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In 2007, President Leonel Fernandez’s Dominican Liberation Party, the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party, and other political groups stepped up their campaign activity ahead of the 2008 elections. The country continued its high rate of economic growth, but labor strikes over low wages and high gas prices signaled persistent discontent.
After achieving independence from Spain in 1821 and from Haiti in 1844, the Dominican Republic endured recurrent domestic conflict, foreign occupation, and authoritarian rule. 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.
Since the 1990s, Dominican politics have been defined by competition between the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), currently led by President Leonel Fernandez, and the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). In the 2000 elections, the term-limited Fernandez was replaced as president by the PRD’s Rafael Hipolito Mejia Dominguez, a former agriculture minister. Striking a chord among citizens who felt left out of the country’s economic prosperity, Mejia easily beat his competitors, and was bolstered by the fact that his party had captured majorities in both houses of Congress in 1998.
In 2003, a major bank scandal that cost the equivalent of 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) triggered an economic collapse, leading to months of protests and leaving the government widely reviled. Mejia had successfully implemented a constitutional change to allow a second consecutive presidential term, but he lost his 2004 reelection bid when Fernandez entered the race and won an overwhelming first-round victory.
While his 1996–2000 presidential term had featured substantial economic growth, Fernandez returned to face a ballooning $6 billion foreign debt, a 16 percent unemployment rate, annual inflation of some 32 percent, and a deep energy crisis. Within a short period, however, inflation had been brought into the single digits, and macroeconomic stability had improved dramatically, with the economy posting a 9 percent growth rate in 2005. In return for International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing, the government agreed to cut subsidies on gas and electricity and reduce the bloated government payroll. In July 2005, the U.S. Congress ratified the regional free-trade agreement known as DR-CAFTA, which included Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
Fernandez’s successful handling of the economy yielded political benefits in May 2006, when his PLD won a majority in both houses of Congress, overcoming an alliance between the PRD and the Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC). In the Senate, the PLD took 22 seats, while the PRD won only six. In the Chamber of Deputies, the PLD won 96 seats, the PRD won 60, and the PRSC took 22. The Organization of American States (OAS) observation mission declared the elections to be free and fair. Backed by a solid congressional majority, Fernandez placed 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. In 2007, the process languished as presidential politics began to heat up ahead of the 2008 elections.
Fernandez convincingly won the PLD’s presidential primary in 2007 and was favored to win the general election, but his bitter contest against PLD insider Danilo Medina increased divisions in the party. Former public works minister Miguel Vargas Maldonado won the PRD nomination, and Amable Aristy Castro was set to represent the PRSC. Another candidate, Eduardo Estrella, won the nomination of a new political coalition called La Cuarta Via, or the Fourth Way.
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 bicameral National Congress, both elected to four-year terms. The Congress consists of the 32-member Senate and the 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 Congress approved a package of constitutional and electoral changes that allowed presidents to serve two consecutive terms. 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 PLD, which won the presidency in 2004 and took both chambers of Congress in 2006; the PRD, now the main opposition force; and the smaller PRSC.
Official corruption remains a serious problem. Fernandez, whose first term 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 2007 showed that a plurality of Dominicans expected corruption to be the defining feature of the next generation (above democracy and equality before the law). The Dominican Republic was ranked 99 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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 2004 freedom of information law. Internet access is unrestricted but not widely available outside of large urban areas.
Constitutional guarantees regarding religious and academic freedom are generally observed.
The government upholds the right to form civic groups, and 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 and 2004, general strikes triggered by the government’s handling of the economic crisis resulted in several deaths and mass arrests. In more peaceful labor actions in 2007, leaders from the transportation unions joined with a new movement, the Alternative Social Forum, in calling two general strikes to protest low wages and high gas prices, highlighting the fact that economic concerns persisted despite the impressive 7 percent growth rate. Peasant unions are occasionally targeted by armed groups working for major 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. A new Code for Minors, which provides for more protection and stiffer penalties in cases of sexual or commercial exploitation, was inaugurated later that year.
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. In March 2005, a riot at a badly overcrowded detention center in the city of Higuey led to a fire that killed at least 134 inmates. New initiatives launched as part of President Fernandez’s democratic security plan include a crackdown on illegal weapons, tougher policing measures, and a curfew on alcohol sales. The overall security situation has improved as the rate of homicides and other violent crimes has declined. Dominican authorities have also prosecuted the major bank corruption case that disrupted the economy in 2003.
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 mistreatment of Haitian migrants—both real and perceived—has badly damaged the Dominican Republic’s international reputation, but no strategy has been adopted to handle this growing problem. In 2007, the government attempted to strip citizenship from Sonia Pierre, a Dominican-born activist for Haitian rights, but backed down under international pressure.
Violence and discrimination against women remain serious problems, as do trafficking in women and girls, child prostitution, and child abuse. In 2007, the potential legalization of abortion emerged as a major political issue, but the drive toward legalization failed due to the concerted opposition of large segments of the Dominican population and the Catholic Church. An estimated 100,000 Dominican women work overseas as prostitutes, many on other Caribbean islands or in the United States.