulted in a fire that killed at least 134 inmates. In 2006, the Directorate of Prisons reported that the police and military held approximately 13,500 prisoners and detainees in facilities intended to hold only 9,000. As of September 2006, only 37 percent of detainees in prison had been convicted, while another 57 percent were awaiting trial, but in some prisons the percentage of individuals held in pretrial detention approached 90 percent. However, new initiatives launched by President Fernandez’s democratic security plan began to take effect, including a crackdown on illegal weapons and tougher policing measures, and the overall security situation improved as the rate of homicides and other violent crimes declined.

The Dominican Republic is a major transit hub for South American drugs, mostly cocaine, headed to the United States. Local, Puerto Rican, and Colombian drug smugglers use the country as both a command-and-control center and a transshipment point. 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 is 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, are 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. In 2006, Dominican authorities announced that Haitians working on sugar plantations would be given labor contracts that ensure a minimum wage and basic labor rights, provided that they return to Haiti at the end of harvest season.

Violence and discrimination against women remains a serious problem, as do trafficking in women and girls, child prostitution, and child abuse. Women’s reproductive rights do not extend to abortion, which remains illegal but is widely practiced. An estimated 100,000 Dominican women work overseas as prostitutes, many on other Caribbean islands or in the United States.